My Grandfather, Founder of Muscular Judaism

Let's admit it: Among our public, being an athlete is still considered the default for lowlifes who didn't do well in school and whose mother totally despaired of them.

Before replying to your question, members of the distinguished commission of inquiry appointed by Her Honor, Minister of Culture and Sports Limor Livnat, to discover the reason the Israeli Olympic delegation did not bring medals back from London, despite the vast amount invested in their training - allow me to introduce myself to you: I am none other than the grandson of Albert (Avraham ) Ziffer, who in 1895 founded the world's first Jewish sports team, in Istanbul. People even say we look very much alike, in our facial features. The photograph of him seen here, with chest puffed out and an impressive mustache, sitting in the center of his sports team, wearing the medals he won for (what is called today ) artistic gymnastics, comes from the sports history museum in Kfar Maccabiah, and has been used in exhibitions and books that deal with what's known as "muscular Judaism."

Why is it, then, that when I try to recall my grandfather - who in those exhibitions and books is portrayed as a multifaceted man who, in addition to his Zionist activity, was also a fencing instructor in the Ottoman army and a close friend of the man who would become the Turkish Republic's first minister of sports - why is it that I envisage a loudmouthed pest, deeply frustrated, whose wife, my grandmother, shouts orders at him in German - in particular, "Shut your mouth"?

The solution to this enigma lies in the question itself: The idea of "muscular Judaism" - which my grandfather embodied - and the dream of an athletic Jewish race never really got off the ground, because when the strong muscular Jew got home, his wife treated him like a complete idiot who should have become an engineer or a doctor or a businessman, instead of driving people nuts with his sports stories. That's the way it was back then, and so it remains in our time, too.

Let's be honest and admit it, distinguished committee members: Among our public, being an athlete is still considered the default option for lowlifes who didn't do well in school and whose mother totally despaired of them and is therefore ready, having no other choice, to place them in the hands of a trainer who will maybe make something out of them and will thus give the family some satisfaction. Of course, the newspapers and TV are filled with pictures of those who have done this and "made something of themselves," as they bask in glory. But the long-term investment in training for its own sake, in sports that are not aimed at achieving any immediate benefit, is still considered something that's done with teeth gritted.

Indeed, this is why we have convened, dear members of the committee: for a kind of confab to go over the bills and check out the profit-and-loss balance of your sports grocery. Amount of expenses vs. amount of investment. In other words, how many photos that could have been taken, but were not, of Minister Livnat with athletes returning home with the laurels of victory and thereby bringing honor to the ruling party.

My grandfather is turning over in his grave at the thought of such a reckoning. After all, this was exactly what the idea of "muscular Jewry" fought against. Its demand was that the new Jewish race stop occupying its brain with calculations and speculations about "How much money can I make from this if ...," and devote that energy to physical activity without seeking immediate gain. Look around you and tell me where, in which field, that idea is being realized.

I grew up in a home that made a laughingstock of my grandfather's fond hopes for an athletic Jewish race. I myself barely scraped through gym classes at school, and if I didn't get a failing grade it was thanks to my mother, the doctor, who under the nose of my grandfather gave me notes for the gym teacher, excusing me from class. My life developed in an intellectual direction, but here too, as in sports, I often found myself being ridiculed for not having chosen a more lucrative and prestigious profession than being an editor at a newspaper - a job whose point and purpose is grasped by few.

"I am the editor of the literary and cultural supplement of Haaretz," I occasionally say proudly at parties. My interlocutors thereupon give me a quizzical look and ask, "Is that a paying job?" Or, "What else do you do?"

The psychological revolution that my grandfather dreamed of did not come about in any area of culture or sports in Israel. Oh, Grandpa! You were a lot more successful in implanting your Zionist ideas among the Turks. They actually internalized them with greater than expected success, and as they lack pretensions in the realms of the smart aleck and speculator - they think a lot less about the immediate profit they can get out of everything they do.

But enough already, for in my imagination I hear the voice of my grandmother ordering me to shut my mouth. "Grandma," I call out to her. "How much you have come to resemble our minister of culture and sports!"