At the dawn of the 20th century, Herzl’s close friend and colleague, Max Nordeau, argued that an authentic Zionism required a “muscular Judaism.” For Nordeau, a robust “new Jew” had to replace the troubled “nervous Jew” of the dispirited diaspora. Emancipation Through Muscles: Jews and Sports in Europe carefully traces the genesis and social impact of “muscular Judaism.” Michael Brenner and Gideon Reuveni have thoughtfully edited a series of articles on this subject, and the result is an engaging and deeply informative volume.
The book’s fourteen articles were first presented as the core of a 2002 academic conference held at the University of Munich. The editors have clearly organized their colleagues’ writing into four sections, beginning with the transition from “Talmud Jews” to “muscle Jews.” Each of the well documented articles examines ways in which competitive physicality and sports participation reflected both social “inclusion” and “exclusion.” Athletics could promise emancipation and assimilation, a pattern gradually erased by the systemic anti-Semitism of the 1930s. In this way, the editors remind us that “Jewish history cannot be reduced to intellectual history.” After all, “Jews had bodies as well as minds.”
The essays offer both factual substance and plausible conceptual insights. On the factual plane, for example, we learn that in 1925 Hakoah Vienna, a Jewish soccer team, beat the best European team, West Ham United, 5- 0 on their London home grounds. But the authors consistently relate notable facts to the interpretive goals of their research. Their well-supported thematic points also establish a continuity between the Jewish past and present. Sports have always been a form of struggle and battle. Innovative proponents of “muscular Judaism” envisioned its close relation to military training and “early plans to transform Jews to soldiers.” On May 14, 1948, with the founding of the modern state of Israel, the European Jewish Sports Association issued a collective appeal to arms: “We athletes must prove that we are the spearhead of the nation. All athletes must join in the campaign for mobilization in this historic hour, and be the first to volunteer.” Biblio, illus., index, notes.