Love in the Days of Maccabiah

Is it the sporty, sweaty camaraderie? The excitement of competition, the emotional intensity of being in Israel? Whatever – the Maccabiah Games have lit the torch of many a romance over the decades.

There’s a lot of love swirling around at the Maccabiah Games: the love of sport, clearly, and just as obviously, the love of Israel – both of which are in the air. But for some, the summer games also end up being about another kind of love. The kind you put a ring on, giving a whole new meaning to returning home with the gold.

Bernie Kahn, 83, is one Maccabean with such a tale of love to tell.

In 1953, Kahn was the No. 1 Jewish backstroke swimmer in the United States. In high school in Brooklyn, he had won every championship possible: the New York City championship, the New York State championship, the Junior National championship and the Boys Club of America championship.

He got a swimming scholarship to the University of Michigan, and swam his way through college and into the U.S. Army, where he went on to win all the army championships.

It was perhaps no surprise, then, that one fine day “some organization” associated with the Maccabiah, as he recalls it today, 60 years later, rang up and offered him a spot on the U.S. team. Kahn had never been to Israel, which was all of 5 years old, and had only vaguely even been aware of the Maccabiah Games, which were taking place for the fourth time that year.

But he packed up, flew off across the sea with the 20-person swim team, and before you could count out one minute, 7.6 seconds, had captured the gold medal in the 100 meter backstroke race.

The highlight of this maiden voyage to the land of his forefathers, however, was not the record he set, which remained unbroken until the 1961 Maccabiah, or the cheering crowds at the Olympic pool in Haifa. It was meeting Yehudit.

“She was a very, very beautiful girl,” he says. Yehudit Tamir, who came to be known as Judy, just out of the army, recently divorced, and doing some modeling jobs here and there, caught the 23-year-old Kahn’s eye at a Maccabiah party in Tel Aviv, two days before his race.

“I have no idea what she was doing there, come to think of it,” admits Kahn, who became a screenwriter, speaking on the phone from his home in Los Angeles.

“She and her friends probably wanted to meet some good-looking American men,” Eleanor Berger, Kahn’s second wife, listening in on the conversation, suggests helpfully in the background.

In any case, Berger comes later. Back then in 1953 Tamir was the one, and before he knew what was what, Kahn was having dinner with her parents, waving to them from the winners’ podium, and promising to get organized and bring his girlfriend of a week and a half over to the United States for a visit.

“It had not been on my mind to meet someone. I was still in the army, with a year to go. But here was this gorgeous woman wanting to come back with me. And we were in love. So I was like, ‘good idea.’”

Back in Maryland, where he was based, Kahn contacted an immigration lawyer and found out it would take two to three years to arrange a visa for his Israeli girlfriend – unless, of course, they were already married.

And so he called her up and proposed.

“It’s good to do these things quickly,” he explains, “…as otherwise they can trickle away.”

Next up, he called a rabbi to get a letter attesting that he was a “Kaufman” (even though he was actually a “Cohen”) and could thus happily marry a divorcee – and, papers in hand, took a month’s leave, picked up his bride in Haifa, and said “I do” under a makeshift huppa in Cyprus, with the governor of the island as his witness.

Eight years and two daughters later, the couple divorced.

“I hardly knew her when we married,” he says. “It was a big mistake,” pipes in Berger.

“It was a Maccabiah game to remember. That’s for sure,” laughs Kahn.

‘Persistent and charming’

British table tennis champion Dov Katz, 38, has a happier story to tell, although it too features a beautiful Israeli girl and love at first sight on the sidelines of the Maccabiah Games.

A partner at the HowardKennedyFsi LLP law firm in London, Katz, a table tennis player, is co-chairman and team manager of the British international Maccabiah table tennis squad. As a junior, he reached the top 10 in the United Kingdom, and today is one of his country’s top 50 players. He has played in six European Maccabiah games and this Maccabiah in Israel will be his fifth.

At his first Maccabiah games here, back in 1989 when he was just 14, Katz won two bronze medals in the juniors category. That was a good year, he attests. In 2005, he was named Maccabiah Great Britain sportsman of the year. That was a good year as well. The last games, in 2009, were pretty sweet too: That’s when his team, playing in the Open category, won the bronze. But really, 2009 stands out for a different reason.

“It was July 10th, a Friday, and we had spent the whole afternoon playing football in Netanya. In the killer sun, which is obviously the worst kind of preparation for our games,” he says, recounting the events of that day. “And then we were on our way back for Shabbat dinner….and I saw this absolutely gorgeous girl standing there waiting for a bus.”

The girl was lawyer Perry Dayan, 30, today Katz’s wife, mother of his newborn son James and, for the upcoming games – Britain’s table tennis Maccabiah squad coordinator.

“I went up to her and said, ‘I’m from Great Britain and I’m on the Maccabiah team,’ or something like that,” says Katz.

It was, perhaps, not the greatest pickup line.

But she gave him her number anyway. “I was impressed,” recalls Dayan. “Not by how he looked at that particular moment, which was pretty sweaty. Or by his being a sportsman. But he did travel here for the games, and loved Israel, and I liked that. And he was down to earth.”

The opening ceremony was three days later, and Katz called her up the day before to tell her to watch him on TV. “I was persistent and charming,” he says.

Persistent though he might be, she skipped the opening ceremony. “I was extremely busy right then at work, putting in 12-hour days,” says Dayan, on the phone from Mill Hill in London, where the couple live today. “So I didn’t have the time to watch.” She was not, to be honest, even that interested in table tennis at the time. “I was more into ballet,” she attests.

But she did agree to a date a few days later, which is how the two found themselves out on the town in Tel Aviv having sushi and Champagne the following Saturday night. “We had so much in common. We talked about the law, and life, and just everything. I think she could tell I wasn’t just some old table tennis player, but a normal guy looking to be serious,” he says.

Six months and a few back-and-forth trips for dates later, the two got engaged. The wedding took place in Haifa a year later, and a year after that their son was born.

“I love Israel so much, and my connection to the Maccabiah Games is so strong,” says Katz, who is returning to play with the British team this year, with his wife, aka the new squad coordinator, and son, aka the team mascot, in tow. “It was perhaps my destiny to fall in love with a girl at the games. It really is fitting.”

The other games

For those who want to find true Maccabiah love but can’t make the trip to Israel, there is still hope, says Ariel Kincler, 32, a Canadian who started a Jewish basketball league in Montreal and plays hoops himself. It’s called the other Maccabiah games.

Take it from Kincler – for it was at the Sydney Maccabiah games of 2011 that he met his now wife, 27-year-old Australian champion Maccabean hoopster Naomi Berkovic.

“We Canadians had scrounged together a team at the last minute and went for three weeks to Australia. It was a very small version of the Israel Maccabiah games, with just a few delegations. And we were terrible and lost every game,” he recounts. “But it was a great time.”

Berkovic, a physiotherapist by training, who has been playing Maccabiah championships in Israel and around the world since she was 13 was “the heart and soul of her Maccabiah team,” says Kincler. He liked that. “She caught my eye right away, because she was so bubbly and outgoing and I could tell her team loved her,” he says.

After the games, the two emailed and texted incessantly, falling in love via their phones – and then he decided to make a bold move. “I sent her an email with an e-ticket to Hawaii,” Kincler says, telling the love story over Skype from Montreal, where the couple lives today. “I told her, ‘…it’s halfway between us. Let’s get together for a week.’” After that week, he says, “We knew we were each the one of the other.”

Berkovic says there is nothing inherently romantic about Maccabiah Games. But between the hotels, shared meals, bus trips, parties, hotel bar and, lest we forget, matches, the Maccabiahs are, she will allow, “an excellent setting” to spend time with lots of other Jews who share similar passions. “There are plenty of opportunities,” she says, “to find a special someone and make your own romance.”

Courtesy