Jewish Olympics • The Maccabiah: An ingathering of athletes

Jewish Olympics • The Maccabiah: An ingathering of athletes

Questions for Ron Kaplan

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

The Opening Ceremonies at the first Maccabiah Games.    
The Opening Ceremonies at the first Maccabiah Games.    

Ron Kaplan, NJJN’s own features editor and creator of the award-winning blog “Kaplan’s Korner on Jews & Sports,” has written a history of the Maccabiah, the quadrennial athletic gathering in Israel established in 1932. In advance of the July 7 release of The Jewish Olympics: The History of the Maccabiah Games (Skyhorse Publishing), NJJN posed a few questions to Kaplan.

NJJN: Why did you decide to write about the Maccabiah?

Kaplan: That’s a serendipitous story. The publisher approached me on the recommendation of my friend Howard Megdal, a sportswriter and author of The Baseball Talmud, after he told them he couldn’t do the book. Originally, I wasn’t sure I wanted to take this on, but the Maccabiah is one of those magical events that no one gives a thought to how and why it came to be. When I realized there were no books on the topic, I saw this as an opportunity to fill the void. 

NJJN: What do you want your readers to take away from the book?

Kaplan: The scope of the Maccabiah games. It’s the third-largest amateur sports competition in the world, and it reflects the strong bond that unites Jews regardless of where they come from. The 2013 Maccabiah Games drew more than 9,000 people to Israel to participate, including athletes, coaches, administrators, and volunteers.

NJJN: How long did it take to complete all the research? How hard was it to track down your sources?

Kaplan: I had a year from the time I signed the contract, but I procrastinated a bit, so when it came down to it, I completed the book in about five months (all right, I procrastinated a lot). I have great respect for writers who devote years to their projects. 

The research was actually fairly easy thanks to the availability of newspapers and other materials on the Internet. Years ago I would have had to travel to do some of the research, but I was very fortunate to have some generous contacts in Israel and Canada who provided me with a lot of material.

NJJN: Have you ever participated in a Maccabiah? Attended one? Can you describe that experience?

Kaplan: I haven’t, but that doesn’t mean I won’t in the future. I saw a video of a tennis player who looked about 60-ish in the Masters Division (35-and-over) and thought, “If this guy could do it, I certainly can.” [Kaplan just turned 58.]

NJJN: How did you select the people for the individual profiles? 

Kaplan: I wanted to get athletes from as early on as possible. I was able to find Allan Jay from England who fenced in the Third Maccabiah in 1950, the first Games for Israel as an independent nation. I also wanted a combination of men and women, big names like Olympic swimmer and gold medalist Lenny Krayzelberg, and regular folk. 

I loved speaking with the participants, especially those who competed in the 1950s and ’60s, when the sports facilities and housing arrangements were much less sophisticated than they are today. 

NJJN: What was your take-away from writing this book?

Kaplan: Despite the difficulties Israel has faced over the years, there are still those who believe in the importance of coming together like this. I found it particularly interesting talking to some of the administrators from around the world when it came to deciding whether to cancel the Games in 2001 because of the Intifada. Ultimately they decided cancellation would be unacceptable, that a show of solidarity was necessary as a psychological victory against those who would destroy Israel and, by extension, the Jewish people.

I realized how much hard work goes into the Maccabiah, not least from the athletes, who take the games seriously as a stepping stone to further international competition— swimmer Mark Spitz debuted at Maccabiah three years before his record-setting performance at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City — or as a coda to their amateur career, like Krayzelburg. 

I discovered that the cultural aspect of the Maccabiah experience — trips to Masada and the Kotel and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, etc. — have become almost as important as the competition. Despite coming from widely divergent religious backgrounds, for many of the men and women I spoke with, there was an underlying theme of connecting with their heritage. One championship swimmer was so moved that he decided to become a rabbi; 20 years after Daniel Greyber competed, he served as the spiritual adviser for the U.S. delegation at the 2013 games.

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