Media Matters: Go, Jason! A Maccabiah message for us all

Jews and sports were once considered somewhat of an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. No longer.

jason lezak, barkat 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
jason lezak, barkat 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Just before Wimbledon, I received an e-mail headlined, "Two great 5'9" Jewish players to watch," which featured short biographies of the Canadian-born American Jesse Levine and Israel's Dudi Sela. I'm not sure what relevance their height has, but it got me thinking about Jews and sports and the upcoming Maccabiah. Levine, 21, who was invited by the Swiss champ Roger Federer to Dubai to be his practice partner, did well to make it to the third round, when he was knocked out by Stanislas Wawrinka. I was interested to learn that Levine keeps kosher, reads Hebrew, and wears a Magen David on his neck chain. Sela, 24, became the first Israeli in 17 years (since Amos Mansdorf making it to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open) to reach the fourth round of a Grand Slam, but was robbed of a place in history by Novak Djokovic. Wimbledon was, however, a clear boost for Sela, who goes into Israel's Davis Cup quarter-final tie against Russia this weekend with new confidence after being ranked 33 in the world. Sela prefers playing at home, but he once said he also likes competing abroad for his Jewish fans. "It's fun playing in different places because Jewish people will come out to watch me," he said. JEWS AND sports were once considered somewhat of an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. No longer. Ahead of next week's Jewish Olympics - the Maccabiah - let's take a brief look at some of the best athletes Judaism has provided the world. Perhaps the top name at the Games this year will be three-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer Jason Lezak, who said that his Jewish heritage had led to his decision to take part in the Maccabiah instead of the upcoming World Swimming Championships in Rome. "This is a decision I made which is as much about giving back to the Jewish community and exploring my heritage as it is about the performance on the world stage," said Lezak. "I'll be representing my country and my heritage as a Jewish athlete and I'm very proud of that." "This is a very serious athletic competition that shares another purpose and that's to bring together worldwide Jewry," said Ron Carner, chairman of Maccabi USA, at a news conference with Lezak on Sunday. Lezak, you may recall, made an international name for himself in the Beijing Olympics' 400-meter freestyle relay when he overtook the record-holding French swimmer Alain Bernard on the final lap, helping his American teammate Michael Phelps win eight gold medals. Phelps, in turn, broke the record of another American, Mark Spitz (who stands - or rather swims - at 6 foot), arguably the most accomplished Jewish sportsman in history. He capped his career with seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Olympics after competing in the Maccabiah seven years earlier at the age of 15, winning three golds. After his arrival in Israel, Lezak (who is 6'4") said he understood the responsibility he carried on his tall shoulders as one of the world's top Jewish sportsmen. "I hope to be a role model to a lot of the Jewish athletes growing up, and hopefully I can make a difference," he said. TODAY THERE is even a Web site called "Jews in Sports On-line" ( which, in its own words, "tells the largely underappreciated story of Jewish athletes, from the famous to the unknown." Here is an enticing extract from its home page. Can you name a Jewish Olympic gymnast who won 10 medals in three Olympiads during the 1940s and 1950s? (Agnes Keleti) Can you name a Jewish southpaw who hurled two no-hitters but who never pitched for the Dodgers? (Ken Holtzman) Did you know that one of Spain's most celebrated bullfighters, lavishly praised by Ernest Hemingway, was a Jewish boy from Brooklyn? (Sidney Franklin) What Olympic swimmer from Hungary broke 10 world records, five Olympic records and an amazing 107 Hungarian national records? (Eva Szekely) Were you aware that one of the greatest athletes of the 19th century - an All-American in both football and baseball, later a great coach in both sports and a member of the Football Hall of Fame - was a blond, blue-eyed Jewish Ivy Leaguer from Princeton? (Phil King) Can you identify a Jewish Olympic wrestler who competed for a dozen years without ever losing a match? (Henry Wittenberg) Or a Jewish pitcher who pitched in the Mexican Leagues under the name of Pablo Garcia? (Syd Cohen) THE on-line encyclopedia, Wikipedia, features a comprehensive list of prominent Jewish athletes, noting in a rather unpleasant, if doubtless well-intentioned sentence: "The topic of Jews in sports is important to counter the stereotype of Jews as nonathletic." Its lengthy list of outstanding sports personalities past and present includes American baseball legend Hank Greenberg, basketball Hall of Famer Red Auerbach, heavyweight boxer Max Baer, athlete Harold Abrahams, cricketer Ali Bacher, rugby player Joel Stransky, soccer star Yossi Benayoun, judokas Yael Arad and Arik Ze'evi, as well as windsurfers Gal Fridman (Israel's first Olympic gold medalist) and Shahar Zubari, the current European champion who may just be Israel's top sportsman today. Although the percentage is not nearly as high as Nobel Prize laureates, almost every sport now has its Jewish stars. Gone are the days of Jews being rejected from exclusive sports clubs and events - one of the motivators for initiating the Maccabiah. When Groucho Marx's request for membership of a Los Angeles country club was rejected because of his religion, he quipped: "My daughter's only half-Jewish. Can she wade into the pool up to her waist?" Then he uttered that immortal line, saying he had sent the club a wire stating: "Please accept my resignation. I don't want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member." Groucho (who, by the way, was only 5'6") would have enjoyed this year's Maccabiah, the ultimate Jewish sports club in which Israeli Arabs - both Christian and Muslim - are competing as well (and not just up to the waist!). It is somewhat ironic that Judah Maccabee - the man after whom the Maccabiah is named - was a great warrior who frowned upon athletic competitions because they were such an integral part of the Greek culture being propagated by his rivals, the Hellenists. There is no doubt, though, that the State of Israel has provided strength and inspiration to Jewish sportsmen and women around the world, while nurturing its own home-bred fighters and sports stars. The Maccabiah provides a unique opportunity for Jewish sports people to meet one another, on and off the field. Which is why kudos should be extended to Jason Lezak for choosing the Maccabiah over the world championships. If there was a Maccabi award for sportsmanship, I'd vote for him. Jason also partnered with the Maccabi USA team to create the MUSA-Lezak initiative to raise funds for a nonprofit organization that uses sports to strengthen Jewish identity and create strong bonds with Israel. It's too bad that the media - davka in Israel - have largely ignored the Maccabiah in the past, unless there was a tragedy such as the bridge collapse in 1997. The Jerusalem Post is an exception to the rule, and has provided daily coverage of all the Maccabiah Games every four years since their inception in 1932. We challenge other newspapers and media outlets to join the competition, and report extensively on the 18th Maccabiah. With more than 7,000 competitors (5,000 from abroad, and 2,000 from Israel), it promises to be the largest Jewish sporting event in history.