Team spirit: Immigrants cannot shake off homegrown passion for sport

Immigrant fans living in Israel can’t seem to leave behind their native sports.

January 6, 2018 11:01
Team spirit: Immigrants cannot shake off homegrown passion for sport

Rabbi Dov Lipman: ‘It’s difficult to completely separate yourself from everything you had growing up’. (photo credit: DOV LIPMAN)


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WHEN AMERICAN sports fans move to Israel, they often take their love of sports along for the ride. Even after they become Israeli – fully acculturated, fully embracing the country’s interests, language, politics and culture – there is one stubborn piece of their previous life they cannot let go of: their crazy loving of American sports.

These former Americans have lived here for 20 or 30 years, have raised their children as Israelis, have entirely left behind their American lives – except they still passionately follow their Yankees, their Bulls, their Red Wings, or their Dolphins.

American immigrant sports fans face a specific problem in Israel: there is no professional league for three of the four major US sports – baseball, football and hockey.

So, while the immigrant from England can relate to Israeli soccer and still follow Manchester United, what team can a sports-mad American follow? Moreover, how does it impact their identity as an Israeli? Does infatuated devotion to the Cubbies or Cowboys interfere with becoming 100 percent acculturated? No, it doesn’t, says Susie Keinon, who does not follow Israeli sports teams but is a loyal fan of her hometown Chicago White Sox.

“We can still hold on to our Israeliness, and it may even enhance our Israeliness,” says Keinon, who has been living in Israel for 31 years. “We can connect to everything Israeli and bring something from where we came, without weakening our identity. Just the opposite: it can enhance our identity, and help us feel more secure and at ease with both parts – by outwardly saying ‘there is room for both.’” Keinon says her passion helps her bond with other Americans in Israel.

“A few people in our neighborhood understand my interest, and we stop to talk about it at the makolet (local grocery store), or at shul, or on the street,” she says.

Fans celebrate during a Chicago Cubs game against the Chicago White Sox at Wrigley Field. (Reuters)

Her husband, Herb, says being an American sports fan is a topic of conversation, but he would not go so far as saying it helps him bond with other Americans. “Living here is bond enough,” he laughs.

One side benefit of having remained a fan of US sports is that it helps in staying connected with family back home. “I always speak about sports with my father and brother-in-law,” says Keinon.

What’s difficult for the Keinons and other American sports fans is staying plugged in live – most baseball games broadcast in Israel begin at 2 a.m., though NFL kicks off on Sundays at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m.

“Sleep has always been more important than sports,” says Susie, a psychotherapist in her day job. “During football season, I sometimes stay up a couple of hours later than usual to watch a good game. During baseball season, I generally settle for highlights or watching a game the next day, but not live.”

Unlike the pre-Internet days, when sports news from North America was difficult to access, and real-time scores or play-by-play accounts virtually unavailable, today’s sports apps make it easy to stay connected. Herb, a former season-ticket holder to the Denver Broncos, watches every game his team plays via his Game Pass app, which brings him the weekly action on demand.

“I do follow the football season from start to finish,” he says, noting that he watches the Broncos right after morning prayers on Monday morning – without knowing the score.

When his sports buddies call he answers, “Hi, don’t tell me who won.” Unfortunately for Herb, he hasn’t needed to say that this season.

What was impossible for him and Suzie was passing on that familial bond to their three sons.

“My boys will amuse me by watching a few plays every now and then,” says Herb, a columnist at The Jerusalem Post. “They do watch the Super Bowl with me though – but that’s because of the food spread.”

It’s difficult passing on a love of American sports to the next generation of children raised, if not born, Israeli.

“Growing up here is different than there,” says Rabbi Dov Lipman, a native of Silver Spring, Maryland, where sports loyalties in those days stretched from Washington to Baltimore, encompassing the Orioles, Redskins, Capitals and Bullets.

“There, it was every Sunday you go to school in the morning, come home, and sit from 12:30 ’til 7 watching football. Nighttimes for baseball. So my son, Shlomo, didn’t grow up with that culture of watching. He grew up watching highlights.”

And that, says Lipman, is fine by him.

“I did not want him to be, ‘Oh, I have to get up at 2 in the morning to watch the game.’ He’s a fan, he likes it, but he learns to live on the highlights and watching it that way.”

More than sharing with Shlomo his love of baseball was the naches Lipman experienced watching his son pitch for the Israeli under-21 national team. Like his grandfather – watching his father play baseball for Miami Beach High School, in a different country – the immigrant had arrived.

LOVING SPORTS may be universal. Most people have feelings about their home or national teams and athletes, and the outcomes of the games they play. But Americans don’t seem able to get into Israeli sports. One reason is their unfamiliarity with soccer, Israel’s prime sport. Americans, at least most of the older ones, didn’t grow up with it, it’s not second nature, and many don’t know the rules.

They are also unfamiliar with how sports leagues are played in the rest of the world, including Israel. Teams participate in multiple leagues or competitions simultaneously, such as the domestic league, a State Cup tournament, and a European competition.

For religious Jews, there’s the issue of games being played on Shabbat. Baseball is an everyday sport, so missing a night game on Friday or a day game on Saturday is not crucial to following a sport in which teams play 162 games a season. The NFL for the most part plays on Sundays, so that is easy to follow. In Israel, most soccer games are scheduled on Shabbat, so religious fans cannot follow the games in real time.

There are also the different rhythms of the seasons to which immigrants are unaccustomed: soccer and basketball schedules in Israel overlap almost completely, while football and baseball intersect only two months of the year.

Fans of Israeli soccer team Hapoel Beersheba (Reuters)

Then there’s politics: rivalries in Israel are shaded with biases remaining from when clubs formed in pre-state Palestine were offshoots of political movements.

Sports teams named Beitar were once closely affiliated with nationalist rightwing Herut/Likud; Hapoel with socialist left-wing Mapai/Labor. Hapoel wears red, Beitar yellow.

While identification with party has narrowed, the teams are still marked, at least to some extent, by their original cultural, political, social, and ethnic ideologies.

Subsequently, rooting sentiments are different from what fans are used to in America, where loyalty is based by and large on geography – almost every sports fan in Pittsburgh or Cleveland favors their town’s team.

Some immigrants are also turned off by the nature of the sports experience in Israel.

The comportment at stadiums is more akin to the rowdy, male-centric atmosphere of European sports than the more family-oriented atmosphere in North America.

“Fan behavior plays a role,” says Benjamin Glatt, a native of Toronto, who nevertheless found his devotion across the Detroit River following the Motor City’s Red Wings and Tigers.

“There has been behavior that I do not want my children to witness,” Glatt says.

“Looking back at my North American experiences, which are plentiful, I am in no way willing to take children or myself to these types of venues.”

Susie Keinon concurs. “I wish there was better sportsmanlike conduct, specifically after a ‘bad’ call, or losing a game,” she says.

As for fans of professional basketball, a sport played in Israel and familiar to the American-born sports enthusiast, it’s not the same. From a sporting perspective, and with all due respect, the brand of game displayed here is not NBA-caliber basketball.

It’s what an Israeli might call sug bet – second-level quality (though certainly on any given night a top tier Israeli team could beat an NBA team, and has).

ALL SPORTS offer fans an escape, a pleasant diversion, and that is no different for American sports fans living in Israel. But for immigrants specifically, that diversion can trigger emotions evoking a blissful time in another country. It’s a place they don’t mind revisiting.

“When I connect to my sports, I connect to the comfort and to the innocence of a great childhood that I had,” says Lipman, a Yesh Atid MK in the previous Knesset.

“It’s not America, it’s just sports, and it’s  something that brings me back there, to that innocent time, in the most beautiful ways. It’s just to enjoy – simply connecting to something fun and entertaining.”

Moreover, says Lipman, “you grow up in the world of America, and you move to Israel – it’s difficult to completely separate yourself from everything you had growing up, to say to yourself, ‘I’m in a whole new life right now.’” Some immigrants go completely the other way – the pride they feel being Israeli encompasses sports as much as anything else.

“What sense does it make to get involved in every other aspect of Israeli life except sports, when I am an avid sports fan,” says Brian Freeman, whose credentials as a passionate sports fan rooting for his native Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine are indisputable.

“Although I will never lose my connection to American sports, my desire for Israeli sports teams and individuals to succeed is much stronger,” he says. “I don’t understand an American living here who is more devoted to his college team, where he attended for three or four years, but can’t, after three or four decades in Israel, build up a greater loyalty to whichever Israeli sports teams, or individuals, or national achievements strike his fancy.

“In individual sports – tennis, judo, sailing, Olympic medals – I always want an Israeli to beat out an American, or anyone else. Otherwise, what’s the point of being here?” The problem, says Freeman, a journalist by trade, is not that someone follows sports from the old country, but that it’s done to the exclusion of Israel.

“Sports is a part of the fabric of Israeli society,” he says. “The triumphs and heartbreaks of Israeli sports teams, or individuals in the Olympics, are just as strong as they are in the US, with its own history of failure, heartache and thrill of victory that helps define Israeli culture.

“Anyone already following sports who doesn’t connect to Israeli sports is missing out on an important element of Israeli culture and cultural references, ‘We are on the map!’ being the most blatant, but by no means only example,” referencing Tal Brody’s famous quip after his Maccabi Tel Aviv team won the 1977 European Cup Basketball Championship.

Most Israelis become interested fans and root with national pride when an Israeli team competes internationally. The enthusiasm across the country for Maccabi Tel Aviv – an individual club, not an Israeli national team – is as momentous as if it is a national team when it’s playing well in a European tournament.

Maccabi Tel Aviv forward Michael Roll celebrates with teammate Itay Segev during a win over Real Madrid at Yad Eliyahu Arena in Tel Aviv (Adi Avishai)

“I remember when Maccabi Tel Aviv won its first European basketball championship after I made aliya in ’96,” says Ron Dermer, a devoted fan of his hometown Miami Dolphins, referring to the Maccabi club facing Panathinaikos in the 2001 final. “It was a big deal.”

For American immigrants like Dermer, who has read the sports pages religiously every day since the age of eight, seeing newspapers put a sports story on page one – because the country is going gaga over an Israeli team – can be a welcome-to-Israel occasion.

“It was one of those moments when I felt most connected to Israel, when we had that kind of national celebration when Maccabi Tel Aviv won,” says Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to Washington. “And I’m a Jerusalemite, which probably means I wasn’t fully Israeli, because if you’re fully Israeli, no person who lives in Jerusalem would get excited about Maccabi Tel Aviv winning anything. But I felt deeply connected to the whole country.”

While Dermer says it’s exciting to root for Israel while watching the Olympics, he nevertheless retains an ongoing affection for his Dolphins and Heat, because that’s what he knows.

“It’s like saying that you grew up loving a certain kind of music, and then all of a sudden you move to a new country and you’ll forget about the music that you like,” he says. “It’s the same thing with sports.”

Freeman says it’s only natural for a Jew living in Israel to root for a Maccabi Tel Aviv team playing in the Euroleague, because the pride of being Israeli applies to sports as well. “Basketball is a sport we grew up with in the States, but here it’s ‘our guys’ wearing a uniform with the Star of David, going against the European giants,” he says. “And the same with the Israeli national team in basketball or soccer or any other sport.”

Freeman says that just as Israelis take pride in Israeli achievements in other fields such as drip irrigation, medical research, Iron Dome and others, “there is no reason those feelings of ‘us’ doing it should not apply to sports as well. Do you think that Avraham Avinu, when he made aliya, kept allegiance to the Ur Idol Worshippers, and passed on his loyalty to his children? Or did he realize that lech lecha [God’s directive to travel to Canaan] meant it was time to change his devotion to the Moriah Mountaineers and Shilo City Slickers.”

This article first appeared in the Autumn 2017 issue of Contact, the magazine of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life. For a free subscription, email

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