Sporting our skills

A new exhibition at Beit Hatfutsot aims to show that Jews have an impressive athletic history.

Alfréd Hajós 521 (photo credit: Hungarian Sports Museum))
Alfréd Hajós 521
(photo credit: Hungarian Sports Museum))
Are Jews good at sports? It’s a simple question, and one that would seem to beg a simple answer.
Not particularly. Let’s face it, how many worldfamous Jewish athletes can you recall without recourse to Google? OK, so there’s that handsome mustachioed swimmer Mark Spitz, who won an amazing seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics, and then there’s... there must be some more, surely.
According to Adi Rubenstein, we have some real sporting stars in our not-toodistant past, although we could probably do a bit better these days. The impressive exploits of some of the Jewish heroes of yesteryear will be displayed to the general public at the The Game of Their Lives exhibition which is due to open at Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People, in Tel Aviv on January 15. The exhibition is co-curated by Rubinstein, along with Yael Ze’evi.
Granted, the show is limited to Jewish sportsmen and women up to 1948, but the material is still pretty inspiring.
Consider the names of Daniel Mendoza, Benny Leonard, Victor Perez and Abe Saperstein. Ring a bell? For some of these athletes, the ring of a bell had a more than metaphorical significance.
For Mendoza, Leonard and Perez, during their prime, it meant that they had to come out of their corner fighting, as they tried to win yet another boxing meet. Mendoza is of particular importance to the sport and was a prizefighter and boxing champion of England from 1792 to 1795.
Quite simply, Mendoza revolutionized the art of boxing. In fact, he established the modern form of the sport. Even though he stood a mere 1.68 meters and weighed a paltry 73 kg., his ability to sidestep, duck and block onslaughts from far more voluminous rivals enabled him to become heavyweight champion of the world, and is said to have transformed the English stereotypical view of Jews as being meek, easy prey to people deserving of respect.
He is also said to be the first Jew to gain an audience with a British monarch, in this case George III.
“He was also the first person in the world to publish a sports autobiography,” notes Rubinstein. “His importance to boxing cannot be overestimated.”
New Yorker Leonard learned how to fight on the tough streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The lightweight boxer took part in no fewer than 213 professional fights, including 70 wins by knockout. He retired as world champion in 1924 (his mother told him to quit) but made an ill-advised brief comeback after losing most of his fortune in the stock market crash of 1929.
French Tunisia-born Perez was also a world champion, winning the title in the flyweight division in 1931, after being crowned French flyweight champion the previous year. In 1943 he was sent to Auschwitz and died on the death march that left the camp in January 1945.
But top-class Jewish sporting exploits have not been confined just to the boxing ring, and some managed to combined athleticism with excellence in other fields. In fact, Saperstein was not a sportsman at all but neither that nor the fact that he was all of 1.61 meters tall prevented him being posthumously inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1971.
London-born Saperstein’s contribution to that sport was the fact that he was founder and owner of the internationally renowned Harlem Globetrotters team from the mid-1920s until his death in 1966.
Another top sporting celebrity featured in the exhibition, Charlotte “Eppie” Epstein, also found success in a non-participatory role, and became famous for her groundbreaking efforts in gaining recognition for women swimmers. New Yorker Epstein founded the Women’s Swimming Association in 1920 and went on to manage the United States women’s Olympic team in the 1920, 1924 and 1928 games. She boycotted the 1936 games in Berlin, as a protest over Nazi policies.
Older Americans may also recall some of baseball player Hank Greenberg’s starring roles in the American League between 1930 and 1947, including stints with the Detroit Tigers and Pittsburgh Pirates. Greenberg was a five-time All Star and was twice named the league’s MVP. He was the first Jewish superstar in American professional sports and was nicknamed the Hebrew Hammer. He also gained national attention when he refused to play on Yom Kippur.
Rubinstein has worked long and hard to get the exhibition up and running, and says not only do past Jewish sporting heroes deserve their place in the Beit Hatfutsot exhibition, current athletes and sporting events in general deserve a better deal in this country.
“I worked on this exhibition almost three years. It was very difficult to convince people that sport has a place in museums. I want people to consider the achievements of athletes with respect,” he says. “I think sport should be an integral part of the higher education curriculum here. Here, people generally associate sport with hooliganism rather than culture. I would like that to change, because it is simply not accurate.”
Rubinstein’s current role is, in fact, the indirect result of his abortive attempt to make it as a pro.
“I played soccer and basketball as a youngster but, after serious injuries to my knees and hands, I realized I wasn’t going to make it as a professional. So I turned to the didactic side and I tried to get courses on sport introduced to the university curriculum. In countries like the United States, sports are an integral part of academia. That’s what I’d like to happen here too.”
For a start, Rubinstein would like to see more high-quality literature on the subject made available here.
“If you look at the section for Israeli sports books in any bookstore here you don’t find much, but in England and the US you have dozens of autobiographies by sportsmen and women, and loads of other books on sports, like on the history of different sports, or on the Olympic Games and World Cups.”
SPORT, AND particularly boxing, was of far greater importance than just winning a few bouts and, possibly, making some decent prize money.
“Boxing was the first sport Jews became involved in,” explains Rubinstein. “There was a lot of anti- Semitism and Jews were generally told to make themselves scarce. So some learned how to stick up for themselves.
Jews were generally considered meek and weak, but some started hitting back when they were attacked in the street.”
Jewish boxers made good progress over the years, social stigmas notwithstanding.
“In the first quarter of the 20th century there were Jewish boxing world champions in all weight divisions,” Rubinstein continues. “Jews started taking a stand, and later realized they could make a living from it, even though their parents disapproved – most were very religious – and the boxers often had to lie to them about how they made a living.”
According to Rubinstein, the Jews’ realization that they could stick up for themselves had a positive effect outside the community too.
“Jews starting helping African Americans to take a stand too. Hank Greenberg, for example, was highly instrumental in helping black baseball players make it into the professional league.”
And not just in the US.
“You saw that happening in other places around the world, like in South Africa and Europe. You see the Jew helping other ethnic communities, who suffered discrimination, because the Jews knew what it was like to be downtrodden by society. That’s an interesting element to sport that many people are not aware of.”
Harlem Globetrotters owner Saperstein also did his best to improve the standing of African Americans, and in the most poignant of circumstances.
“A few years after World War II he took the Globetrotters to Berlin, and he included Jesse Owens in the group, and the German audience applauded him,” Rubinstein explains. For those who may have missed a particularly important episode in Olympic history, Owens was a black athlete from the US who competed in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
This was, of course, at a time when Hitler was looking to promoting the idea of Aryan supremacy across the globe, so the sight of a black athlete not only competing in Germany but also winning no fewer than four gold medals was not exactly what Hitler had in mind.
“Saperstein’s idea was to make the most of the German people’s need to apologize to the world for Nazism and to bring the symbol of the 1936 Games back to them.”
The Globetrotters’ boss certainly rubbed the Germans’ faces in it.
“He landed Owens in the middle of the stadium by helicopter. He really made a show of it. Only a Jew could come up with an idea like that.”
Some Jewish athletes also made it to the top in other walks of life too. Niels Bohr, for example, was goalkeeper for top Danish soccer team, Akademisk Boldklub, in the early 20th century and in 1922 won the Nobel Prize for Physics, and Hungarian swimmer Alfréd Hajós won a gold medal at the 1896 Olympics and went on to become an architect and helped to create the benchmark design for Olympic swimming pools around the world.
“Jews had to fight to survive and that often helped to spur them on in sports and their lives in general,” Rubinstein observes.
Rubinstein hopes the The Game of Their Lives exhibition will give some of the great Jewish athletes their due and, possibly, give their modern day counterparts, and sport in general here, the opportunity to get some better press.
In addition to the show, a seminar will be held at Beit Hatfutsot on Jewish Sport in Germany, on January 16. For more information about the The Game of Their Lives exhibition: