Giving Jews a Sporting Chance

In Israel at least, the stereotype of Jews as puny and unathletic still prevails, but a new museum show featuring the tales of 19 Jewish champions aims to rectify that error.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Helene Mayer
Helene MayerCredit: photographs from the exhibition at Beit Hatfutsot
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Sidney Franklin, born Sidney Frumpkin, left his Orthodox-Jewish family in Brooklyn at the age of 18 after a violent quarrel with his father. Heading south, he crossed the border into Mexico, where he was captivated by one of the world's cruelest and most dangerous sports: bullfighting.

A year later, in 1923, the thin Jewish Yankee from New York became the first American and the first Jewish bullfighter in the world. He attained world fame thanks to his friendship with Ernest Hemingway; the novelist was fascinated by the Jewish matador, who had won the heart of the Spanish people. Hemingway writes in "Death in the Afternoon" (1932 ) that Franklin "is a better, more scientific, more intelligent and more finished matador than all but six of the full matadors in Spain today. The bullfighters know it and have the utmost respect for him. ... You will find no Spaniard who ever saw him fight who will deny his artistry with a cape."

Franklin is one of 19 Jewish athletic champions from between the 18th century and the founding of Israel, in 1948, whose stories are told in an exhibition that opened last Sunday at Beit Hatfutsot: the Museum of the Jewish People. Entitled "The Game of Their Lives," the exhibition is a unique attempt to paint a comprehensive picture of outstanding Jewish athletes throughout the world, one that crosses geographic and national boundaries and presents a wide range of sports. It opens at the start of a year that will see the XXX Olympic Summer Games in London, and that marks the 40th anniversary of the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich.

"It is no coincidence that very little has been heard up to now about the amazing story of the Jewish bullfighter who captured the Spanish people's heart," says the exhibition's curator, sports journalist Adi Rubinstein. "He just did not fit in with the commonly accepted image of the weak, puny Jew from the ghetto who always gets beaten up by the gentiles."

According to Rubinstein, Franklin, who also happened to be homosexual, although he never disclosed that fact publicly, was a different kind of Jew: "He was an iconoclast who chose to lead a life that was far removed from what his Orthodox-Jewish parents wanted for him. He captured the entire world as well as the hearts of both women and men." Thus, he is a perfect example of the message that Rubinstein wants to convey in the Beit Hatfutsot show: "Contrary to what has been constantly drilled into us, not all the Jews in this era were weak. There were Jews who were strong athletes in the toughest fields of sport; they were celebrities, they slept with stunning movie actresses, they appeared in advertisements and they were stars in their respective countries."

Benny LeonardCredit: Photographs from the exhibition at Beit Hatfutsot

Victor Perez

Rubinstein, a 33-year-old Tel Aviv resident, studied history as an undergraduate. When he decided that he wanted to specialize in the history of sports, he discovered that, in Israel, research in this field was only in its infancy. For three years, working independently, he viewed material in archives, met with museum directors and collected documents, testimonies and photographs. The new exhibition shows the fruits of his research.

The people at the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town were surprised to learn of his interest in Jewish rugby players. At a stall in a Paris flea market he found a newspaper that was literally in a state of disintegration. Published in 1920, it featured on its front page a photograph of Victor "Young" Perez, the greatest of all Tunisian boxers - and a Jew. The Holocaust museum in Paris, La Memorial de la Shoah, provided Rubinstein with additional rare photographs of Perez, who died on a German death march in 1945.

Fascinating historical material also turned up in the United States. When Yael Zeevi, the artistic curator who designed the exhibition, was on her way to a Bob Dylan performance in Texas, she came across a stall specializing in the sale of old newspapers. Browsing through the pile of newspapers, she was astonished to find an official publication from the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. "This is truly a rare document," comments Rubinstein. "The people operating the stall probably did not realize what a find they had in their possession."

In Budapest, he met with a staffer from that city's Holocaust Memorial Center, who was hunting throughout Hungary for material about local Jewish athletes, the most famous of whom was Joszef "Csibi" Braun. Braun played with Budapest's MTK soccer club, a leading team. In the 1920s, he was a national hero in Hungary and the first Jewish soccer player to attain world fame.

His nickname, Csibi (pronounced Chibi ), is very familiar to anyone who grew up in Israel in the state's early years. The reason is the success of the Hungarian children's book that bore his name and was based on his story. "Csibi" was written by Bela Szenes, the father of Hannah Szenes, the paratrooper who was dropped behind enemy lines to assist partisans and was executed by the Nazis in 1944. The book, which was first published in 1919 and tells the story of a poor boy who attains social status through soccer, became a classic in Hungarian children's literature. In 1950, "Csibi" was translated into Hebrew and became a favorite among Israeli children.

Another Hungarian athlete, swimmer Alfred Hajos, was the first Jew and the first Hungarian to win an Olympic gold medal. At the age of 13, he began to learn how to swim, after his father drowned in the Danube. Five years later, in 1896, he participated in the first modern Olympic Games, which were held, of course, in Athens. Hajos, who was born Arnold Guttmann, won two gold medals in Athens, and was also the youngest athlete to win an Olympic medal. When Crown Prince Constantine of Greece asked him at the official banquet where he had learned to swim so well, the young Olympian told the monarch he had done so in the water.

In addition to being an outstanding Olympic athlete, Hajos was also a celebrated architect who took part in the planning of Olympic sports facilities throughout the world, especially swimming pools. His younger brother, Henrik, also won gold medals in swimming at the "Intercalated" Olympics that were held in Athens in 1906 to mark the 10th anniversary of the first modern games.

Brain muscle

The Bohr brothers, Niels and Harald, outstanding soccer players who played on the Danish national team, also, like Hajos, went on to make remarkable achievements in a field other than sports, in their case, science. Harald, the younger of the two, won a silver medal at the 1908 Olympic Games playing with Team Denmark. A few years later, he became a professor of mathematics. His brother Niels, who was goalkeeper on the team, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922, and today is considered one of the fathers of quantum physics.

"Today, you never hear of soccer players who win the Nobel Prize," quips Rubinstein. "Once upon a time, Jewish athletes had a hard time avoiding the stereotype that, despite everything, the most important muscle, as far as Jews are concerned, is the brain."

From the list of 200 outstanding Jewish athletes that Rubinstein compiled, he ultimately chose only 19. The screening process was not easy, he admits: "When people heard that I was researching this topic, I began to be flooded by phone calls, letters and e-mails. One person claimed that his grandmother had been the world's table tennis champion; another told me about his grandfather, who was the best weightlifter in one village in Lithuania." The athletes who made the final cut were all champions, "not just in their district or their kolkhoz," Rubinstein says with a smile, "but in the entire world."

The Jewish athletes included in the exhibition are truly outstanding - athletes like baseball great Hank Greenberg, who chose to sit out a key game in 1934 with the Detroit Tigers because it fell on Yom Kippur (the team lost the game, won the pennant, but went on to lose the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals ). Then there was Daniel Mendoza, who grew up in a poor religious Jewish family in 18th-century London and became England's boxing champion. Mendoza is considered the father of modern boxing; he introduced the use of gloves.

In the early years of the 20th century, several Jewish stars emerged in boxing, a sport that traditionally attracted immigrants and members of minority groups from the lower socioeconomic strata. "After they were beaten up time and time again, these Jews learned how to box in order to defend themselves," observes Rubinstein. "And then they discovered that they could actually make money from boxing."

Most notable was Benny Leonard, born Benjamin Leiner in New York (1896-1947 ), who is regarded as the greatest Jewish boxer of all time. He used to boast that no contender could ever "muss" up his thick black hair. In addition to being a superb athlete, Leonard was a dedicated Zionist who sponsored the American delegation to the Maccabiah Games in pre-state Israel.

Weak versus strong

"I grew up with the idea that Jews are always the underdog, that they are short and very bad at sports. In general, the entire field of sports in Israel suffers from a poor image; sports are considered barbaric, and athletes and fans are regarded as a bunch of loudmouths," notes Rubinstein. Needless to say, he adds, "the field of sports is not regarded as an appropriate subject for serious academic research."

One person who has managed to blend his love of sports with serious academic research is Hebrew University historian Moshe Zimmermann. Earlier this week, he delivered a lecture related to the exhibition at Beit Hatfutsot during a one-day conference organized by the Koebner Center for German History. Zimmermann blames the Zionist movement for the dismal status of sports in Israeli society; he argues that the movement is responsible for the marginalization of the Jewish athlete.

"Here in Israel, because of Zionism, we nurtured the idea of Muskeljudentum [muscle Jewry], a concept devised by Max Nordau that maintained that only Zionism could solve the problem of the weak Jew," explains Zimmermann. "This attitude was totally baseless. The Jews were stuck with an image that they simply did not deserve. The weak Jew was not a universal phenomenon; there were - and there are - enough strong Jews around. However, the strong Jews are not necessarily Zionists, and that's the punchline."

In Zimmermann's view, Jews became prominent in various sports - as demonstrated by the outstanding Jewish athletes showcased in the exhibition - in order to show that they were part and parcel of their society: "The only possible ways for Jews to become integrated into society in the past were either through sports or by writing literature in the language of the country they lived in. In Germany, for instance, sports activity enabled Jews to show themselves to be just as good as other Germans and yet to remain German Jews."

Athletic activity also allowed Jews to strengthen their ethnic identity. According to Zimmerman, research shows how "even in the smallest of communities, Jews tried to preserve their Jewish identity through sports. You did not have to hold a Torah scroll in your hands to demonstrate that you were a Jew. You could also join a Maccabi club if you were a Zionist, or a Schild club if you were an assimilating Jew."

Although the German community before the Holocaust numbered less than half a million, 40,000 Jews participated in some form of organized sports activity even during the Third Reich. "That's an impressive figure," Zimmermann points out. "It proves that engagement in sports was a refuge for Jews in Nazi Germany."

In 1933, the German government barred the Jews from the various sports associations. "This was the last place on earth where they wanted to see Jews and Aryans together, Jewish bodies alongside Aryan ones," says Zimmermann. However, the Jews were not prepared to give up their love for sports, even during the Holocaust period: "The most striking growth of the Jewish sports associations actually took place during the Nazi era. Although they were deprived of their playing fields and they were not permitted to compete against Aryans, they continued to engage in sports activity, as long as conditions allowed them to do so."

The most dramatic example of this statement was provided by the Theresienstadt camp, in Czechoslovakia, which had a soccer league for youth and adults. The league was extensively documented in the German propaganda film made in the camp, "The Fuehrer Gives the Jews a City." At least three of the athletes featured in the Beit Hatfutsot exhibition were murdered or killed during the Holocaust.

The token Jew

There were also Jewish athletes who enjoyed a favorable fate despite their Jewish background. The unusual story of fencer Helene Mayer of Offenbach am Main, a suburb of Frankfurt, is a classic example. Although she was a 1928 Olympic champion and a world champion, her father was Jewish and, in 1933, she was forced to leave the fencing club she had been a member of. She resettled in the United States. Three years later, however, Germany invited her to join the German delegation so she could serve as the token Jew, thereby silencing the voices claiming that Germany was persecuting the Jews.

Despite the protests of both the American Jewish community and American-Jewish athletes, she accepted the invitation and competed in the Olympics as a member of the German team. Much to the regime's disappointment, she won only a silver medal. Ironically, the gold and bronze medals were awarded to two other Jewish female fencers, from Hungary and Austria respectively. At the medals ceremony, Mayer, wearing a uniform adorned with a swastika, made the Nazi salute.

The photograph documenting her in the greatest moment of her career, which, in the view of many, was also its lowest point, is shown at the exhibition, although it is not given excessive prominence. "Obviously," notes Rubinstein, "her inclusion in the exhibition will arouse considerable criticism, but we were adamant about presenting her story despite the fact that it is the general tendency in Israel to blacklist her and ignore her completely. We have no intention of judging her; we simply wanted to present the story of the 20th century's greatest female fencer, who also happened to be half-Jewish."

A year after the Olympic Games, Mayer won the gold medal at the world championship in Paris. She spent the following years of her sporting career in the United States. Some of her family members perished in the Holocaust. She returned to Germany in 1952 and married, but soon later died of cancer at 43.

Although "The Game of Their Lives" ends in 1948 with Israeli statehood, which, according to the Zionist program, was supposed to attract "muscular Jews," Israel has not produced outstanding athletes. "Even though it is nice to have an Israeli Olympic bronze medalist in windsurfing, Jewish athletes from Israel have not made any prominent achievements. In soccer, we are very good at commentary but we do not know how to get to the right place in that game," says Zimmerman, an amateur soccer player who from time to time is also a television commentator for games featuring the German national team.



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