Tonight is the opening ceremony for the 19th Maccabiah games, or as my anti-semitic friends like to call it, The Jews chasin’ gold. 9,000 Jewish athletes from 78 countries all over the world will converge on Teddy Stadium in the largest games to date both in the number of athletes participating and the number of sports categories. I can’t help but think about that joke from the movie “Airplane” where the stewardess asks the old lady who will eventually hang herself:
“Would you like something to read?”
Do you have anything light?
“How about this leaflet, “Famous Jewish Sports Legends?”
But seriously folks we got some badass Jews. I spent the afternoon at Wingate yesterday watching the Rugby 7’s championship. Those were some scary, mean looking Jews. Mike’s Place had a booth set up with good beer on tap. The smell of burgers was wafting through the air. A nice sized crowd (men, women and children) came out to watch the giant, skull crushing Jews rough each other up. South African Jews with Mr. T. Mohawks. Israeli Jews with ginormous block sized heads. I had a chance to interview the USA coach as well as the Captain, Dallan, who told me that his team had trained with the US Navy Seals prior to the competition. The SEALS for Christ’s sake. Needless to say I was impressed. It apparently paid off as the US took home the first gold medal.
And what’s up with our uncanny ability to swim? When I was growing up it was Mark Spitz. Four years ago I got a chance to sit down and talk with Jason Lezak, the 2008 Beijing Gold Medalist. This year I got a chance to speak with Garrett Weber Gale, the 2008 Gold Medalist after it was announced that he would be the flag bearer for the US delegation. They had an emotional ceremony announcing it with US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro in attendance to give his blessing. Gale talked so highly of Israel and his experience with the US delegation (something like 1200 people in all) that I was tempted to leave Israel just so I could make aliyah again.
The big name in this year’s Maccabiah games is Alexandra Rose “Aly” Raisman. She made us Jews proud as she won gold in the 2012 Olympics. She made us even prouder as she came to Israel and participated in the Israel Connect program that Maccabi USA offers its delegation members the week prior to the games. They take them all over the country and give them a chance to rediscover their Jewish identity. Aly climbed Massada and got a chance to spend some time at the Dead Sea and the Kotel. At the end of the program they conducted a huge B’nai Mitzvah ceremony near Neve Ilan in Jerusalem and it was touching to see all those incredible athletes with their incredibly unJewish bodies come together. The more I talked to them the more excited they got about being able to compete on teams that are comprised entirely of Jews. After all, most of them were the token Jews on their Rugby, or Swimming teams. Here they were all together. When the sun set on the hills of Jerusalem that night and the group sang “Hene ma tov, shevet achim gam yachad”, even I, the atheist, felt something that can only be described as connected.
This year they are introducing some new sports to the games; Ice hockey, Handball, Bridge and Badminton to name a few. Personally, I’m glad they’re adding handball. Maybe now the Americans will finally understand what the hell European handball is. Let me explain. When I was growing up in Israel I joined my local handball team in Holon. Since I was Eric Cartmenesque in build they thought it would be a good idea to put me in goal since I took up a good portion of the goal without even having to move. Add to that my years of playing tennis and instincts at net and I made a pretty decent goalie. So good in fact that I made the youth national squad. When I wrote my grandmother in Philly excitedly to tell her about the honor that I had received she replied that there wasn’t a goalie in handball. She should know. She used to play against the wall when she was growing up. I quit the following year. Apparently, the main objective of the goalie is to use his body as a human shield thereby exposing sensitive parts. Let me tell you, nothing is more important to a seventeen year old than protecting the family jewels.
The Israeli Tourist industry revenue from the games is reported to be close to 200 million shekels in two weeks. 160,000 rooms booked in more than 30 hotels and hostels throughout the country. 500 employees and 3000 volunteers. With numbers like that I say they should have the games every year.
On a personal note I have a deep connection to the games. My dad was on the US tennis team in 1985. He switched to the Israeli team in 1989 after we made aliyah and won a Bronze medal in the Tennis Masters category. In 1993 and 1997 he participated again on the Israeli team. He skipped 2001 games but came back to Israel as the USA tennis junior’s head coach in 2005. In 2009 he came back again as the USA Men’s Open coach. This year, after returning to Israel as a returning resident, he will be competing in the Men’s Master’s Tennis competition. He’ll most likely be marching into the stadium tonight wearing the Israeli uniform. I’m sure he’ll get Goosebumps as he looks at the thousands of cheering fans in the stands and the other 9,000 fellow athletes who will accompany him. I know I will.