In 1929, the sports organization of the Jewish Labor Bund in Poland called for a ban on boxing and, in keeping with its radical leftist politics, proposed new rules for what they considered the overly violent, competitive, and “bourgeois” game of soccer. “According to this proposal,” we learn, “soccer should be played according to humanist and socialist principles: the winning team would be decided not only on the basis of goals scored but also through a system of points rewarding ‘aesthetic and fair play’ and ‘artful combinations.’”
Can you imagine? Extra points for a bicycle kick, or for not faking a life-threatening injury?
This wonderful piece of trivia — less trivial than it sounds — comes courtesy of The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, which has just become available on-line. A monumental undertaking by the famed Jewish research institute, the encyclopedia is an amazing and addictive window into the world of Ashkenazi Jewry. YIVO says it “provides the most complete picture of the history and culture of Jews in Eastern Europe from the beginnings of their settlement in the region to the present,” and there’s no reason to doubt them. Start on the home page (www.yivoencyclopedia.org), head to the search box, and you may emerge hours later, having leaped across time and continents to explore the arts, places, history, languages, and religion of a world that is otherwise lost to us.
And make no mistake: An air of loss and sadness hangs over the project. As much as the reader may delight in, say, learning more about traditional Yiddish riddles or viewing a grainy video clip of Polish cheder students posing in the snow, it’s clear that the encyclopedia is in part a memorial project. The contributors, under the guidance of Gershon Hundert, do a stunning job of bringing that past alive, but you can’t look into the eyes of those cheder students without guessing their probable fate.
And yet their images and words remain, waiting for each of us to discover, to mourn, and to celebrate.