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 *


  • Arts and Culture Features Opinion Playwrite Iddo Netanyahu: ‘Hitler Always Talked About Peace’ (INTERVIEW)

    Playwrite Iddo Netanyahu: ‘Hitler Always Talked About Peace’ (INTERVIEW)

    Late Friday night, on November 13, I was headed for bed when an ominous news bulletin flashed across my computer screen – something about a shooting in Paris. It wasn’t long before the “small number” of shootings and casualties began to double and triple and quadruple. The locations of attacks seemed crazily disorganized, and the tweets and videos became more and more horrifying. It was a long night for many stunned observers. We tried to understand what was happening, and […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Theater BDS Gives Belgian-Jewish Actress New Lease on Life in Tel Aviv

    BDS Gives Belgian-Jewish Actress New Lease on Life in Tel Aviv

    In an interview with the Israeli site nrg on Wednesday, Belgian-Jewish stage actress Noemi Schlosser recounted immigrating to Israel after her career in Europe was destroyed by BDS. Schlosser said she had enjoyed success in Belgium and international acclaim until she was targeted by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement for her pro-Israel stance during Operation Protective Edge — last summer’s war against Hamas in Gaza. She described watching the theaters where she performed go from packed to nearly empty over a short period of […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Sports In Israel for Champions League Soccer Match, Chelsea Manager Says Team Not Worried About Security Situation

    In Israel for Champions League Soccer Match, Chelsea Manager Says Team Not Worried About Security Situation

    The manager of the Chelsea Football Club said on Monday that he is looking forward to playing in Israel this week against Maccabi Tel Aviv, in spite of the security situation, Israeli news site nrg reported. Jose Murinho, who is already in Israel with his team to compete against Maccabi in the Champions League soccer match, was  asked whether he was worried about the current wave of Palestinian violence sweeping the country. “I have no worries at all regarding the security situation, and neither do […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Opinion In the Middle East, ‘The Tail Wags the Dog’ (REVIEW)

    In the Middle East, ‘The Tail Wags the Dog’ (REVIEW)

    Blaming the West has become the most pervasive method of teaching for many Middle East studies departments, which are becoming the heart of pop-culture academia. Efraim Karsh, a distinguished professor of Middle Eastern studies at Bar-Ilan University and professor emeritus at King’s College London, in his latest book The Tail Wags the Dog: International Politics and the Middle East, dispels this myth. “Britain’s ‘original sin,’ if such was indeed committed, lay not in the breaking up of Middle Eastern unity but […]

    Read more →
  • Features Spirituality/Tradition With Popularity and Sales up, ‘Mensch on a Bench’ Has Much to Smile About

    With Popularity and Sales up, ‘Mensch on a Bench’ Has Much to Smile About – The Mensch on a Bench is so much happier now than he was a year ago. Look carefully and you will notice that, whereas the previous Mensch had a decidedly worried look, this latest version of the popular Hanukkah toy is flashing an exuberant grin. Is the erstwhile Mensch smiling because he expects to be in some 100,000 homes by year’s end? In truth, the change in visage was suggested last year by the “sharks” on ABC’s Shark Tank […]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Adam Sandler Updates Famous ‘Chanukah Song,’ Includes Hulk Hogan, David Beckham and Scarlett Johansson in Latest Version

    Adam Sandler Updates Famous ‘Chanukah Song,’ Includes Hulk Hogan, David Beckham and Scarlett Johansson in Latest Version

    Actor Adam Sandler unveiled a new version of his famous “Chanukah Song” on Saturday, adding a slew of Jewish celebrities to the ditty’s updated lyrics. The comedian — who released the original song about being Jewish during Christmas in 1996 — performed the latest version of the comedic track during the New York Comedy Festival at Carnegie Hall. Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee, actor Jake Gyllenhaal and “the two guys who founded Google” are among the famous Jewish celebrities now in the line up. Sandler also included lyrics about Star Wars‘ Princess […]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Famed Israeli Violinist Itzhak Perlman to Receive Presidential Medal of Freedom

    Famed Israeli Violinist Itzhak Perlman to Receive Presidential Medal of Freedom – Famed Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman will be among the 17 recipients of America’s Presidential Medal of Freedom next week. He is the fourth Israeli to receive the highest civilian honor in the US. “A native of Israel, he came to the United States at a young age and was introduced to Americans broadly when he appeared on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ in 1958. Mr. Perlman made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1963 when he was 18,” a White House […]

    Read more →
  • Features Spirituality/Tradition Don’t Think Israel is a Luxury Destination? Check Out These 6 Spots

    Don’t Think Israel is a Luxury Destination? Check Out These 6 Spots – While Israel is a common destination for cultural and religious pilgrimages, travelers seeking the best hotels, fine dining, and upscale relaxation less often find themselves in the Holy Land. Yet in recent years, the country’s burgeoning tech scene has attracted a business crowd accustomed to ritzy accommodation. Besides, the permanent summer of Tel Aviv and Eilat makes them prime destinations for European vacationers. Israel’s populace managed to tame the swamps and irrigate the desert — so going luxury should […]

    Read more →