By Ephraim Margolin

The stereotype of Jews as being physically inferior has existed for centuries. The otherness of the Jews, their insistence on being a people who dwells alone [1], and their characteristic refusal to assimilate has engendered a long and storied history of anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, much of this virulent anti-Semitism has perpetuated fallacious tropes, such as the existence of a “Jewish nose,” from as early as the 13th century. The advent of science helped legitimize physical anti-Semitism, which deemed Jews effeminate for their fast-style of talking, narrow chests, shorter arms, and flat feet [2].

Yet, the fin de siècle milieu of Eastern Europe, which gave birth to Theodore Herzl and modern Zionism, helped reimagine the Jewish people not as weak, nebbishy, and physically frail, but as healthy, strong, and able [3]. Max Nordau, a Zionist leader and social critic who was co-founder of the World Zionist Organization with Herzl, gave a speech at the 1898 World Zionist Congress in which he used the term muskel-Judenthum, muscular Judaism. He described a new type of Jew: one who is both intellectually and physically fit[4]. According to Nordau, “the victims of anti-Semitism suffered from their own disease, a condition he called Judenot, or Jewish distress. Life in the dirty ghetto had afflicted the Jews with effeminacy and nervousness.”[5]

“In the narrow Jewish streets,” he wrote, “our poor limbs forgot how to move joyfully; in the gloom of the sunless houses our eyes became accustomed to nervous blinking; out of fear of constant persecution the timbre of our voices was extinguished to an anxious whisper”[6]. While Nordau’s acceptance of Jewish stereotypes is incredibly disconcerting and his obsession with perfecting the body was unhealthy, muscular Judaism helped renew the idea that Jews could be whatever they wanted to be and that Zionism was the answer to the Ostjuden’s, Eastern European Jews’, ills.

Nordau’s muscular Judaism was a call for the regeneration of the Jewish people through the body. “We want to restore to the flabby Jewish body its lost tone, to make it vigorous and strong, nimble and powerful.”[7] He proclaimed that sport, which “will strengthen us in body and character,” was the panacea to the problems of European Jewry[8].

According to Todd Presner, professor of Jewish studies at UCLA, Nordau’s idea of muscular Judaism “was understood as a call for corporeal and spiritual regeneration” and that “National regeneration [of Zionism] would come through moral and physical rebirth”[9]. If only the Jews of Europe could defend themselves, no longer would they be pushed around. If only they had a homeland, as Nordau imagined. Nordau’s theory found a home with Hakoach Vienna. This sports club was founded in 1909 on Nordau’s ideals of what the modern Jew should be, and offered fencing, soccer, hockey, track and field, wrestling, and swimming for the roughly 180,000 Viennese Jews[10]. Hakoach, which in Hebrew means “The Strength,” was an unmistakable symbol of Jewish nationalism.

Fritz “Beda” Löhner and Ignaz Herman Körner founded the club and oversaw its growth after World War I. Despite Europe’s precarious financial situation at the time, the two benefactors added more sports to the club and built a stadium with a capacity of 28,500 people[11]. The sports club’s most successful team was its soccer team, which regularly competed in the Austrian first division. Hakoach won the league championship in 1925 and was one of the first teams to market itself globally. The team toured England and the United States unabashedly with the Star of David on its blue and white uniforms, drew thousands of Jewish fans, and became the first continental club to defeat an English team. Many of the team’s players also represented the Hungarian and Austrian teams in international competitions. Moreover, Hakoach Vienna’s success and Nordau’s theory were not limited to men. The women’s swim team also achieved astounding success, as documented by the 2004 movie Watermarks. The film tells the team’s story and focuses on Judith Haspel, a record-setting swimmer who refused to represent Austria in the 1936 Olympics because of Nazi Germany’s policy of anti-Semitism. The rise of Nazism and the desertion of many of the club’s star soccer players during the tour of America meant the end of Hakoach, but not the end of Nordau’s theory.

The modern state of Israel embodies Nordau’s concept of muskel-Judenthum. Nordau was a Zionist, and his ideal of the modern Jew was congruous with his vision for a Jewish homeland. Nordau’s image of the new Jews, strong in both mind and body, became an integral part of what it meant to be a member of the Halutzim, Zionist pioneers. The mores of the State of Israel fall directly under Nordau’s vision of Jews as a people able to adequately defend itself as a distinct entity, without the help of anyone else.

While Israel has been the paradigm of muskel-Judenthum, the stereotype of Jews as physically inferior still persists in America. The Jewish man is often portrayed (and portrays himself) in American popular culture as neurotic, nebbishy, and even sex-obsessed. From Alexander Portnoy to Woody Allen to Larry David, the archetype of the modern Jewish American male is far from the muscular and intelligent man Nordau imagined.

However, the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association (the SPHA) comes to my mind immediately when I think about Jews in sports. Like Hakoach, the SPHA flaunted its Judaism openly with Hebrew lettering on its jerseys and also like Hakoach, the team was very successful. The SPHA was the dominant team in the American Basketball league, the premier league before the advent of the National Basketball Association. Even still, the stereotypes of Jews and Jewish athletes abounded, often giving rise to anti-Semitic explanations for their success. “The reason, I suspect, that basketball appeals to the Hebrew with his Oriental background,” wrote Paul Gallico, Sports Editor of the New York Daily News and one of the premier sports writers of the 1930s, “is that the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart aleckness.”[12]

Growing up in suburban America, completely infected by my father’s love of sports and reading two sports pages every morning, I had very few Jewish athletes to look up to. Like the joke in the movie Airplane! in which a passenger on the plane asks for some light reading and the flight attendant hands her a leaflet entitled “Famous Jewish Sports Legends,” I similarly owned a book called Famous Jewish Athletes (although I will admit that my book was a little thicker). Yet, while the book with its stories about Hank Greenberg, Sandy Kofaux, Dolph Schayes, Nat Holman, Sid Luckman, Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom, and Benny Leonard managed to capture my imagination, it failed to hold it. Where were the great Jewish athletes of my day? Sure, we had Jordan Farmar, Omri Casspi, Ryan Braun, and Dmitry Salita, but Tamir Goodman never became the Jewish Jordan. None of them managed to be as successful as their earlier counterparts, or even as visible or self-identified with their Judaism as Tim Tebow, Jeremy Lin, and Manny Pacquiao are with their own form of muscular Christianity. And just as Franklin Foer likes to recount in his book, How Soccer Explains the World, I also loved to guess which professional athletes were members of the tribe. “Funny, Youkilis doesn’t sound Jewish. And Scheyer? Oh yeah, most definitely. Can Amar’e really be Jewish?”

Judaism is inextricably intertwined with sports for many American Jews. The proliferation of JCCs with basketball courts and sports as a means for assimilation has placed Judaism and the sporting world very close to each other. While Nordau’s theory of muscular Judaism is fraught with the potential for misuse and misappropriation, it can hopefully serve as inspiration for today’s Jews to succeed in athletics. By peering into the past feats of Jewish athletes and visualizing the future, we can create a vibrant new understanding of what it means to be a modern Jew and what athletics mean to (American) Jewry.

1. Num. 23:9

2. Hoedl, Klaus, Physical Characteristics of the Jews, (Central European University),  http://web.ceu.hu/jewishstudies/pdf/01_hoedl.pdf.

3. Stanislawski, Michael, Zionism and the Fin-de-siècle: Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism from Nordau to Jabotinsky, (Berkeley: University of California Berkeley, 2001).

4. Presner, Muscular Judaism: The Jewish Body and the Politics of Regeneration, n.d.

5. Stanislawski, Zionism and the Fin-de-siècle.

6. Foer, Franklin, How Soccer Explains the Jewish Question. How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, (New York: Harper Collins, 2004).

7. Foer, Soccer Explains Jewish Question 69.

8. Foer, Soccer Explains Jewish Question  69.

9. Presner, Muscular Judaism

10. “Hakoah Website,” http://www.hakoah.at/en/textedetail.asp?Block=1&ID=156.

11. “Hakoah Website,” http://www.hakoah.at/en/textedetail.asp?Block=1&ID=156.

12. “The First Basket: A Jewish Basketball Documentary,” http://www.thefirstbasket. com/story.html.

Published on page 15 of the Spring 2012 issue of Leviathan.

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