February 23, 2012 | 9:22 am
Posted Ian Shulman
“So you are going to Slovakia to make a report about Jewish Winter Olympics in the mountains? Well, a kind of strange excuse for a winter vacation, Ian.”
Indeed, why did I go at all? I never liked sports, I’m not any kind of sport reporter at all, I don’t really get fascinated by mountains, especially when it’s below -20 C. After all, I met some people from local Jewish communities already and wasn’t expecting to hear anything new. When a cog train brought me up to the place called Štrbské Pleso, which name I could hardly pronounce partially because of its frosty climate, my only wish was to hide myself in my hotel and magically reappear in another hotel some 800m away, where the games were taking place.
Maybe the reason why this event surprisingly became my warmest memory of this cold winter was the warm welcome and helpful assistance, which were offered to me by Petra Mullerova, a friendly and active young lady behind the whole organizational process of the Slovak Maccabi Games. Another reason might be the stunning beauty of the High Tatras, the mountain range surrounding the spot. The third segment is finally the home atmosphere of the the largest Jewish event in Slovakia, which seem to avoid any kind of formality or pomposity.
That’s the benefit of being small, one advantage which a bigger community can’t afford. The organizers managed to gather a family-like get-together of 200 people, including the president of the Jewish federation and the ambassador of Israel. “Approach anyone, they are all friendly here” - assured Petra after having assisted me with interviewing some of the non-English speaking guests. Petra appeared to be right: at the closing dinner everyone was just going from table to table and engaging in new conversations. Peter Schwartz from the community of Kosice represents the older generation of Slovak Jews, which constitute a significant part of the community. Schwartz says that sports is something almost everyone likes, regardless of age, and thanks to this fact the Winter Games has become the biggest community event and the best chance for all the generations to meet and spend time together.
A relatively younger ambassador of Israel Alexander Ben-Zvi is an honoured guest at the games, but this status doesn’t interfere him from being ‘a good old friend’. For him the winter games is first of all a good reason to enjoy the close circle of the fellow Jewish people, as well as to fulfil his duty and to speak with them about some peculiarities of the Middle East conflict. I had a chance to speak with the Ukrainian-born ambassador in my native tongue, but did this fact alone contribute to this home-feeling, which lasted during the whole event till the next morning, when I headed towards Kosice?
The word ‘Olympics’ brings only sad associations when mentioned in the Jewish context, like Berlin Olympics of 1936 or Munich Olympics of 1972. In contrast with the official Olympics, Maccabi games is a manifesto. It breaks the anti-Semitic stereotype of a weak and sickly Jewish boy, it breaks the Israeli stereotype of a summer beach as the main sports venue. And if the European Summer Maccabi in Vienna, where I had a chance to volunteer, does it in a pompous and wide-scale manner, which corresponds to the significance of the event, Slovak Winter games does it unintentionally, both for the guests and for everyone around. Just like any Olympics, it is a symbol of strength - here, of strength and unity of the community.
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