Eman­ci­pa­tion Through Mus­cles: Jews and Sports in Europe

Michael Bren­ner; Gideon Reuveni, eds.
  • Review
By – October 26, 2011

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. 

Peter E. Korn­blum holds a Ph.D. in Eng­lish from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia at Berkeley.He taught Eng­lish in the High School Divi­sion of the New York City Depart­ment ofE­d­u­ca­tion from 1981 through 2007.

Discussion Questions