Mama Mia! My Mom's the Star of the League

Fathers and children watch from the stands as mothers star on the Newcomb court. 'Mamanet,' the largest women’s league in Israel, is proof that this variation of volleyball is much more than a trend or a sport.

Uri Talshir
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Uri Talshir

Dozens of women, mostly between the ages of 30 and 50, run around the floor of the Glili High School sports hall in Kfar Sava, warming up next to the tightly-stretched volleyball net. Their hair is carefully gathered, with black tights and colorful gym shoes complementing a meticulous sporty appearance.

Dozens of men drift into the stands. Some of them are pushing baby carriages, while others maneuver between chairs while lifting a toddler or two. Almost everyone is wearing backpacks decorated with cartoon figures containing a slew of accessories for tykes. “What are you doing here?” one of the fathers asks an acquaintance he recognizes in the stands. “You also got sucked in, eh? It just doesn’t end.”

It's not even close to being over; women’s Newcomb in Israel is just expanding and growing. The league recently launched its ninth season, and participation in the sport has swelled to 5,000 mothers across Israel in what has become the largest women’s league in the country. The game is similar to volleyball, an activity most Americans played in grade-school physical education classes. You don’t pass the ball or hit with your hand; rather you catch the ball and only then release it.

The iron rule is anyone can participate as long as that person is a mother. The system dictates that each player belongs to a team according to the school in which her children study.

“The time has come to set aside the title of mother and get on the court,” declares the woman running the opening celebrations. “The ball is thrown up along with all your troubles.”

The situation on the court is both surreal and optimistic. The mothers jump, pass and shoot the ball. The children cheer and the fathers look after the little ones, preparing their bottles.

“You need full equanimity from the partners, who give us the opportunity to develop and do what we love,” says Dikla Biderman, a mother of five who's started her sixth season in the hot trend. “My husband and I have a life together, but it’s my time. The children see their mom winning, learning what sportsmanship is and wanting to play the sport themselves.”

Throughout the season players are required to leave their homes two evenings a week to join in the activities − one two-hour practice and one league game.

Ofra Abramowitz built the venture from scratch. Her husband, Gary, is chairman of the Hapoel Kfar Sava volleyball club. She manages the women’s team. Nine years ago, she modestly launched the project, which blossomed into a unique social-sportive phenomenon.

“The maternal circle of life is dishes-laundry-kids-afternoon activities, and suddenly Mom gets on the court and turns into a star,” says Abramowitz with sparkling eyes. “She suddenly has meaning in her children’s eyes. She's not just the one who picks them up from school or ferries them to afternoon activities. They come to see h-e-r.”

The story of Mamanet goes way beyond the court. The mothers who devotedly volunteer in the boarding school clutch to their bosom needy children and of course enjoy the social experience, which rests on an enormous common denominator.

“I very much relate to the group aspect,” says Meirav Friedland, who plays in the top league. “Until today, I didn’t stick with any sports activity. I basically funded gyms without going to work out. Mamanet does it for me through the competition and the team. I'm among a company of women who or are more or less like me. It’s a wonderful experience, which takes me back to the days when we were young.”

Instead of banners for Maccabi, Beitar or Hapoel, the little ones wave signs of support and flags praising their mother, who is “great” or a “queen” for them.

“Since my son was in kindergarten, he asked me to promise him that the moment he would reach first grade I would join Mamanet,” says Hila Karni with a smile. “I thought maybe he’d forget about it, but I was wrong. He came to school, saw the cups and pictures, and it was important to him that I be a part of it. At 9 P.M., instead of being in bed I drag myself to practice. Once you start you get addicted. It’s something you get into and forget all your hardships.”

Some involved in the game see enormous potential. This year, as part of the vision of sportive and family awareness of Mamanet, a sponsorship deal was inked with Maccabi Health Services, which provides the mothers with nutritional advice and assistance with recovering from injuries.

“After all the diets that didn’t work, now I have more motivation,” attests Friedland. “I’m starting to feel like an athlete, even if just a little bit. It obliges me to look good and eat well. It really influences my lifestyle. I’ve been turned on, and I’m sure to go in with all my might.”

Abramowitz says she knows what attracts mothers. “It’s something strong that binds them, to belong to Mamanet is pride in the unit. It doesn’t matter what height, age or weight, anyone can do it. It’s not only the game but also a social hostel.”

Countless cars now bear the bumper sticker, “I, too, am in Mamanet,” while the number of league players continuously grows. “This mothers’ league is not simple [to organize]," says Abramowitz, "and I didn’t believe it would reach these proportions, but there’s no reason for there to be no culture of sport here. There’s no reason that what suits a mother in Finland doesn’t work with us.”

Abramowitz does not compromise on anything related to logistics − outfits, certified referees, volleyball players and coaches who pitch in, league tables and statistics through the playoffs. “The professional standard is the NBA, no less,” she stresses. “It’s not an activity, it’s a league and every mother gives her all and sprawls out on the floor. You say to yourself, ‘I’ve already left the house, I left everything and I paid for a baby-sitter, so let’s make it the best there is.”

No team can remain dominant for the long term because when a child graduates to the next school, his mother moves with him or her. The children admire their mothers and fall in love with the sport, and the women get credit from their husbands and find an empowering niche that embraces and develops them.

Mama mia, how come they didn’t think of this sooner? It’s amazing watching them, their technique and legwork.

Among the men in the stands is Arie Selinger, coach of the national women’s volleyball team. “It changes women’s perspective on sport,” he asserts. “Women in Israel usually don’t want their children to do it because they have to study and do more important things. Slowly, all those who wrote it off start to understand, to run and catch balls.”

While the women’s volleyball league barely scrapes together seven teams, the motherly folk version is spreading everywhere, with representation in Nahariya, Gadera, Mazkeret Batya and Kiryat Tivon. At the end of the evening, after a draw for diapers, English lessons and 2-for-1 children’s haircut deals, the mothers unite with the children and their husbands.

“So, how did we play? Not bad at all, eh?” says a woman to her husband, who holds a baby.

“What can you do?” she adds, wiping the sweat from her face. “This year Brenner Aleph is another level, slamming balls right and left.”

Mamanet.Credit: Nimrod Glickman

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