The sports and features editor for the New Jersey Jewish News compiles a thorough history of a unique international sporting event.
Named after Judas Maccabi, “perhaps the mightiest warrior in Jewish history,” the Maccabi sports clubs sprouted in Europe during the late 19th century in imitation of student organizations from which Jews were excluded. Fueled by the Zionist movement and dedicated to resuscitating the “muscular Judaism” of ancient times, the Maccabiah Games held its first international competition, modeled on the Olympics, in British-ruled Palestine in 1932. Kaplan (501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read Before They Die, 2013) begins with that event in Tel Aviv and chronicles, in short chapters, all 19 of the Maccabiah through 2013, highlighting team results and outstanding individual achievements. Certain themes repeatedly pop up: the persistent money problems, difficulties in the early years with transportation and food, and the games’ increasing expansion and prestige. Other chapters feature unusual events unique to a particular Maccabiah, like the catastrophic footbridge collapse in 1997 or the exasperating NCAA interference on an athlete eligibility issue in 1969. Though Kaplan focuses mainly on the peaceful competition among the world’s Jewish athletes, he adverts throughout to the shifting global and regional scenes, the complex politics, wars, atrocities, boycotts, and terrorism. He also enlivens the narrative with numerous sidebars on individual athletes, some well-known (gymnast Mitch Gaylord, basketball player Ernie Grunfeld) and some stars of such lesser-known sports as judo, fencing, or tenpin bowling. Kaplan’s style is straightforward and upbeat, and he is insistent on the games’ importance and the inspiration they have offered. Sports fans will likely most enjoy the more unusual profiles, including the player who turned his back on the NBA to play for the Israeli national team or the gold medal swimmer who returned to the games 20 years later as a rabbi and spiritual consultant to the American team.
A useful guide to a significant sporting event that was “born out of exclusion and anti-Semitism.”