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Famous Jewish Sports Legends

Nathan Abrams.

Air Stewardess: Would you be interested in some reading material?

Passenger: Do you have something light?

Air Stewardess: How about this pamphlet, ‘Famous Jewish Sports Legends?’

As the Olympics are currently underway, it’s apt to examine the connection between Jews, sports, and film. The movie “Airplane,” directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker in 1980, features a joke that illustrates a longstanding facet of Jewish humor suggesting that Jews are not inclined towards sports.

This notion stems from the merging of self-images of the Jewish body with anti-Semitic depictions. Traditional Jewish culture, including Rabbinic teachings and Yiddishkeit (Jewish culture in Yiddish), often valued qualities such as timidity, meekness, physical fragility, and gentleness.

Annie Hall is a famous Jewish sports legend
Annie Hall is a 1977 American satirical romantic comedy-drama film by Woody Allen and starring Allen and Diane Keaton.

This cultural perspective idealized the scholarly Jew who preferred indoor study, distancing himself from the realms of labor and warfare. This characterization portrayed the figure as soft, gentle, weak, and lacking physical activity. The stereotype of the ‘sissy’ Diaspora Jew portrayed him as intellectual but insufficiently, incompetently, and inadequately masculine.

Anti-Semitic biases in the nineteenth century labeled him as a ‘nonmale,’ an ‘unmanly man,’ feminized, effeminate, gentle, timid, studious, and delicate. He typically avoided manual labor, exercise, and body maintenance, dedicating his life to studying the Torah.

Stereotypes And Jewish Identity In Film: A Historical Perspective

Prevalent anti-Semitic prejudices in the nineteenth century rooted the characterization of the Jew in perceptions of unmanly passivity, weakness, hysteria, and pathology, specifically associating these traits with appearance and physical attributes. The Jew’s legs and feet were depicted as non-athletic and deemed unsuitable for nature, sports, warfare, brutality, and violence.

In alignment with these stereotypes, cinematic representations of Jews, dating back to the early days of the film industry, depicted them as weak, small, non-athletic urban figures, often associated with specific trades like tailoring, peddling, pawnbrokering, or resembling the Shylock archetype of a moneylender. Films seldom portrayed Jews in diverse roles.

The cinematic portrayal emphasized their intelligence, cleverness, and verbal acuity over physical prowess, perpetuating the stereotype that Jews possessed more brains than brawn. This cinematic trend persisted for decades, diminishing the recognition of Jewish participation in sports, despite the reality of their extensive involvement.

Read: Court On Canvas: Tennis In Art

Challenging Stereotypes: Jewish Identity And Sports In Cinematic Comedy

Moreover, the enduring stereotype of the nonathletic Jew has often served as material for comedic purposes. For instance, in “The Hebrew Hammer” (directed by Jonathan Kesselman in 2003), the expected presence of members from the ‘Coalition of Jewish Athletes’ is humorously absent. Although this stereotype doesn’t accurately reflect reality, cinematic portrayals of Jewish athletes have been notably scarce. In U.S. cinema, depictions of Jews engaging in sports are often for recreational purposes rather than in a seriously competitive or professional context.

Examples include the ‘Jewish Children’s Polo League’ riding Shetland ponies instead of horses in “A Mighty Wind” (directed by Christopher Guest in 2003), or various comedic portrayals of Jews playing casual basketball in films like “Keeping the Faith” (directed by Edward Norton in 2000), “Eight Crazy Nights” (directed by Seth Kearsley in 2002), “Along Came Polly” (directed by John Hamburg in 2004), and “Prime” (directed by Ben Younger in 2005). Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) in “The Big Lebowski,” directed by Joel and Ethan Coen in 1998, dedicates himself primarily to ten-pin bowling, taking it extremely seriously as a leisure activity.

Similarly, while racket sports appear in Woody Allen’s films, they are not portrayed with a sense of seriousness. In “Manhattan” (1977), Allen engages in squash, utilizing the court, racquet, and ball, but the scene depicts him merely hitting the ball rather than actively playing the game. Additionally, Allen is shown playing tennis in “Annie Hall” (1979), with references to tennis and related props recurring throughout the film. The sport is a central theme, trope, and title in “Match Point” (2005).

Underrepresented Champions: Jews In Boxing and Film

Surprisingly, boxing, a sport in which Jews had a significant historical presence in Britain and the US, is notably absent in cinematic portrayals considering the considerable number of Jewish boxers. The late 18th century was a golden period for Jewish boxing. Peter Sellers’ maternal ancestor, Daniel Mendoza, is credited with introducing scientific innovations to the sport.

By the turn of the twentieth century, a new wave of Jewish working-class pugilists emerged in London and New York due to renewed Eastern European immigration.

While there have been films featuring Jewish boxers, such as “His People” (directed by Edward Sloman in 1925), “Body and Soul” (directed by Robert Rossen in 1947), “Métisse” (directed by Mathieu Kassovitz in 1993), “Jakob the Liar” (directed by Peter Kassovitz in 1999), and “Cinderella Man” (directed by Ron Howard in 2005), they are exceptions that defy the Jewish weakling stereotype.

Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) was an avid admirer of Mendoza, evidenced by the boxer’s prints displayed in his apartment in the “Pink Panther” series. Despite such instances, the films are few and fail to capture the historical Jewish dominance in boxing during the eighteenth and early twentieth centuries. Additionally, references to ethnicity are often subtle and easily missed in these portrayals.

Portrayal Of Israeli Athletes In Cinema

Moreover, the limited instances of Israeli athletes appearing on screen often depict them in scenes of violence and peril. In the more recent film “The Dictator” (directed by Larry Charles in 2012), for instance, the main character, Admiral General Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen), engages in a cartoon video game centered around the murder of the eleven Israelis during the 1972 Munich Olympics.

The game portrays the player as a first-person shooter terrorist targeting Israelis. Similarly, in “Munich” (directed by Steven Spielberg in 2005), the film reconstructs the Israeli government’s response to the massacre during the same event.

Diverging Narratives: Jewish Athletes In Cinema

Though cinema does not frequently portray Jewish athletes, some exceptions exist that showcase their athletic abilities. In films like “Chariots of Fire” (directed by Hugh Hudson in 1981), sprinting becomes a defining element for serious Jewish characters. Similarly, fencing takes center stage in “Sunshine” (directed by Istvan Szabo in 1999), and cricket plays a pivotal role in “Wondrous Oblivion” (directed by Paul Morrison in 2003).

Expanding the scope to non-fiction films, documentaries have featured Jews in sports such as chess (“Bobby Fischer Against the World,” directed by Liz Garbus in 2011), baseball (“The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” directed by Aviva Kempner in 1998), and swimming (“Watermarks,” directed by Yaron Zilberman in 2004).

In these instances, sports serve as a means for Jews to assimilate, highlighting the tension between ethnic specificity and mainstream culture, as well as the ongoing struggle to find acceptance.

Demonstrating why mainstream fiction cinema consistently overlooks the Jewish impact on sports history is challenging. One theory suggests that it challenges two common stereotypes – the weak and non-athletic Jew. These stereotypes portray Jews as passive and powerless, not capable of victimizing others or humiliating them.

However, this doesn’t fully elucidate why Jewish individuals in influential roles, including executives, directors, screenwriters, actors, and actresses, perpetuate these negative stereotypes. This remains an unanswered question.

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Prakriti Paudel
Prakriti Paudel
Prakriti Paudel, a meticulous editor and insightful writer, navigates the realms of storytelling with precision and creativity.

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