Jewish athletes from around the world gather every four years in Israel for the Olympic-style Maccabiah Games, and in the U.S., for the annual JCC Maccabi Youth Games. Most Israeli professional basketball and soccer teams preface their names with “Maccabi” (perhaps most notably the hoopsters of Maccabi Tel Aviv), and the athletic teams from Yeshiva University are dubbed — you guessed it — the Maccabees.
Does all of this mean Judah Maccabee was a superstar athlete back in the day?
Actually, history suggests just the opposite. The story of Chanukah was one in which the Jews — seeking to “Hellenize” — started to adopt Greek sports, only to have the anti-assimilationist Maccabees buck that trend as well as others that blended Jewish and secular lifestyles.
“Calling Jewish sports teams Maccabees is a contradiction in terms because the historic Maccabees were anti-sports,” said Jeffrey Gurock, a professor of Jewish history at New York’s Yeshiva University. He said the Maccabees’ goal was to “return back [to tradition], go away from these outside influences.”
Instead, Gurock said, the modern usage of the Maccabee moniker can be traced to 1898, when social Darwinist Max Nordau, founder of the Jewish athletic movement, coined the term “muscular Judaism” at the Second Zionist Congress in 1898. Nordau believed the existence of strong and physically fit Jews could defeat the classic stereotype that Jews are physically weak and instead depend solely on their wit.
The great rabbinic figures of the Middle Ages were concerned with physical fitness, but sports remained “something foreign to Jewish culture” at the time, Gurock continued. Nordau was looking to emulate Jews who fought against the world and were successful, and historically speaking, that idea was found most prominently in the story of Chanukah.
“The only examples we have of Jews who were strong and successful were really the Maccabees,” said Gurock, author of “Judaism’s Encounter With American Sports” (2005).
From that point on, Gurock said, the name Maccabees became a “badge of honor” for Jews pursuing sports.
Meanwhile, the same year as the Second Zionist Congress, Jews in Berlin founded the Bar Kochba athletics association, after which Jews in Galicia, Bulgaria and other Eastern European areas followed suit, according to the Yivo Institute for Jewish Research. Russia’s Maccabi society joined the fray in 1913, and in the 1930s Poland’s Maccabi federation included 30,000 Jewish athletes in 250 clubs, according to Yivo studies. Before World War II, “probably every European country from Poland on east had some sort of Maccabee team, or Maccabea Club,” representing “an expression of Zionist pride,” Gurock said.
The trend continues today, with numerous Jewish sports teams calling themselves Maccabees or something similar — including the teams at Yeshiva University. Why?
“What we like in modern times [about the historic Maccabees] are not so much their religious values, but their success in competing against the world,” Gurock answered.
In ancient times, he said, sports were associated with pagan culture and ritual rites. But in modern times, “the great challenge is to integrate that foreign cultural phenomenon called sports into Jewish culture, so that the two can live side by side, which is often a difficult task.”
Today, rather than a defiance of tradition, “it’s appropriating the idea of struggle, of success and virility, and power, which is emblematic of sports,” Gurock said.
So, even at Yeshiva University, the name Maccabees fits, Gurock explained, because the religious institution is particularly proud of its Zionist orientation.
“It’s the only place outside of Israel where before every game both the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ and ‘Hatikvah’ are played,” he said. “So what more can you say?”