Engaging popular history of the Maccabiah Games from 1932 to 2013

Joseph L. Price [1]
Whittier College

Ron Kaplan The Jewish Olympics: The History of the Maccabiah Games 312 pages, hardcover. New York, NY: Skyhorse Publishing 2015 ISBN 978-1-63220-494-3
Ron Kaplan
The Jewish Olympics: The History of the Maccabiah Games
312 pages, hardcover.
New York, NY: Skyhorse Publishing 2015
ISBN 978-1-63220-494-3

Conceived as a sporting event to display to the world the muscular capabilities of Jews, the Maccabiah Games also provided international sporting competitions for Jewish athletes who had been excluded from world-class events.  The Jewish Olympics—as the Games are popularly known—manifest a sporting response to the appeal by Max Nordau at the Second Zionist Congress in 1898 to develop “muscular Judaism,” a phrase that he introduced.  Although Nordau, a Hungarian physician, had not specifically aligned the phrase with athletes, the initial tournament of events in 1932—primarily in swimming and track and field—certainly displayed the physical skills of Jewish athletes.

In The Jewish Olympics: The History of the Maccabiah Games Ron Kaplan, who is the sports editor for the New Jersey Jewish News and occasional contributor to the Huffington Post, provides the first accessible history of the Games, locating the athletic foundation for their origin in the students’ sports fraternities in late nineteenth-century Germany and tracing the Games’ development through the early twenty-first century.  Since official records of the early games are incomplete and since the events went largely unreported by international news agencies, Kaplan has compiled data from various sources—accounts in the Jerusalem press, stories in congregational publications and Jewish news outlets, and features from local and regional American newspapers that covered their residents who participated in the games.  To supplement these journalistic accounts Kaplan also examined multiple memoirs of participants and attendees, as well as conducting scores of interviews with athletes.

In consecutive chapters devoted to each of the Games, Kaplan charts their growth from almost 400 athletes from 18 nations in 1932 to more than 9000 participants from 78 countries in 2013.  Although he identifies the accomplishments of heralded athletes in the events, the most significant contribution of his work is his description of organizational, cultural, political, and religious factors related to each of the Games.

Throughout his work Kaplan identifies operational challenges that routinely have confronted the production of the quadrennial sports festival.  In addition to ongoing financial issues, he refers to athletes’ complaints about—and other complications caused by—poor performance venues, substandard housing, inadequate transportation, and unequal support for women, especially during the earliest Games.  In particular, he recounts how participation in the Games has been threatened by the wars and terrorist acts that have bedeviled the Levant in the past half century.   And he points out the controversies surrounding the collapse of the athletes’ access bridge over the Yakon River in 1997 when four members of the Australian team were killed and scores other injured seriously when they plummeted 45 feet into the toxic river.

Even though the Maccabiah Games were begun to provide Jewish athletes with an opportunity for international competition, Kaplan notes that the occasions also introduced participants and attendees to the possibilities for moving to Palestine (in the earliest days of the Games) and now for immigrating to Israel.  Following the Games in 1932, for instance, an estimated 5000 tourists “disappeared” into the countryside, supposedly to join settlements.

In recent years controversies about Jewish identity as a requisite for competition have swelled as some delegations have unknowingly included non-Jewish participants.

In addition to his social and political commentary, Kaplan attends to the religious significance of the Games.  Over the years athletes have found that their introduction to the religious environment in Israel has enriched their Jewish identity, occasionally even providing some with an opportunity to celebrate their bar mitzvah, which they had missed at an earlier age.  Pressing for a more spiritual orientation for the Games themselves, former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in the closing ceremonies in 1961 called for the Games’ organizers to include specific religious competitions in subsequent festivities.  Since he believed that one could not be “a real Jew” without reading scripture in Hebrew, he urged that “the next Maccabiah [should] include contests in Hebrew, the Bible, and Jewish history” (76).   Although such academic competitions about religious knowledge have not been included among the Games’ contests, scores of rabbis have volunteered their services in recent years to strengthen the spiritual tenor of the Games by educating interested, secular Jewish athletes about the spiritual vitality of Judaism.

A decade before Ben-Gurion’s proposal, the Jewish distinction of the Games had begun to dissolve when non-Jewish Olympic champions like Bob Richards and Rafer Johnson were invited to participate in demonstration performances, which meant that even if they won their events, they would not be awarded medals or recognized in the records.  In recent years controversies about Jewish identity as a requisite for competition have swelled as some delegations have unknowingly included non-Jewish participants, and others have allowed non-Jewish athletes to fill out teams so that deserving Jewish athletes might compete.  Additionally, most delegations now allow for either parent’s Jewish identity to establish an athlete’s acceptability even though a few delegations still require matrilineal descent to determine Jewish identity for eligibility.  Meanwhile, the constitution of host nation Israel permits the participation of any of its citizens who athletically qualify, regardless of their religious identity.

Consistently, Kaplan interjects his conversational narrative with extensive quotations from various sources, and he intersperses the digest of each Maccabiyad with profiles and perspectives of signal athletes, many of whom have been inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.  These personal accounts, which comprise almost one-third of the book, are predominantly transcripts of interviews that Kaplan conducted with the athletes about their experiences, especially how their participation in the Games strengthened their Jewish identity.

Although Kaplan provides a succinct summary of each Maccabiyad, he fails to provide a comprehensive conclusion to his work, simply ending the account with a report about the most recent Games in 2013 that is followed by lists of athletes who have won distinguished awards.  While Kaplan’s assemblage of information about participants and events in the nineteen Maccabiah Games will capably engage general readers and perhaps pique the interest of students, scholars will likely seek more authoritative documentation and trenchant analysis.

Copyright © Joseph L. Price 2016
Originally published in Aethlon

[1] Joseph L. Price is the Genevieve Shaul Connick Professor of Religious Studies.  With a doctorate in theology and culture, he has taught more than thirty different courses, ranging from “The Life and Teaching of Jesus” to “Latin American Liberation Theologies” and from “Cinema and Religion” to “Sport, Play, and Ritual.” Author and co-editor of several theological works, including Tillich and A New Handbook of Christian Theology, he has also published numerous essays and books on sports and religion, including From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion and Rounding the Bases: Baseball and Religion in America.  Combining his interests in sports, ritual studies, and music, he has sung the national anthem for more than 125 professional baseball games in 20 Major League ballparks and 100 minor league stadiums in 42 states.

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