Jewish Journal

18th Maccabiah Opens in Ramat Gan Stadium

by Gina Lobaco

July 14, 2009 | 5:37 pm

Maccabiah youth bear flags of participating nations.

          The opening ceremony last night at Ramat Gan was an incongruous mixture of kitschy theatricality and truly uplifting communal values.  Security is obviously intense at an event like this, but even so, ticketholders got to their seats by 8 p.m. and then began a bit of a wait for the show to begin.

          Even in this worldwide recession, the 18th Maccabiah is the largest ever and the U.S. delegation with 900 athletes was announced last night as the “largest traveling sports delegation ever at any time at any sporting event.”  And there were many amazing stories behind the various delegations who streamed into the stadium.  But first, spectators viewed   an opening spectacle of little girls in leotards riding lighted bikes in formation.  .

President Shimon Peres (who received the No. 1 athlete number) arrived by limo in the stadium to a warm reception from the crowd.  He joined Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, (No. 2 athlete)  who was already seated in the stands, and who received a reception from the crowd that can only be described as tepid .

But when the delegations started streaming into the stadium, that’s when the magic began. 

Marching in alef-bet order, first came five athletes from Uzbekistan.  They filed into the stadium in huge numbers that seemed to never end—like the Canadians, Australians and Team USA.  Or they marched alone as solitary athletes, like the single participants from Uruguay, Moldova and Slovenia.  It was terribly poignant to see only three athletes from Romania, a country that pre-Shoa was home to a vibrant and robust Jewish community.  There were Jews from Guatemala, Peru and Chile and Greece and Turkey—and two from Kazakhstan and 12 from Azerbaijan .  The Italians had a small group, but received a huge response from the crowd. 

One of the most amazing stories was the India cricket team, whose participation was enabled by L.A.’s Committee of 18 led by the indefatigable Steve Soboroff who raised the money to bring them here after the Mumbai massacres last year.  They had nothing whatsoever—no equipment, shoes, clothes.  Yet they strode into the stadium looking sharp and joyous in handsome tan suits and ties.  They had just won their first victory that day, defeating Israel 134-127. 

The Israeli delegation, 2000 strong, entered last and by that time the center field was alive with the bright colors of flags from so many nations and their athletes trading pins, caps and even stripping off team uniforms to trade with other participants.  The Mexican delegation’s big gold-stitched sombreros were greatly prized as trade items.

A moving Yizkor ceremony commemorated the four Australian athletes who died in 1997 when a pedestrian bridge collapsed and plunged them into the Yarkon River where they died from exposure to severe pollution. 

Basketball great Tal Brody administered the Maccabiah other, politicians—including Bibi—spoke and the torch was lit by U.S. Olympian Jason Lezak and Hatikvah was movingly sung by Ayala Ingedeshet, a gorgeous Ethiopian Israel.  After all that, you’d think the evening would end on a hig h note with fireworks and lots of great emotion in the crowd and athletes.  But, as they say, you would be wrong.

I guess when it comes to mass entertainment, Israelis definitely believe more is more.  So we were treated to, “Desert Tree Home,” an utterly unfathomable “live musical” in three acts .  It purported to tell the story of our people (“searching wayferers”), dreaming of a moon to light the path to find a tree, to find purpose, to find identity, to build a home, to find the state of Israel?  Think of it as Cirque du Soleil channeling Zionism.

The artistic choices may be puzzling but Tthis being Israel, lots of criticisms have been directed at the organizers of the Maccabiah for other more serious reasons.  The link to an article from today’s Jerusalem Post talks about the poor accommodation that many athletes encountered—despite paying pretty hefty fees to participate.  Most athletes pay their own way and some delegations can provide subsidies and stipends to those who cannot.  But the JP contends that many athletes are priced out of the games for a variety of reasons, consequently leaving behind many talented athletes and that the Maccabiah should not be an event for “rich Jews” only.l.  http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1246443799468&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull

          The symbolism in Desert Tree Home may have indulged in too much creative license, with no bearded allusions to Herzl and the undulating tree looked more like the result of a high-school “TP” prank.  But the athletes and the spectators certainly got what they came for—and a whole lot more.

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