(JTA) — For Jewish sports fans, it can sometimes feel as if simply having star Jewish athletes to root for is a miracle.
Yet despite antisemitic stereotypes to the contrary, Jewish athletes have achieved some pretty incredible accomplishments.
For the Jewish Sport Report, we have decided to spend this Hanukkah — a holiday that commemorates the miracle of oil lasting far longer than it should have — celebrating Jewish sport miracles from history.
We picked one for each of the holiday’s eight nights, plus one for the shamash, the candle that lights them all. (It’s an extra special moment from Jewish sports history, one that has cast a long shadow over the Jewish athletes who have carried the mantle since.)
Our only criteria? Each Jewish sports moment had to feel miraculous — think underdogs, defying all odds, incredible feats of athletic skill.
These nine moments — not ranked in any order — felt right to highlight, but there are of course so many more that could have potentially made the cut.
Some honorable mentions include:
- In 1945, Hank Greenberg became the first Major League Baseball player to return from service in World War II. He homered in his first game back.
- In 1977, the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team defeated the Soviet Union’s “Red Army” team on its way to winning the FIBA European Champions Cup — declaring “We are on the map!”
- In 2004 and 2016, the whiz-kid baseball executive Theo Epstein led the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs to historic curse-breaking World Series championships, ending an 86-year and 108-year title drought.
Without further ado, have a read through our Jewish sports hanukkiah:
Night one: Sue Bird at the buzzer in 2001
Close your eyes. It’s the Big East Tournament Championship in March 2001, between two women’s college basketball powerhouses: the University of Connecticut Huskies and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. With a few seconds left to play, star Jewish guard Sue Bird grabs the ball from a free throw rebound and sprints down the court. She stops inside the paint and shoots a fadeaway that gives the Huskies the win at the buzzer.
Though the Huskies would go on to lose the NCAA Championships that year — in a stinging defeat to eventual winners Notre Dame in the semifinals — Bird’s buzzer-beater has gone down in history as one of the best shots of all time. There’s an entire book about it, titled “Bird at the Buzzer,” published by sports writer Jeff Goldberg (not The Atlantic editor) in 2011. Bird would go on to help UConn win the NCAA title in 2002, become the first pick of the WNBA draft that same year, and have a storied career — one that includes four WNBA championships, five Olympic gold medals and so much more.
Her dominance in women’s basketball has been so consistent that it’s easy to forget how miraculous she has been. But her buzzer beater in 2001? Definitely still looks like a miracle.
Night two: Diego Schwartzman defeats the “King of Clay” — on clay — in 2020
On September 19, 2020, Jewish tennis player Diego Schwartzman achieved the nearly impossible: He defeated the “King of Clay” Rafael Nadal on a clay court, in the Italian Open quarterfinals.
In their 10th meeting, Schwartzman stunned Nadal in straight sets after losing his nine previous matches to the Spanish player who has dominated the surface like no other tennis player in history. Nadal has won a record 13 French Open titles, the grand slam played on clay, and 62 of his 88 ATP singles titles on the surface.
Schwartzman, 29, is immensely popular in his hometown Argentine Jewish community and is undeniably the world’s best Jewish tennis player right now.
After the match, Schwartzman called it “my best tennis ever.” And he was right. It’s a match we won’t forget for a long time.
Night three: Linoy Ashram becomes the third Israeli to win gold at the Olympics, by .15 of a point in 2021
At the postponed Tokyo Olympics, Israeli gymnast Linoy Ashram made history, by the narrowest of margins.
The 22-year-old won gold in the all-around rhythmic gymnastics competition, breaking a streak of Russian gold medalists since the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Ashram narrowly beat out her Russian competitor, scoring just .15 of a point higher than Dina Averina. The Russian Olympic Committee called the result an “injustice” and submitted an official inquiry. The International Gymnastics Federation dismissed any allegations of unfair judging.
Ashram became the first Israeli woman to ever win a gold medal, and an instant celebrity in her native country.
“I was especially proud of the fact that I could prove to others that even though this sport [has been] dominated by Eastern Europeans, I could win it and I could bring something new to it. And it’s not a given fact Eastern European athletes [win],” Ashram told JTA.
If .15 of a point isn’t a miracle, what is?
Night four: Julian Edelman’s catch in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LI in 2017
Julian Edelman was used to having doubters. The undersized wide receiver played every snap of his 12-year NFL career with a chip on his shoulder, constantly proving others wrong. No game encapsulated that better than Super Bowl LI, on Feb. 5, 2017.
With his New England Patriots down 28-20 with 2:28 left in the fourth quarter (they had been down 28-3), Edelman reeled in one of the greatest catches in Super Bowl history. (Watch it here.)
During what would become the game-tying drive, Edelman fought off three Atlanta Falcons defenders to make a miraculous catch in the middle of the field, one that seems more improbable with each replay. Tom Brady’s pass was swatted in the air by a Falcons cornerback, causing Edelman and three defenders to collide into a pile on the ground, limbs pointing in all directions, with each player trying to find the football. Edelman somehow kept his concentration and got his hands around the ball, weaving through the arms and legs of his opponents to grip Brady’s 23-yard pass. Even a last-second bobble wasn’t enough to break Edelman’s focus.
Edelman finished the game with five receptions for 87 yards, as the Patriots completed the largest comeback in Super Bowl history, defeating the Falcons 34-28.
“There’s something we say around here: You gotta believe,” Edelman said after the game. “And that’s what we kept on saying. You gotta believe; you gotta believe; you gotta believe.”
Night five: Aly Raisman makes an epic Olympic comeback as captain of the U.S. gymnastics Final Five team
At the 2012 London Olympics, gymnast Aly Raisman became a Jewish sports legend when she performed her floor routine to “Hava Nagila” — and won gold. She became the first American woman to win a gold medal in the floor category and also helped the American team win gold.
“I take a lot of pride in being able to not only represent the USA, but also the Jewish community everywhere,” Raisman said at the time.
After the Games, most figured her Olympic career was over — gymnasts rarely compete on the world’s biggest stage into their 20s. She was injured and took a break from competing, attending Babson College for a year in 2013. In October 2014, however, she started training again.
And her comeback was swift: She was named to the 2016 U.S. Olympic Women’s gymnastics team, becoming one of only two U.S. women — alongside Gabby Douglas — to make back-to-back Olympic gymnastics teams since 2000.
So why a miracle? There was her age — at 22 in Rio, she was the oldest member of Team USA. “I’m happy I proved everyone wrong,” Raisman said at the Games.
But as we found out a little over a year after the Rio Olympics, Raisman had also been a victim of sexual abuse by Olympic physician Larry Nassar. Not only did she have the strength to return to the Olympics — knowing what she had faced at the last Games — she became one of the strongest voices speaking out against Nassar in the years following.
Raisman is a true heroine — one we should celebrate on Hanukkah, and year-round.
Night six: Team Israel finishes sixth in the 2017 World Baseball Classic
Entering the 2017 World Baseball Classic (WBC), Team Israel was ranked 41st in the world — the ultimate underdog. ESPN called the squad “the Jamaican bobsled team of the WBC.” The team’s odds to win the tournament were 200-1. Talk about David vs. Goliath.
But the group, made up of mostly American Jewish ballplayers like Sam Fuld and Ty Kelly, pulled off an improbable four-game winning streak in the international tournament, beating several of the top-ranked teams in the world.
Team Israel swept the opening round of the WBC, beating world No. 3 South Korea, No. 4 Chinese Taipei, and No. 9 the Netherlands. Israel then beat Cuba to open the second round, before losing to the Netherlands and Japan.
The team’s Cinderella run was captured in a 2018 documentary, “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel.” The movie follows the team from the qualifying round in Brooklyn to the group’s trip to Israel, where they toured historic sites and dedicated a new baseball field in Beit Shemesh.
Israel automatically qualified for the 2021 World Baseball Classic — which was postponed due to COVID-19 — and would go on to compete in the 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
For six days in March 2017, Team Israel was on top of the world. (Their trusty mascot, a lifesize Mensch on the Bench, enjoyed the ride too.)
Night seven: Mark Spitz wins seven gold medals in the 1972 Olympics
The 1972 Munich Olympics had the highest of highs and the lowest of lows for Jewish sports fans.
In what is now commonly referred to as the Munich Massacre, 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were held hostage and killed by Palestinian terrorists.
But those summer games also saw one of the most dominant runs of any Olympic athlete: Jewish swimmer Mark Spitz won seven gold medals, setting a world record in each competition. He won the 100-meter freestyle, 200-meter freestyle, 100-meter butterfly, 200-meter butterfly, 4×100-meter freestyle relay, 4×200-meter freestyle relay, and 4×100-meter medley relay.
Spitz’s seven gold medals in one Olympics set a record, which stood for a fitting 36 years (chai x 2!), until Michael Phelps’ eight golds in 2008.
After his incredible performance, Spitz left Munich early as a precautionary measure as a result of the violence. He then retired following the 1972 Olympics at the young age of 22. He finished his career with nine Olympic gold medals — enough for his own hanukkiah — plus five golds at the 1967 Pan American Games, and 10 at multiple Maccabiah Games.
Night eight: Annie Cohen Kopchovksy bikes around the world in 1894
In June 1894, at age 23, Annie Cohen Kopchovksy set off from her home in Boston, leaving her husband and three small children, to journey around the world — by bicycle.
A Jewish immigrant from Latvia, she called herself Annie Londonderry after her sponsor, the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company of New Hampshire. And while she likely didn’t quite circumnavigate every inch of the globe by bike (she often traveled by boat from destination to destination), her journey took her around the entire world and was a huge accomplishment for women’s athletics.
“Truly there is no way to measure the impact of her adventure on the larger struggle for women’s equality — to know how many women it inspired or empowered,” her great-great nephew Peter Zheutlin wrote in his book “Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride.” “But Annie’s journey epitomized perfectly the confluence of the women’s movement and the bicycle craze and is, therefore, a small but revealing chapter in the story of women at the turn of the century.”
A miraculous chapter in Jewish athletic history.
The shamash: Sandy Koufax and the 1965 World Series
In the long and rich history of Jews and sports, there remains one player, one moment, one feat, that eclipses them all. The cherry on top. The icing on the cake. The shamash on our Jewish sports hanukkiah: Sandy Koufax and the 1965 World Series.
The undeniable greatest in the Jewish sports pantheon, and one of the most talented pitchers in baseball history, Koufax is perhaps best known for that game he didn’t pitch. After a dominant 1965 season — for which he would win his second Cy Young Award — Koufax famously declined to pitch Game 1 of the World Series for the Los Angeles Dodgers, because it fell on Yom Kippur.
That’s right: the best pitcher on the planet wouldn’t pitch in a World Series game because of his Jewish faith. Dayenu.
But the miracles didn’t stop there. Koufax would go on to pitch Game 2, holding the Minnesota Twins to two runs over six innings, while striking out nine.
The oil didn’t run out from there. On just two days of rest, Koufax took the mound for Game 7, and boy, did he pitch: Koufax hurled a complete game shutout, giving up just three hits while striking out 10. He was named World Series MVP.
The best moment of the best Jewish player’s astonishing career. A true miracle.