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Reviewed by:
  • Jews and the Sporting Life: Studies in Contemporary Jewry XXIII
  • William M. Simons
Mendelsohn, Ezra, ed. Jews and the Sporting Life: Studies in Contemporary Jewry XXIII. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pp. xiv+291. Photographs and notes. $55.00 cb.

Notwithstanding its title, about half this book has nothing to do with sports. For nearly a quarter of a century, The Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has commissioned essays on a specific topic related to Jewish studies, ranging from anti-Semitism to the state of Israel. This volume highlights the Institute’s symposium on Jews in sport. Nonetheless, by custom, the annual Studies in Contemporary Jewry publication includes material unrelated to the symposium topic. Despite the diversity of its articles and reviews, the core of Jews and the Sporting Life—and the focus of this review—concerns the nine original essays on Jewish participation and perspective on modern sport.

The initial historiography of Jews in sport often engaged in exaltation of Jewish athletes, seeking to instill ethnic pride. During the past generation, however, mature scholarship on Jews in sport has related the phenomenon to larger social and cultural concerns. The symposium articles clearly reflect the latter approach. None of the articles engage in celebratory encomiums.

Four articles derive from the American experience. In “Pride and Priorities: American Jewry’s Response to Hakoah Vienna’s U.S. Tour of 1926,” Jeffrey S. Gurock brilliantly contextualizes the triumph of secular Jewish aspirations over Sabbath observance in support of an iconic ethnic soccer team. Sander L. Gilman’s “Thoughts on the Jewish Body, Baseball, and the Problem of Integration” imaginatively depicts Jewish-American novelists grafting anxieties about the supposed physical deficiencies of Jews into their writings about the national pastime. In a seminal and contentious revisionist essay, “The Jewish Bookmaker: Gambling, Legitimacy, and American Political Economy,” Michael Alexander, with anecdotal notation of his own familial participation, views the prominence of Jews in sports gambling as a reality and an extension of the service industry. Edward S. Shapiro, in “From Participant to Owner: The Role of Jews in Contemporary American Sports,” examines the social and economic factors that have led to the rise of American Jews as sports commissioners, executive, owners, agents, and writers, and their precipitous decline as [End Page 311] champion athletes since the second generation. However, consideration of contemporary Jewish visibility in baseball and women’s figure skating suggests that Shapiro might overstate his case.

Europe provides the setting for three of the essays. Diethelm Blecking merits commendation for rescuing the vitality and nuances of Polish Jewry’s athleticism prior to the Nazi occupation from historical neglect in “Jews and Sports in Poland before the Second World War.” With telling detail and objectivity, Sergio Della Pergola, in “Dream and Disenchantment: Massimo Della Pergola and the Invention of the Italian Totocalcio,” recounts his father’s establishment, and then loss, of an enterprise for legal betting on soccer that facilitated the revival of sport and national reconstruction in post-World War II Italy. Evocatively capturing time and place, Gabriel N. Finder’s “‘Boxing for Everyone’: Jewish DPs, Sports, and Boxing’” describes the use of pugilism in refuge camps, following the Holocaust, to restore—physically and emotionally—the enervated masculinity of survivors as prelude to an ethnic revival.

Two excellent articles address Israeli sport. According to “Sports in the Young State of Israel,” by Anat Helman, the modern Jewish state, from its inception in 1948 through the decade that followed, consciously employed athletics—with significant, albeit incomplete, success—to mold national character, unify fragmented groups, and promote international acceptance. Tamir Sorek, in “Why Did Beit Shean Let Betar Win? Latent Ethnic Solidarity and the Sports Ethic in Israel,” focuses on an intentional loss in a 1998 match in the premier Israeli soccer league, and identifies ethnic solidarity between two teams sharing a common Sephardim fan base and a mutual antipathy toward Ashkenazi dominance as a source of athletic corruption, even without prospects for pecuniary gain.

As do all works, the volume elicits some caveats. The preface, approximately three pages, does not compensate for the lack of a strong introduction to the symposium or to...


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