CSJL Logo Center for Sport and Jewish Life
Home About Us Articles Health & Fitness Teens Youth Sports Auction Donate Links Contact
Page Font Size:

Articles > Jewish Pride Through Sport: Max Nordau and "Muscular Judaism"

The Maccabees, central figures in the Hanukkah saga, are thought to be the inspiration for what would become the worldwide Jewish sports association known as Maccabi. It is Max Nordau, right-hand man to Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl, who is typically credited with the creation of what would become the Maccabi organization. His 1900 call for a “Muskel Judentom” (Muscular Judaism) which appears below, refers in passing to other influences on the creation of this movement. In actuality – and perhaps with some irony – it was the German gymnastics “Turnen” movement, begun a half century earlier, combining physical fitness, patriotism, and social causes, which served as a model for the emergence of Jewish pride through sport. The “Deutsche Turnerschaft” (German gymnastics movement) championed the idea of “mens sana in corpore sano” – a healthy mind in a healthy body – and made gymnastics the basis of a political program fostering patriotism and social/political awakening, and already included Jewish members in the early 1800’s.

Nordau saw sport as serving the Zionist idea of “awakening Judaism to new life.” His critique concerning the poor physical condition of Europe’s Jews helped to spur on the creation of Jewish sports associations. The Bar Kochba club in Berlin, which Nordau looked to for his inspiration, actually came out of the German “Turnerschaft” movement. As sports clubs in Germany and elsewhere in central Europe became a vehicle for the expression of patriotism, they began to adopt strong anti-Semitic policies, excluding Jews from participating. When the German gymnastics club in Istanbul formally voted to exclude Jews in 1895, the Jewish members formed their own club, calling it “Israelitische Turnverein”. Nordau’s push of sport as a critical component of Jewish life, coupled with the centrality of Istanbul as a hub of international Zionist activity, put the Istanbul club center stage, and it benefited from visits by and support from Zionist leaders. With the growth of gymnastics clubs promoting physical fitness and Jewish pride, the Union of Jewish Gymnastics Clubs (“Judische Turnerschaft) was founded in 1903, and its affiliate in Palestine, Maccabi of Eretz Yisrael, was founded in 1912. This, in turn, led to the World Maccabi Union, established in 1921.

Following are remarks made by Nordau at the World Zionist Congress in 1900:

Two years ago, at the Zionist Congress in Basel, I spoke about the need to create, once again, a muscular Judaism. I say “again”, because, as history shows, such a Judaism existed once before. For too long now we have neglected matters of the flesh.

Truth to tell, it was others who engaged in the death knell of the physical side of Jewish life, and with particular success. Consider the hundreds of thousands who fell in the ghettos of Europe, in the plazas outside the cathedrals, and on the roads during the Middle Ages. We should certainly forego such piety. We would have done well to be fit, and not be fodder for those who sought to kill us.

In crowded Jewish quarters, deprived of air and sunshine, our bodies became weak. In darkened homes, we feared the persistent persecution in silent trembling. But now the chains of this duress are broken, now we fear no such constraints, we are allowed to live our lives fully, at least from a physical standpoint. Let us, therefore, re-establish the bonds with our ancient past; let us again be wide of body and strong of gaze.

The intention is to return to a proud past, as reflected in the name selected by the gymnastics association of Berlin: “Bar Kochba”, a hero who recognized no defeat. When victory turned in retreat, he accepted death. He embodied a Jewish history forged in war but taking up arms. If someone takes of the cry of Bar Kochba, then the striving for honor beats in his breast. Such a hope befits the gymnasts, who strive for advanced development.

In no other nation or race does physical exercise fulfill as educative a role as it must fulfill among us Jews. It must bring us to full upright stature, both physically and in our character. It must prompt a self-awareness. Our detractors claim that, in any event, we are too arrogant. But we would do well to acknowledge how distorted is such a claim. A quiet belief in our strength is lacking in us altogether.

Muscular Jews of our age have yet to reach the degree of heroism of our ancestors of old, who erupted into the arena to wrestle the well-trained Greek athletes and the strong barbarians of the north. But from a moral perspective we are their superiors, because they were ashamed of their Jewishness and tried, by way of undoing their circumcision, to hide the sign of the covenant that was sealed in their flesh while others, such as members of the “Bar Kochba” club have openly and freely proclaimed their ties to their people.

Let the association for Jewish gymnastics flourish and set an example in all centers of Jewish life.

Copyright 2004-2014 by The Center for Sport and Jewish Life.  All rights reserved.