Alexandra Raisman isn’t shy about being Jewish. In fact, America’s gold-medal gymnast chose to dance to Hava Nagila during her floor exercise at the 2012 Summer Games.
It was like wearing a big Star of David in Toulouse.
Raisman didn’t care.
The 18-year-old three-medal star of the London Games is only 5-feet-2, but Raisman stood tall on the floor mat before performing earlier this week. In fact she once told a reporter from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that she was proud to use the traditional Jewish song because there aren’t too many Jewish elite athletes out there.
Then, Raisman took a deep breath before racing across the mat and soaring before the world during the performance of her life in London, in front of millions of viewers the world over. Including International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge who refused to remember the 11 Israeli athletes and coaches who were murdered at the Olympic Games in Munich 40 years ago… at these Olympic Games.
Raisman wasn’t silent. The soft-spoken teen from Needham, Massachusetts remembered and honored them with her gold-meal performance. She honored Jews everywhere. She honored us all.
The music to Hava Nagila is a Hasidic melody that comes from Eastern Europe where Ze’ev Friedman’s parents fled the Nazis in Poland. He was a wrestler and one of the Munich 11.
It is a song that probably played at Raisman’s bat mitzvah and must have played at countless weddings in Warsaw, where weightlifter Yakov Springer was born in 1921 before growing up and moving to Israel after losing his parents, sisters and brother to the Nazis. Springer was one of the athletes Israel mourned in 1972.
And it is a song that must have echoed through Riga, Latvia where Eliezer Halfin was born to a Holocaust survivor who lost his first wife and children during the Shoah, only to lose Eliezer – a 24-year-old Olympic wrestler – to Palestinian terrorists in 1972.
Hava nagila, hava nagila Let us rejoice, let us rejoice
Hava nagila ve-nismeha Let us rejoice and be glad
Hava neranena, hava neranena Let us sing, let us sing
Hava neranena ve-nismeha Let us sing and be glad
Uru, uru ahim Awake, awake brothers
Uru ahim be-lev sameah Awake brothers with a joyful heart
The words echo the biblical verse, “This is the day that God has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it.”
As millions of television viewers around the world watched mesmerized earlier this week, Raisman performed with a joyful heart. She raced across the mat, tucked her chin, pointed her toes, and soared through the air with the lightness and ease of an acrobat. She spread her arms and her Olympic wings.
Alex Gilady covered the Munich Games for Israeli television and led the Israeli media delegation at the 1972 Olympics. If Gilady – the only Israeli on the International Olympic Committee, and a Jew who saw the Munich tragedy first hand – did not have the courage to stand up and honor the Israeli fathers and sons who died, Raisman did.
She flipped and twirled her body high in the air as Jewish hearts took flight into the heavens with her.
“If we give in to their (terrorist) demands, no Jew will be safe anywhere in the world,” Golda Meir once said.
Little Aly Raisman did what no American ever did before. She won an Olympic gold medal on the floor exercise.
Raisman said the fact that she won her gold medal on the 40th anniversary of the 1972 tragedy was special to her, and winning the gold meant a lot to her.
Then she said what Rogge and Gilady would not. “If there had been a moment’s silence (to honor the 11 athletes), I would have supported it and respected it.”
Remember that Hebrew word zachor? She remembered.
It is like a Jewish man stepping on the glass at his wedding. In a moment of joy, Raisman remembered. She honored the 11 Israeli coaches and athletes who were murdered simply because they were Jewish.
And who will not be remembered by the IOC simply because they are Jewish.
“This Olympic family lost 11 athletes, why can’t we honor them?” asked Anouk Spitzer, the beautiful little baby Israeli fencing coach Andrei Spitzer lovingly held in his arms in 1972 before heading off to the Munich Games. Anouk Spitzer never got the chance to hold hands with her father and dance to Hava Nagilah with him at her wedding. All she asked for from the IOC was a moment of silence.
Just one moment for all the years she could not spend with her abba.
Then, on a small mat, a tiny American gymnast with David-like courage took on everyone. Her parents watched her dance to Hava Nagila and silence the world as she flew through the air as light as a dove. A round-off back handspring? A difficult move known as an Arabian front?
Raisman did it all, and won a gold medal as both American and Israeli flags cheered her on in the arena.
Then, in triumphant interviews, Aly Raisman remembered.
And in doing so, we will never forget her.