Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

Explaining the ‘Maccabees’ Moniker for Jewish Athletics

December 9, 2012 10:27 am 0 comments

Basketball players from Maccabi Tel Aviv huddle up.

Jewish athletes from around the world gather every four years in Israel for the Olympic-style Maccabiah Games, not to mention the annual JCC Maccabi Youth Games in America. 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 the Maccabee was a superstar athlete back in the day?

Actually, history suggests just the opposite. The story of Hanukkah 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,” Yeshiva University professor of Jewish History Jeffrey Gurock told JointMedia News Service. He explained that 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” (muskel-Judenthum) at the Second Zionist Congress. 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 said. Nordau was looking to emulate Jews who fought against the world and were successful, and historically speaking, that was found most prominently in the story of Hanukkah.

“The only examples we have of Jews who were strong and successful were really the Maccabees,” said Gurock, who is also the 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. The same year as the Second Zionist Congress, Jews in Berlin founded the Bar Kochba athletics association, after which Jews in Eastern Europe (Galicia, Bulgaria) 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, YIVO said. Before World War II, “probably every European country from Poland on east had some sort of Maccabee team, or Maccabea Club,” Gurock said, representing “an expression of Zionist pride.”

The trend continues today, with numerous Jewish sports teams calling themselves Maccabees or something similar—including the teams at Yeshiva University (YU). That led Gurock to another question: Since YU is an Orthodox institution, shouldn’t it call its teams the “non-Maccabees,” to accurately represent the anti-assimilationist protagonists of the Hanukkah story? Not quite, he answered.

“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 said.

Though the original Maccabees were against the concept of organized athletics, Gurock noted that they were still the first Jewish group to raise the question of “How can you be Jewish and engage in a foreign cultural activity called sports?” He explained that in ancient times, 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.” The Maccabees ultimately decided that mixing sports with their Jewish lifestyle would be too inconsistent, Gurock said.

At YU, the athletic teams themselves—not the school’s administration—decided how they should be named. Originally the “Blue and Whites,” YU’s teams were the “Mighty Mites” from the 1940s-1960s, when they struggled against athletically superior squads, according to Gurock. In the 1970s, the teams adopted their currents monikers: the Maccabees and Lady Maccabees.

“It’s not today a defiance of tradition, it’s appropriating the idea of struggle, of success and virility, and power, which is emblematic of sports,” Gurock said.

The name Maccabees fits, Gurock explained, because the university 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?”

Jacob Kamaras is Editor in Chief of JointMedia News Service

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.

Current day month ye@r *


  • Blogs Sports Dodgers Power-Hitter Could Break Stereotype of Jews in Sports

    Dodgers Power-Hitter Could Break Stereotype of Jews in Sports

    Rookie player for the Dodgers Joc Pederson may boost the image of Jewish athletes if he can prove he has both brains and brawn, according to an article in the Daily Beast on Sunday. The piece pointed out a longstanding stereotype of Jews as more brainy than brawny, and asserted that Pederson could break the stereotype. Indeed, the 23-year-old’s “power-hitting” performance thus far has been considered rare among Jewish athletes. “If Pederson sustains his performance for any length of time, he could be the first respected, […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Israel Jerry Seinfeld to Make Comedy Debut in Israel

    Jerry Seinfeld to Make Comedy Debut in Israel – Famed Jewish-American comedian and actor Jerry Seinfeld is slated to make his comedic debut in Israel later this year. Seinfeld, who was born in Brooklyn to Jewish parents from the Ukraine and Syria, will perform in Tel Aviv’s Mitvtachim Menorah Arena on Dec. 19 as part of a world tour. The comedian is most known for his enormously popular NBC sitcom Seinfeld, which ran from 1989-1998 and is widely considered one of the greatest TV series of all time. […]

    Read more →
  • Food Israel New Video Shows American Kids Reviewing Israeli Food After Tasting Dishes for First Time (VIDEO)

    New Video Shows American Kids Reviewing Israeli Food After Tasting Dishes for First Time (VIDEO)

    A new video circulating online shows eight American children reacting — mostly positively — to their first taste of the famed Israeli eggplant salad/dip, known in Hebrew as “salat hatzilim” and in other parts of the Levant as baba ganoush. The clip, created by, features the youngsters trying a variety of exotic dishes from other countries as well, such as Hawaiian poi, Colombian pork belly and Russian borscht. The Israeli delicacies served include schnitzel, slices of pita, hummus and the baba ganoush salad. “If someone […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Features Pioneers/Philanthropists ‘Start-Up Nation’ Israel to Host Forbes Magazine Young Entrepreneurs Summit

    ‘Start-Up Nation’ Israel to Host Forbes Magazine Young Entrepreneurs Summit – Forbes magazine announced Tuesday that it will host its Under 30 EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) Summit in Israel for the first time in April 2016. The conference is expected to bring together some 600 young entrepreneurs, with 200 from Europe, 200 from the U.S., and 200 from Israel. The summit has been hosted in Philadelphia for the past two years. It will include presentations, speeches, a pitch competition, and cultural immersion opportunities in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Beliefs and concepts What’s That Huge White Bridal Dress Floating Over the Tower of David?

    What’s That Huge White Bridal Dress Floating Over the Tower of David? –  “What’s that huge white bridal dress floating over the Tower of David?” That’s what visitors to Jerusalem’s Old City asked last week. The wedding gown, created by leading Israeli artist Motti Mizrachi, is part of the 2nd Jerusalem Biennale for Contemporary Jewish Art, an event that blew into town as the Sukkot holiday got underway. Mizrachi, who lives and works in Tel Aviv, created the dress that floats majestically over the Tower of David, the main exhibition site […]

    Read more →
  • Features Opinion The Top 10 Places to Visit in Israel

    The Top 10 Places to Visit in Israel

    Israel is a holiday destination on many travelers’ bucket lists. No matter the style of holiday you are after, Israel has the answer. Whether you prefer to relax by the beach, hike up mountains in the desert, visit religious and historical sites, eat your way through the country or just enjoy some retail therapy, your journey through Israel will be one to remember. While there are obviously so many things to see and do, here is a list of 10 of […]

    Read more →
  • Pioneers/Philanthropists US & Canada Jewish American Fashion Mogul Ralph Lauren to Step Down as CEO

    Jewish American Fashion Mogul Ralph Lauren to Step Down as CEO – Jewish American fashion mogul Ralph Lauren announced his plan to step down as chief executive officer of the renowned fashion brand. The head of Gap Inc’s Old Navy brand will take over the position. The 75-year-old Lauren, who founded Ralph Lauren Corp. in 1967, will continue to serve as executive chairman and will continue leading the fashion house’s design team, according to a statement by the company. After the announcement, Ralph Lauren shares rose 3.79 percent while Gap shares […]

    Read more →
  • Featured Sports US & Canada Jewish Boxer Dustin ‘White Tiger’ Fleischer Scores Fourth Knockout Victory

    Jewish Boxer Dustin ‘White Tiger’ Fleischer Scores Fourth Knockout Victory

    Jewish boxer Dustin Fleischer, who said his quest is to become the first world champion descended from a Holocaust survivor, stayed unbeaten with a first-round knockout. Fleischer, nicknamed “The White Tiger,” moved to 4-0 with the defeat of Ira Frank on Saturday night in Beach Haven, New Jersey, near his home, he reported after the fight on his Facebook page. The 26-year-old welterweight has won all his bouts by knockout. Read full story at JTA.

    Read more →