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The Maccabiah Games are dead; long live the Maccabiah Games

17 10 6

The Maccabiah Games, which came to a close last week, are an endeavor that has long outlived its original purpose but has since gone on to find a new one.

The Maccabi movement was the institutional extension of what Zionist thinker Max Nordau dubbed “Muscular Judaism” more than 120 years ago, a belief that in order for the Jewish people to build themselves up as a nation they must first build up their biceps, triceps and deltoids.

In Nordau’s mind, Jews at that time were weaklings, knock-kneed yeshiva students with hunched backs and thick glasses — not the type of people needed to reestablish a national homeland. A so-called “new Jew” would be needed for that, so he pined for an imagined history in which the Jews were an athletic folk.

“Let us once more become deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men… For no other people will gymnastics fulfill a more educational purpose than for us Jews. It shall straighten us in body and in character… Our new muscle Jews have not yet regained the heroism of our forefathers who in large numbers eagerly entered the sports arenas in order to take part in competition and to pit themselves against the highly trained Hellenistic athletes,” Nordau said in a speech at the Second Zionist Congress in 1898.

To skip over and criminally simplify a fascinating history — including that of a Turkish Jewish fencing club formed years before Nordau’s speech — that address led to the creation of several Jewish athletic clubs around the world and eventually the formation of the Maccabi World Union in 1921 and the first Maccabiah Games 90 years ago.

The organizer of those games, Yosef Yekutieli, had high hopes for them.

“They were meant to present to the world the developing culture of the Jewish body,” wrote Haim Kaufman, a professor at Israel’s Wingate Institute, in a 2013 article about the Maccabiah Games.

Yekutieli had other hopes as well — that holding the games in then-Mandatory Palestine would reinforce the centrality of the land of Israel and the concept of Jewish peoplehood; that the competitors were “not just part of their home countries but were part of the Jewish people as a whole.”

These latter goals have remained firmly in place for the games — indeed organizers tout the large number of athletes who immigrate to Israel immediately following the event — but that primary focus of Nordau’s “Muscular Judaism” has long since fallen by the wayside.

“These days it’s less about sports, more about culture and social gathering of Jews from around the world,” Reichman University professor Yair Galily told The Times of Israel. “Muscular Judaism: it’s lost its meaning throughout the years.”

Instead, the games have become more of an athletic Birthright trip for most participants, albeit extremely far from a free ride. (Athletes from the US and Canada, for instance, shelled out roughly $8,000 each for their chance to compete.)

“They’re an opportunity to meet other Jews, maybe even marry one, and to show that there’s another place to be if things go sideways where you are from,” Galily said.

Indeed, most of the Maccabiah events attended by The Times of Israel over its two weeks were exceedingly chummy, with members of various delegations mixing and chatting with one another.

Save for a few sports — basketball, soccer, volleyball — in which there is sufficient interest in nearly every country that all of the teams are at a somewhat similar........

© The Times of Israel

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