Out There: A Jew's guide to the Olympics

Explaining to the kids whom to cheer - and whom to jeer.

herb keinon (photo credit: )
herb keinon
(photo credit: )
Few are the things that make me feel more inadequate than being around parents who seize every opportunity, but every opportunity, to educate their children. These are the parents who when walking their children to the corner grocery in the evening will gaze at the stars and explain the orbits of the planets; who when buying a lamp will explain the principles of electricity; who when in synagogue will take advantage of the dead time - like when the Torah is being returned to the ark - to point out an interesting Ramban on the parasha to their kids. Those parents make me nervous, because I look at them and wonder why I can't be like that, why I can't take full advantage of every single moment with the kids to enrich their knowledge. Once my youngest son asked me how steel was made, and I couldn't answer him, even after looking it up on Wikipedia. The only scientific process I can explain is how they make Coca-Cola, and that's just because I once visited the Coke museum in Atlanta. When I walk with the kids to the corner grocery, I tell them what they won't be able to buy. When I take them with me to buy a lamp, I warn how hard it will be to take it out of the box and put it together. And that dead time in shul I just use to space out. EXCEPT DURING the Olympics. When the Olympics come around I'm in my element, able to use the two weeks of games and ceremonies to educate my kids in many different spheres: geography, Jewish history, current events and family history. "Abba," the youngest son asks, as I command that he clap for the small but proud Haitian delegation walking into the Olympic Stadium in Beijing. "Why do I have to root for Haiti?" "Because Haiti let your grandmother in after the Holocaust, son," I reply, somewhat annoyed. "You should know that. We cheered for them last time." "Abba," the third child asks, as I prod him to cheer the Portuguese delegation. "Why am I happy to see Portugal?" "Because of the Azores, son, the Azores. Have you not heard of the Azores? The Azores belong to Portugal, and Portugal let the US refuel its planes there when it was airlifting arms to Israel during the Yom Kippur War. No other European country would do that. Cheer, son, cheer!" "Abba," the daughter asks, noticing that I'm not booing the entrance of the French, as I did four years ago. "Why aren't you screaming at the French? I thought we hate the French." "No dear," I explain. "We don't hate the French, we don't hate whole peoples. We never hated the French, we just intensely disliked the French government under George Pompidou, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac. But now Nicolas Sarkozy is in charge, so we actually like the French." And on and on it goes, a gold mine of educational opportunities for the conscientious parent, the parent who never lets an educational opportunity slip by. Actually, this is a very Jewish way of watching the Olympics, cheering or cursing the countries depending on their record toward the Jews and Israel. Spain we boo, as we do Germany, Russia, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Ukraine for the sins they committed against us in the past. Ireland, Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden we boo because of their hypocrisy and unfriendliness to Israel over the last decade. Romania and the Czech Republic we cheer loudly, because they are now about as pro-Israel as you can get. Bulgaria gets a big round of applause because that country didn't turn its Jews over to the Nazis. And I never know exactly what to do with England. As for Iran and Syria, when they walk into the Olympic Stadium my home sounds like Purim after the Megilla reader just said "Haman." I did not invent this uniquely Jewish way of watching the Olympics, I got it from my parents, who themselves cheered and jeered depending on a country's attitudes toward the Jews. But things have changed since then. Then my four favorite countries were - in this order - Israel, even though I didn't live here yet; the US, both because it was my native country and was very good to the Jews; Holland and Haiti. Why Holland? Because that's where my mother hid during the Holocaust. I used to cheer wildly for their cyclists and - in the winter Olympics - for their speed skaters. My favorite names in the Olympics always started with van der. Until I grew up and realized that while Holland gave refuge to my mom, the Dutch behavior to the Jews was not so great. For years I bought into the myth - as I explained to the kids when the Dutch women's swimming relay team took to the pool - that during the Holocaust Holland stood apart from the rest of Europe with regard to the Jews. It didn't. I remember once in college having a discussion about the Olympics with a close friend from South Dakota, a Lutheran guy of Norwegian ancestry who showed no particular sympathy for Norway's national team, or any antipathy for anybody who once defeated the Vikings. It was 1984, an Olympic year, and he was stunned when I told him how we Jews sit around and watch the games. "Can't you just root for the best athletes?" he asked. "Are you kidding?" I replied. "Not if their ancestors had a hand in the Inquisition."