Aly Raisman, captain of the 2012 U.S. Gymnastics team that won the gold, recounted how performing her floor exercise to “Hava Nagila” changed her perspective on what it means to be an Olympic champion.
“I cannot explain how proud it made me feel, competing to the most famous Jewish song in front of Germans, Russians, and people all over the world,” she told the women gathered at the Westminster Hotel in Livingston on May 29 for the eighth annual Mikvah Chana fund-raising event.
In pants and long skirts, v-necks and high-cut dresses, in pumps and flats, representing the spectrum of Jewish denominational life in the area, over 600 women had come to support the Livingston mikva, or ritual bath. Representatives of the facility said it would take several weeks for them to determine how much money was raised. The event was cochaired by Dara Orbach, the great-granddaughter of Annette (Chana) Felsen, after whom the ritual bath is named, and Toba Grossbaum.
Raisman, 19, a Needham, Mass., native, captained the Olympic team and won an individual gold medal in the floor exercise and a bronze medal on the balance beam. Her performance on the 40th anniversary of the Munich Olympics Massacre made her a Jewish folk hero, and earned her a Top 5 honor in the Forward newspaper’s list of the 50 American Jews “who made the most significant impact on the news” in 2012.
In her talk, she said selecting “Hava Nagila” had been a reasonably straightforward decision. “It’s got a good rhythm, it’s vibrant, I knew it would get people into it, and it would have a special connection for my family and others,” she said.
But the worldwide reaction was hardly straightforward.
“My rabbi got a letter from a Holocaust survivor who wrote that she never thought in her life she would see a Jew at the Olympics performing to ‘Hava Nagila’ in front of Russians, in front of Germans, in front of the whole world, and that everyone would be okay with that,” she said. “I never thought of it that way.” And she considered the implications of her choice anew, she said, in the context of the Munich anniversary, and 76 years after African-American runner Jesse Owens competed in the Berlin Olympics in front of Hitler.
She recounted an open letter written to her by a young Israeli soldier on a Facebook page, explaining, she said, “how proud the IDF forces were as she performed and how the highest-ranking military officer of their unit watched a replay of the performance alone. He stood silently. And he saluted the TV when it was done, and walked away.
“It wasn’t until then,” Raisman said, “that I realized how my performance had a positive impact on Jews all over the world.”
Last December, that young man was able to present her with a medal and military tags usually reserved for Israelis and people who serve the country with great honor. “I thought he might have mistaken me for someone else!” she said, and added, “I have a different mindset now.”
Raisman related that she has been inspired to use her fame to do mitzvot, such as visiting aspiring gymnasts in a Newton, Conn., gym that lost eight members in the Sandy Hook school shooting in December.
Although she didn’t dance to Jewish melodies during the 2013 season of Dancing with the Stars, in which she placed fourth, she did say that she took time to enjoy herself. “It was the most fun I’ve had in a long time,” she said. And she displayed her characteristic good sportsmanship, when the Livingston audience respectfully booed their disapproval as her placement in the competition was mentioned. “You can’t win everything all the time,” she said. “I had never even heard of the cha-cha or the samba before Dancing with the Stars.”
Raisman acknowledged that she’ll be back in the gym by the end of the summer, preparing for the next Olympics.
Earlier in the day, she had met with over 500 girls and their mothers at a gathering arranged by Mikvah Chana. Raisman agreed to take photos with the girls, sign autographs, and offer words of encouragement.
Asked how she lives Jewishly, Raisman replied, “I try to be a good person in whatever I do.”