Root, Root, Root Against the Homeland

Immigrants to Israel face the dilemma of pulling against their native country during large sporting events like the Maccabiah. But a number of athletes who've hung up old jerseys for the blue and white say there's nothing better than beating the pants off old teammates

It is fortunate that interleague play did not exist in Major League Baseball back in 1935, when Babe Ruth made his debut with the National League's Boston Braves in the final season of his illustrious career. Imagine the prospect of him facing the New York Yankees in the House that He Built. It would have posed an unpleasant case of divided loyalties worth avoiding.

Switching sides has always been even harder on the fans. As athletes, the drive to win erases any sympathy toward their former clubs. Some fans hate players who don the jersey of an archrival - Roger Clemens (who moved from the Boston Red Sox to the Yankees, following a two-year stint with Toronto in between) and Luis Figo (Barcelona to Real Madrid) come to mind. When Sol Campbell transferred from Tottenham to Arsenal in 2001, Tottenham fans hung and burned his effigy. The entire city of Baltimore will forever hate the Colts football team for moving to Indianapolis.

A rarer phenomenon in sports is changing countries. How often does someone end up playing on a national team against the country of their birth? Athletes have defected from the former Soviet Union or Cuba, but given the circumstances do not necessarily get the opportunity to play against their former teammates. For immigrants to Israel, however, the Maccabiah provides a stage for such a confrontation.

None of these players face the prospect of being hung in effigy - passions for Maccabiah teams and players do not exactly match those in European soccer. And, as athletes, all Maccabiah members come to win for the country they represent, not the one they were born in. Yet, many of these players admit that facing their former homeland evokes a substantially different feeling than taking on any other opponent.

Israel's women's volleyball team is still dominated by immigrants from former Warsaw Pact nations, as the plethora of blond heads on the court attest to. Some of them hail from countries which won't be sending delegations, such as Bulgaria and Uzbekistan, so their loyalties will not be challenged, but for Tatjana Frage, who emigrated from Russia, she will have to struggle with conflicted feelings.

Frage articulates what some players may be reluctant to reveal or are not fully aware of. "It's always different, because subconsciously you are loyal to Russia," says Frage, who arrived from Russia in 2001. "You know the mentality. You went through the same experiences. It's not like playing America or a European team because it's so familiar."

Don't get her wrong - she is out to win. Watch a national team practice for a couple of hours and you can easily imagine how the day-in, day-out intensity of these sessions can forge an immigrant athlete's Israeli identity within a very short period.

Confronting one's indigenous homeland practically forces that identity to assert itself. Frage says it's even more exciting to play Russia.

"You want to prove something to them," the 37-year-old stresses. Frage will be rooting for Russia in the women's volleyball final if Israel gets knocked out, "though you don't want to help them get there," she stresses.

Team first

That urge to show up the old country remains for many players, despite the years here. "I want to show that Israel is just as good as any other country, especially the States," says Yaron Ben Israel, 56, who pitches for the men's masters (50 and up) softball team. "Israeli society is in my blood and America's like my competition, what I measure myself up to," says the Dimona resident, who became involved in the Maccabiah only after moving to Israel in May 1980 from Chicago.

"We've been training all year just to show America we can beat them," he adds.

The masters softball team is one of the few where immigrants strongly feature. Many sports, such as rugby or lawn bowls, which were once almost exclusively played by immigrants, have been taken over by sabras (native-born Israelis) as the game has taken root in Israel.

When rugby first became a medal sport in 1985, only two or three members of the 15-strong squad had been born in Israel; this summer it took time before officials were able to identify the one or two foreign-born athletes working out with the team.

One former member of Israel's rugby team, Dion Carreira, explains that the competitiveness with the old country is a function of time. "In the beginning it was more of a personal issue," he says, adding he might have made the South African team had he known about it. Carreira played in his first Maccabiah with the Israeli rugby team in 1997 at the age of 24. "Now it's team first," he says. "Now it doesn't matter if it's South Africa or Bulgaria, it's about winning as a team."

Dion's wife Jodi Carreira, who says she dragged him here about 14 years ago, was a key figure in importing women's netball, which is marking its 10th anniversary in Israel this year. Three-quarters of the national team are foreign born. "There is a sense of camaraderie off the court," says Carreira, who also did not know about the Maccabiah while living in South Africa but is preparing for her third one here, "but absolutely none on the court."

Carreira also feels competitive against her country of birth. "If there's an opportunity to beat them, you can't miss it," she stresses. Yet, she says time has distanced her. "It doesn't feel different [to play against South Africa] because I feel very Israeli at the moment."

Playing in the Maccabiah has definitely strengthened her identity, she says. "One of my proudest moments in my life was walking into the stadium representing Israel."

Knowing the competition

For Jodi Carreira's teammate Rachelle Stern, being in the country only two years affects her feelings. "It will be different because I know them," explains Stern, who came on her own from London, where she was a manager for the British Maccabiah team. "Knowing them will make me more competitive because I have something to prove against them."

At this point, Stern's Israeli identity may be stronger on the court than off it. She says that she feels no conflict playing against Britain. Rather it makes her feel more Zionist and reinforces her reasons for immigrating. On the other hand, "I'm very British in terms of upbringing and mentality. It's hard to forego that completely," explains Stern. "I don't think you can ever lose your British identity, but in other ways I feel very Israeli as well."

Softball's Adriana Luchansky, who moved to Israel in 2001, did feel conflicted facing Argentina in 2005, but perhaps it was partly because she was a coach and not a player. She had coached many young Jewish players at a time when the country had no women's Maccabiah team. She says Argentina didn't send its first delegation until 2005, taking the silver medal.

"It is hard in a way because you know Israel is your country but you grew up in the other country," she says. "All your friends are on another team." She says this time it will be easier because she knows fewer of the players.

Andy Nemiroff is a Canadian-born golf pro who immigrated here in 2000 and won gold for Israel in 2005. He never played for the Canadian team but admits he still has an affinity for other competitors from the Great White North. He says he tried out for the Maccabiah when he was 12 or 13 and got involved in summer competitions thereafter, but did not see the importance of the Maccabiah until after he arrived here.

"When I compete against Canadians I always try to meet them and get to know them," he says. "I always hunt them down an introduce myself." He is particularly interested this time in meeting Daniel Knight. Nemiroff's father Gerry called recently to tell him about Knight, because he has known Daniel's father Ray since he grew up in Montreal.

Though, says Nemiroff, "After this much time in Israel, that's it. We see them as any other team."

South African domination

Cyril Kaufman, president of the Israel Golf Federation and a member of the men's masters team, says that after 35 years in Israel, it makes no difference to him to be competing against his native South Africa or any other country. To him, South Africa is "history in my family life and my professional life," and nothing more than that.

Admitting he was not good enough for the South African Maccabiah delegation because "these were really hot shot guys," he nonetheless enjoys playing with his old golfing buddies.

Kaufman, whose wife Norma is a member of the women's masters team, explains that in his sport and age bracket, the teams are basically "Australian-South Africans versus Israeli-South Africans versus Canadian-South Africans versus South African-South Africans."

While athletes equally shed their dual identity in competition, it's hard not to feel some latent loyalty - within limits. Nemiroff says he always keeps an eye on how the Canadians are doing. "I'm always pulling for them to do well, but not ahead of us," he says.

And count on Dion Carreira to back South Africa, but only if Israel should bow out to the perennially dominant squad. "It's what happened in the last Maccabiah," he explains. "I wanted them to win more so we could say we lost to the eventual winners."

While Carreira says he'll "always have a place in my heart for South Africa whether it be the tri-nations or against the British and Irish Lions," by his logic if Israel loses to another country in the semis, he would rather see that team and not South Africa go on to win the gold.

There's no such issue, though, with Yaron Ben Israel, who insists he doesn't feel anything for the United States after living here for more than half of his life.

"As far as sympathy, it's zero. All I want to do is dominate," he says.

And what if America beats Israel to advance to the final? Without hesitation, Ben Israel replies, "I'll be pulling for Venezuela, or Panama or Canada or Mexico or whoever."