I am revising my first book, The Church Impotent, and I am including a new section on the struggle with masculinity that Jews have had in the modern world. For two millennia the Torah scholar was the ideal Jewish man; his exercise was not physical but mental. After the Fall of Jerusalem rabbis regarded sports, especially violent sports, as goyim naches, the games Gentiles play, things which if not forbidden by the law were still felt to be foreign and perhaps despicable. Sports were at best bitul Torah, a waste of time that should be spent studying Torah.
When Jews came to the United States, they were immersed in the American sports culture. Jewish boys born in the United States wanted to fit in, but their parents were unsympathetic, and those who wanted to be athletes discovered that Jewish law made it difficult to compete in sports: Saturday games and a non-kosher training tables were the biggest problems. The Law indeed was designed to keep the Jews from becoming like all other nations, but Jewish males felt they could not be recognized as real men, either by themselves or by the Gentile world, if they did not become part of the sports culture.
The problem has led to endless disputes among Jews about the proper role of exercise and sports in Jewish life. The desire of men to be masculine is a strong competitor to the desire to remain a Jew, and many chose masculinity rather than Judaism. Among those who wished to remain loyal to Judaism while pursuing athleticism had to battle many obstacles. Jeffrey Gurock, a professor at Yeshiva and an athlete, has written a informative, funny, and moving book on the struggle: Judaism’s Encounter with American Sports. He begins with the Maccabees’ rejection of the Greek gymnasium and ends with the New York marathon.
Growing up, Abe Gerchik, who in his parents’ opinion spent too much time playing ball in the streets of Brooklyn, “thought his first name was ‘get a job’ and his last name ‘bum’ because his mother always used to say to this budding athlete ‘get a job, bum.’”
Does my passion for sports ever face off against Judaism’s religious teachings? Rather than conflicting with faith, athletic participation enhances me spiritually. The prophet Isaiah’s runners’ creed always moves me: