- The Jewish Olympics: The History of the Maccabiah Games by Ron Kaplan
Inspired by the “Muscular Judaism” movement and Zionism, the first two Jewish Olympics—the Maccabiah Games—were held in 1932 and 1935 in the former and future Jewish homeland, then part of the British Mandate of Palestine. In 1950, the modern State of Israel hosted the return of Maccabiah and did so again in 1953. Subsequently, the festival has taken place quadrennially, with Israel as its permanent home. Although Israel always provides the largest contingent of athletes, Maccabiah encourages the participation of Jews living in the nations of the Diaspora. The State of Israel, Jewish organizations throughout the world, private philanthropy, and the athletes themselves fund Maccabiah. Organized chronologically, The Jewish Olympics devotes an exclusive chapter to each of the first nineteen games, concluding with the 2013 Maccabiah.
Twenty-two profiles, highlighting individual Maccabiah athletes and officials, intermittently leaven the narrative. Emphasizing author Ron Kaplan’s interviews of Americans, the case studies capture the distinctive experiences of Maccabiah participants. As with many other Maccabiah athletes, the games provided the occasion for Carol Benjamin’s first visit to Israel; as a fifteen-year-old Reform Jew from suburban Long Island, the young fencer won a gold medal. Remarkably, forty-eight years later, Benjamin next returned to Maccabiah in 2013, winning another gold medal, this time as a “masters” athlete in the half-marathon. American Tal Brody also made his first trip to Israel as a 1965 Maccabiah athlete, one of four players on the gold-medal American basketball team drafted by the National Basketball Association. Experiencing a strong connection to Jewish history and culture, Brody made Aliayh (moved to Israel). In 1977, basketball legend Dolph Schayes coached a gold-medal American squad led by his son Dan, who went on to play eighteen seasons in the NBA.
Notable athletes and coaches have participated in Maccabiah, including track and field’s Lillian Copeland; basketball’s Larry Brown, Ernie and Dan Grunfeld, David Blatt, and Bruce Pearl; and swimmers Mark Spitz and Lenny Krayzelburg. In 2001, Krayzelburg’s [End Page 116] decision to participate in the Maccabiah despite serious security concerns presented by the Second Intifada cast him as a role model of Jewish courage. Nonetheless, most Maccabiah participants are not elite athletes, and the caliber of the competition has elicited criticism.
Beyond the unevenness of athletic performance, Kaplan acknowledges the perennial problems of Maccabiah organization, shortcomings that extend to finances, the point system, transportation, and food. Moreover, Maccabiah has had limited success in encouraging Aliayh. Nonetheless, Kaplan finds substantive Maccabiah achievement in fostering links between Israel and the Diaspora, connecting Diaspora Jews with one another and heightening the Jewish consciousness of participants.
Certain caveats emerge. Occasional factual errors and grammatical miscues survived the editing process. Several of the lengthy verbatim newspaper quotes merit pruning. Absent institutional records and documents, footnote citations pertain largely to newspapers and Kaplan’s interviews. And there is neither a concluding synthesis nor a bibliography.
The Jewish Olympics is neither definitive nor monographic. Informative and engaging, The Jewish Olympics provides a benchmark and encouragement for future Maccabiah research. The book will appeal to readers interested in the intersection of Judaism and international sport.