Jews and Sports


Rebecca Alpert is an Associate Professor of Religion and Women's Studies at Temple University. Her course, "Jews, America, and Sports," is one of the many courses taught through the Posen Foundation Program for the Study of Secular Jewish History and Cultures. For this back-to-school issue of Secular Culture & Ideas she shares the significance of this topic in the study of secular Jewish history.

When the idea of creating a “Jews, America, and Sports” course was first pitched to me by Laura Levitt as part of a new Secular Jewish Studies curriculum, I couldn’t believe my good fortune! At the time, I was beginning a new project on Jews and baseball. Many university professors dream and scheme of ways to teach about their research, and now my colleague was actually dreaming and scheming on my behalf. What a gift!

Studying Jews and sports as a way to understand secular Judaism made perfect sense to me. While for many people sport is a religion, I'm interested in how sport helps us confront questions of American Jewish life and understand Jews as a cultural group in the United States. Sports have provided an outlet for Jewish acculturation into the larger society, have helped Jews develop cultural pride, have provided an outlet for entrepreneurial interests, and have offered a way of rethinking gender.

I was surprised to find that for many of the students the topic of Jews and Sports was not an oxymoron—the stereotype of the unathletic Jew who doesn't care about sports was unknown to them. Class started with a clip from the movie Airplane, in which the flight attendant gives a woman who wants some "light reading" a pamphlet on the history of Jews in sports. It surprised some of the students, and then stimulated a really good discussion about how stereotypes are created and perpetuated but also how they evolve and vary. In fact, my most valuable lesson from teaching the course was that using sport as a lens is an excellent way to introduce the key issues of secular Jewish life in America.

For instance, I used sports to look at themes of assimilation and cultural pride, and to examine the contradiction that while sports are a vehicle for becoming part of American society they also strengthen ties within the group. The best-known example is Hank Greenberg, whose towering height, strength, and prodigious athletic talent were used by the press to show that Jews were "just like" other Americans. Yet the controversy over whether Greenberg would play in a tight pennant race on Rosh Hashanah (he ultimately decided to play) also exposed the nation, and particularly the city of Detroit—where he played and where anti-Semitism was rife in the 1930s—to Jewish practices for the first time. In my course we also looked at 19th-century German Jewish recreational sports like swimming and tennis, and then the sports the German Jews introduced to the Eastern European immigrants in "Ys" and settlement houses in the United States, in order to encourage fitness and Americanization. Then we turned to boxing, basketball, and baseball, the three most significant sports for Jews in the early 20th century.

Also on the syllabus was a discussion of the role of American Jews in the Nazi Olympics. I showed excerpts from Leni Riefenstahl’s film Olympia, and conducted a conversation about whether or not American Jews should have participated or joined the boycott movement headed by Catholic and Jewish organizations at the time. There were American Jewish athletes and leaders on both sides of that question, and the discussion brought out the important values and questions for Jewish life in America that this difficult issue raised. The 1936 Olympics, as well as other events during that time period, gave us a chance to look at the ways Jews were categorized in the American racial system.


Inevitably, with the subject of “Jews, America, and Sports,” questions of gender are raised. In addition to challenging the stereotype of the unathletic Jewish man, we were able to look at some wonderful examples of Jewish sportswomen. Although the study of Jewish women in sport is still in the “there were some great ones” stage, I enjoyed introducing the class to one of the great ones, Tiby Eisen, whom I’d just had the privilege to interview. Eisen, who played professional football for a short time, is known for her career in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which came to public notice through the movie A League of Their Own.

In order to broaden the scope of sports and secular Jewish life, I also included lessons on sport in Jewish history, Jews and sports in modern Europe, and how sport developed in Israel as part of the Zionist vision. The course concluded by looking at fans and the role they (actually, in this course, it was "we") play in the economic and communal dimensions of sports. I've had many people tell me they wish a course like this had been available when they were in school. As academic research on the subject continues, more people will realize how well we can tell the story of American Jewish life and Jewish culture through the lens of sport.

Rabbi Rebecca T. Alpert is Associate Professor of Religion and Women's Studies at Temple University. She is author of Whose Torah? A Concise Guide to Progressive Judaism that was published in 2008 by The New Press. She is currently at work on a book on Jews in Black Baseball.