Jewish Journal

Maccabi Games debunk myths about Jewish athletes

by Robert David Jaffee

Posted on Aug. 9, 2007 at 8:00 pm

ESPN radio host Doug Gottlieb, who attended Tustin High School, will serve as emcee for the JCC Maccabi Games opening ceremony at Anaheim's Honda Center on Sunday. Photo courtesy ESPN Radio

ESPN radio host Doug Gottlieb, who attended Tustin High School, will serve as emcee for the JCC Maccabi Games opening ceremony at Anaheim's Honda Center on Sunday. Photo courtesy ESPN Radio

Woody Allen's oft-told joke about the paucity of Jewish sports heroes reinforces stereotypes going back centuries. A noteworthy example comes from sociologist Edward Ross, a Protestant, who about 100 years ago had this to say about Jews: "On the physical side, the Hebrews are the polar opposite of our pioneer breed. Not only are they undersized and weak-muscled, but they shun bodily activity and are exceedingly sensitive to pain."

In the first half of the last century, American Jews refuted these stereotypes not only by dominating such urban sports as boxing and basketball, but also by enlisting disproportionately in the armed forces in World War I and II.

Some of today's star Jewish athletes from all around the world, at least those in their early to midteens, will get a chance to display their speed, strength and agility at the JCC Maccabi Games in Orange County. The games will open Aug. 12 at the Honda Center in Anaheim and will continue through Aug. 17 at the Merage Jewish Community Center and other locations in Irvine and Newport Beach.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the JCC Maccabi Games, which take place every year in the United States (unlike the Maccabiah Games in Israel, which occur every four years). More than 4,000 athletes are expected to compete in 13 sports categories at this summer's JCC Maccabi Games, which include contests in Houston and Baltimore this week, as well as in Orange County.

All of the Maccabi competitions remind us that there is no shortage of Jewish athletes, even if relatively few Jews play professional sports at this moment. Like most third- or fourth-generation Americans, Jews typically do not feel the need to box or play other professional sports for a living, a field that tends to attract the lower or working classes.

However, in Brighton Beach, a heavily Russian Jewish immigrant community in Brooklyn, Jews still crank out the requisite mix of prizefighters. And one need only look to the Israel Defense Forces to realize that Jews remain vaunted soldiers.

According to "G.I. Jews," Deborah Dash Moore's recent book on Jewish soldiers in World War II, Jews comprised about 4 percent of the U.S. military in the Greatest Generation. At the time, Jews accounted for roughly 3 percent of the U.S. population.

Even more impressive was Jewish supremacy in boxing and basketball.

In "Barney Ross," a biography of the 1930s lightweight, junior welterweight and welterweight champion, Douglas Century pointed out that in the 1920s and 1930s, one-third of all professional fighters were Jewish.

Similarly, in the 1930s and 1940s, Jews reigned in professional basketball. As historian Peter Levine indicated in "Ellis Island to Ebbets Field," even as late as the 1945-46 season, "almost 45 percent" of the American Basketball League's players were Jewish, and the top two teams in the league were the Philadelphia SPHAs and the Brooklyn Jewels, two all-Jewish teams.

Jews also predominated in collegiate basketball as late as the early 1950s, particularly at New York City-based schools like NYU and CCNY. Five of the top seven players on CCNY's 1950 team, the only school in history to win both the NIT and the NCAA championship in the same year, were Jews.

By the 1950s, Jews had pretty much disappeared from boxing, except as fight managers, trainers and promoters. By the 1960s, there were very few Jews playing professional basketball.

One of them, Larry Brown, the peripatetic Hall of Fame coach, was an all-star guard in the ABA. Before that, he played on the U.S. championship Maccabiah basketball team of 1961 with Charley Rosen, a novelist, basketball writer for FoxSports.com and one of Phil Jackson's cohorts in the Continental Basketball Association, a training ground for the NBA.

Of course, the biggest Jewish sports star of the 1950s and 1960s was Sandy Koufax, the Dodger pitcher, who won three Cy Young Awards, tossed four no-hitters and was Most Valuable Player of the 1963 and 1965 World Series.

In the 1965 series, he famously refused to pitch on Yom Kippur. Although the Dodgers lost that day and the next in his first start against the Minnesota Twins, Koufax came back to twirl two shutouts, one on three days rest, the other on two days rest, to clinch the title.

Since the 1960s, when Jews began moving to the suburbs and entering the upper-middle class, Jews have switched their athletic interest from urban sports to club sports like swimming and tennis.

From a Jewish sports perspective, the 1970s are mostly remembered for swimmer Mark Spitz's record seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, where 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were murdered by Black September terrorists.

Spitz, however, was not the only Jew to succeed in sports during the Me Decade. In the 1970s and 1980s, numerous Jewish tennis players reached the top ranks of the sport, although their Jewishness was rarely noted, except in the Jewish press, an indication of how far Jews had come in being accepted as Americans. Counted among the elite of tennis were Harold Solomon, Brian Teacher, Brian Gottfried, Eliot Teltscher, Brad Gilbert and Aaron Krickstein.

The prevalence of Jewish stars in tennis in the not-so-distant past seems to contrast with the publication a few years ago in the Los Angeles Times of the 12 Jewish ballplayers in the major leagues. That figure, which included Shawn Green, the former Dodger all-star now playing for the Mets, and Mike Lieberthal, the former Phillies all-star now playing for the Dodgers, may have brought back all the old jokes about lack of athletic talent among Jews. Yet 12 players out of 750 big leaguers constitutes 1.6 percent of the ballplayers in the majors, not much lower than the Jewish percentage in the country as a whole, roughly 2.3 percent.

The Southland has generated its share of star Jewish athletes. Besides baseball players like Green, who grew up in Tustin, and Lieberthal, who grew up in the Valley, other local heroes include basketball star and ESPN radio host Doug Gottlieb, who will serve as the master of ceremonies at the JCC Maccabi Games. Gottlieb was named the Orange County Player of the Year in 1995, when he was a senior at Tustin High School. Later, he starred at the University of Notre Dame and Oklahoma State; won a gold medal as MVP of the 2001 Maccabiah Games in Israel; and played professionally in Europe, Israel and the United States, including the Lakers' summer team.

All of which goes to show that Jews could still earn a living playing professional sports if that were their desire, but few make the journey in this era, given the significant presence of Jews in government, law, business, medicine and the media, all surer paths to economic and social success.

At a time when a typical American youth's knowledge of history begins with the death of Kurt Cobain, we can't be shocked that many kids are more interested in Paris Hilton, reality TV and their iPods than in learning about Jews of the past, even the Jews of the Greatest Generation who served valiantly in World War II, helped to defeat the Nazis and founded the State of Israel.

Though most kids haven't heard of Barney Ross, Hank Greenberg, Sid Luckman or even Spitz, these men are part of our history. By participating in the JCC Maccabi Games, Jewish teens will gain a sense of pride in their own physical achievements and hopefully go on to explore the past, a past filled with struggle, triumph and glory.

For more information, visit http://www.ocmaccabi.org.

Let the Games Begin JCC Maccabi Games athletes
The JCC Maccabi Games are returning to Southern California for the second time in their 25-year history, with the sophomore visit scheduled for Orange County, Aug. 12-17.

The Merage Jewish Community Center in Irvine is hosting the annual Olympic-style athletic competitions for Jewish teens, ages 13 to 16, which also feature opening and closing ceremonies. More than 60 athletes from the greater Los Angeles area and 312 from Orange County will be among the 2,100 athletes, coaches and chaperones representing 57 delegations from the United States, Canada, Australia, Great Britain and Israel.

The JCC Maccabi Games were first established in the United States to act as a feeder to the World Maccabiah Games in Israel, with the first North American Youth Maccabi Games taking place in 1982 in Memphis, with 300 athletes participating. This year, three cities are hosting the Maccabi Games -- including Baltimore and Houston -- attracting a total of 4,000 athletes.

The 25th anniversary also marks the first Maccabi visit to Orange County, which comes three years after the opening of the Merage JCC and one year after the creation of the center's Orange County Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

"We are thrilled to be hosting the games," said Merage JCC President and CEO Dan Bernstein, who is a three-time medal winning Maccabi athlete. "It gives us the opportunity to show off our fine JCC facility and to the athletes, coaches and chaperones all that Orange County has to offer."

Los Angeles hosted the Maccabi Games in 1995.

Team tournaments this year include basketball, in-line hockey, soccer and volleyball, while individual programs are slated to include bowling, dance, golf, swimming, table tennis, tennis and track and field. While the Merage JCC is a major site of the games, competitions will take place at 13 different venues throughout Irvine and Newport Beach.

The Maccabi opening ceremonies will take place at the Honda Center in Anaheim on Sunday, Aug. 12, with ESPN radio host Doug Gottlieb serving as master of ceremonies. Anouk Spitzer, daughter of slain fencing coach Andre Spitzer, will present a tribute to the Israeli athletes killed by Palestinian terrorists during the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. Olympic athletes Janet Evans, Jason Lezak, Mitch Gaylord and Dwight Stones will take part in the torch lighting.

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