Uniting worldwide Jewry through sport

An exhaustive history of the Maccabiah Games from 1932 until today.

Opening of the Maccabiah Games at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem In 2013. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Opening of the Maccabiah Games at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem In 2013.
From its inception in 1932, the Maccabiah Games achieved overwhelming success. Beginning with a humble 390 athletes from 14 countries, the number of participants has grown to more than 9,000 athletes from 78 countries. However, many are unfamiliar with the hardships and triumphs that paved the way to the creation of a Jewish organized sports movement.
In The Jewish Olympics: The History of the Maccabiah Games, Ron Kaplan, the sports and features editor for the New Jersey Jewish News, utilizes sports records, in-depth athlete profiles and personal accounts to provide a comprehensive history of the “Jewish Olympics.” He asserts that the Maccabiah is more than just an international sporting event, highlighting its ability to unify and strengthen the global Jewish community.
Kaplan opens with the claim that the Maccabiah Games were the by-product of rampant anti-Semitism and exclusionary policies toward Jews around the world at the time just before World War II. He notes that the return to “muscular Judaism” – a term coined by Hungarian physician Max Nordau at the Second Zionist Congress – was imperative to the restoration of Jewish mental and physical health. Thus, “the best course of action was [for Jews] to create their own clubs.”
Three years after Maccabiah Games founder Joseph Yekutieli presented his far-fetched “Jewish games” proposal, the first Maccabiah began on March 28, 1932.
But as Kaplan acknowledges, “it would not be a smooth ride.”
The Games lacked a certain level of sophistication that would come only with ample time, direct effort and adequate organization. Hours before the opening ceremonies, workers anxiously awaited the delivery of materials and struggled to prepare competition facilities. In addition, athletes did not have a place to stay and were either hosted by local families or bivouacked in tents.
As the Games pressed on, more issues arose, and Kaplan does not sugarcoat the critiques.
The fifth Maccabiah echoed previous complaints about the unfairness of the score system; the eighth Maccabiah dealt with eligibility disagreements and the rights of athletes; the 14th Maccabiah was slammed for its hint of racism; the 19th Maccabiah experienced a roadblock when Foreign Ministry workers went on strike.
Kaplan also highlights the difficulties experienced by reporters.
In an assessment published by The Jerusalem Post in 1977, Paul Kohn evaluated his experience covering the 10th Maccabiah.
He detailed the subpar working conditions, noting the confined space and negligent Maccabiah workers and organizers.
Kohn also criticized the dissemination of inaccurate information, which caused countless writers to arrive with pen and paper in hand at the incorrect venue. Kaplan points out that these complaints came from a local reporter, “not some outsider complaining that Israeli standards were less than adequate.”
Despite many instances of Maccabiah dysfunction, the “Jewish Olympics” made a bold statement to the international community – it was, and remains, a means to unite Jews and nations through friendly competition.
Not only were the Games successful in the sports realm, but also in respect to allowing athletes and visitors to experience Israel, encouraging the establishment of a deeper connection to the land and influencing many to make aliya.
Maccabiah traditions evolved over time. It became a staple of the Maccabiah Games to take athletes from other nations on a tour of the Holy Land. Kaplan recognizes that while many had visited Israel prior to competing, there were also many who had not.
In an effort to enliven the narrative of the book, Kaplan includes numerous sidebars detailing the unique back-stories and experiences of athletes who competed in the Games. With over 20 “Maccabiah profiles,” Kaplan piques his readers’ interest with in-depth accounts and memorable quotes from well-known athletes, such as former basketball star Tal Brody and former competition swimmer Mark Spitz.
In a profile piece about Ernie Grunfeld, now general manager of the National Basketball Association’s Washington Wizards, he recounts his excitement at the 1973 ninth Maccabiah: “It was a great sense of all these Jewish athletes from all over the world coming together and competing against one another, but there was a feeling of real brotherhood.”
Kaplan reiterates that the Maccabiahs permitted the world of sports to intertwine with Judaism, bringing international Jewry closer to its roots. Multiple athletes support his claim, including International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame founder and former Maccabian Joe Siegman, who described the Games as “a way of introducing people to Jewish life.”
Siegman added that “sports and music may be the wrong reason to get involved in Judaism, but they connect with people all over the world, particularly young people.”
Although Siegman’s view generally reflects Maccabiah ideology, his perception of sporting events and lively music as being “the wrong reason[s]” for people to become involved in Judaism does not.
On the contrary, through the Maccabiah, competitive sport serves as a motivating factor for youth to strengthen their Jewish pride, develop a deeper connection to Israel and become more in tune with their Jewish identity.
On the Maccabi USA website, president Ron Carner addresses readers with a complex question: “How do we make [our youth] want to be a part of the Jewish people and to preserve and perpetuate who we are?” His answer is far less elaborate than the question he poses, but nonetheless impactful and clear: “We reach them through sports.”
With a chapter of his work dedicated to each Maccabiah, Kaplan presents a balanced view of the “Jewish Olympics,” highlighting both issues and successes.
His wit, fluidity and straightforwardness provide an all-encompassing picture of the Maccabiahs, from the inaugural Games in 1932 to the 19th edition in 2013. His account is chronological and well written, allowing both sports fans and those interested in cultural events to follow him.
Although the State of Israel faces a multitude of challenges and has experienced numerous changes, the spirit of the Games remains relatively unchanged. With devoted athletes and adoring fans already anticipating the next Maccabiah, in July 2017, Kaplan may eventually need to publish a second edition of The Jewish Olympics: The History of the Maccabiah Games.