Friday, April 24, 2009
The Jewish Olympics
This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 11 July 2005.
The 17th Maccabiah Games officially opened this evening in Ramat Gan. Dubbed the "Jewish Olympics," the Maccabiah brings together Jewish athletes from over 50 countries in what is one of the five largest sports gatherings in the world. Sponsored by the Maccabiah World Union, the Maccabiah Games' purpose is to strengthen Jewish identity and traditions through sport. Since the first-ever Maccabiada (as the Games were then called) in 1932, this celebration of Jewish strength and skill has been a source of pride for Jews everywhere. Or has it?
The other day, I turned on the television to the Israel sports channel and caught a program about the Maccabiah in mid-broadcast. One of the many people interviewed was a journalist for one of Israel's major Hebrew daily newspapers, who complained that the whole "Jewish Olympics" thing may have been okay in 1932, but that it didn't "sound good" in 2005. Do the Christians and the Muslims have their own Olympics? he asked. He then went on to complain about the amount of money it costs Israel to put on the Opening Ceremony, and ended by griping that the whole thing was unnecessary.
I guess I haven't learned my lesson yet. I'll admit it: I was shocked. How could anyone be against the Maccabiah Games? I wondered. Well, eventually I remembered that there are always people who are in favor of unpopular things, and against popular ones. So be it. After all, that journalist isn't all that different from those who told Yosef Yekutieli that his dream of "a worldwide Olympics for Jewish sportspeople in the Land of Israel"* was a pipedream. And yet, for better or worse, here we are.
The Maccabiah Games are not perfect, and they have been touched by disaster and tragedy. In 1997, a newly-constructed bridge collapsed, and four members of the Australian team died. Many others were injured. The memory of that day will always be with us.
Are the Maccabiah Games racist? I don't believe so. But then, I wouldn't be upset about an all-black or all-redhead Olympics, either. Not everything in this world must be all-inclusive. Of course, interacting through fair athletic competition is a wonderful way for people from differing backgrounds, who might otherwise never meet, to get to know one another. But gathering Jews from around the world, who might otherwise never meet - who, indeed, might otherwise never come to Israel - is also a worthy endeavor.
It's not just adults who come to compete. There is a Junior Maccabiah for teens, as well. Indeed, several talented youths have participated in the Maccabiah, then gone on to become famous. Remember Mark Spitz? At age 15 he won four gold medals in the 1965 Maccabiah Games, his first international competition. Some of the young men and women who will be participating in the competitions of the next ten days may well be the stars of the 2008 Olympics.
One of Israel's best-loved athletes is Tal Brody, who came to Israel for the first time in order to participate in the Maccabiah, also in 1965. He decided to move to Israel, and went on to become one of our most famous basketball players. Among his other achievements, he led his team, Maccabi Tel Aviv, to victory in the European Championships of 1977.
Of course, most of the Maccabiah's thousands of participants will not go on to become international sports stars, or even decide to move to Israel. That's all right. The important thing is, they are here now, participating in these Maccabiah Games. May they enjoy every moment of their visit here. Good luck to all!
* Quote taken from the official Maccabiah 17 website's history section.