When The Zionists Did Gymnastics

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My apologies for not sending out a newsletter last week. This one was supposed to go out then but it proved more difficult to wrangle into a coherent narrative than I initially thought it would. I considered breaking it into two parts but I couldn’t figure out where to make the divide and still end up with two newsletters that made any sort of sense. So here it is, one long one. I hope it’s worth the wait. (Who knows? Maybe it wasn’t?)

Growing up, I thought that sports and general athletic activity was simply something that Jews weren’t particularly inclined to do. I heard all kinds of jokes about the lack of athleticism among Jews, particularly among Jewish men. No one really remarked upon the athleticism of Jewish women because we weren’t supposed to be inclined towards sports anyway, not due to our Jewishness, but because of our gender. Not seeming to be athletic didn’t negatively impact our perceived femininity.

Of course, we Jewish kids still played games and dabbled in sports but there was no expectation that we should be particularly good at any of this or that having a special gift for athletics had any bearing whatsoever on our futures. It was all just for fun. My fixation on gymnastics made me stand out, not because I was physically talented—I certainly was not—but because I was obsessed with something that my Orthodox community didn’t particularly value. 

I’ve written about this before and joked that I did the most Jewish thing imaginable with my gymnastics obsession by reading every book on the sport I could find at the public library. I think I wrote something along the lines of “I was going to read myself onto the Olympic team.” I could go and look at it and quote myself precisely but reading things that I wrote a decade ago makes me feel like vomiting, and I decided that I would like to spare myself that feeling. 

Unwittingly, that joke essentially came right from Sigmund Freud. In Moses and Monotheism, Freud put into words that general feeling about Jews and athletic activity I had encountered growing up:

“The preeminence given to intellectual labors through some two thousand years in the life of the Jewish people has, of course, had its effect. It has helped to check the brutality and the tendency to violence which are apt to appear where the development of muscular strength is the popular ideal. Harmony in the cultivation of intellectual and physical activity, such as was achieved by the Greek people, was denied to the Jews. In this dichotomy their decision was at least in favor of the worthier alternative.”

Essentially because Jews in Europe weren’t allowed to develop themselves physically, whether through agriculture or military service, they went all in on the book learnin’ and that sort of intellectual activity curbed any tendency towards violence. It was a lack of power, particularly access to military power, that checked any violent tendencies, not something inherently gentle in our natures. (Exhibit one: Israel’s open-ended occupation of Palestine). Also, intellectuals have proven themselves quite capable of inflicting violence on others through theories and policy. The eugenics movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries found a home in academia and led to all kinds of physical harm and violence. Just because the eugenicists didn’t always get their hands dirty doesn’t mean that they weren’t violent. 

In this particular quote, Freud appears to be more charitable to the European Jew than were many of the early Zionists, who had internalized ugly, antisemitic stereotypes that were circulated about Jews, particularly about Jewish men, and perpetuated them as they sought to change this reality through gymnastics training. They saw the sport, which was exploding in popularity across Europe and the United States in the late 19th Century as the ticket to Jewish “regeneration.” (More on that below). It fit well within their nationalistic aims of creating a Jewish state in Palestine. And this dovetails with how gymnastics was a force in 19th Century German nationalism, particularly through the leadership of Friedrich Ludwig Jahn. The Zionists were not alone in seeing gymnastics as a tool for racialized state building; they were part of a much larger global trend. 

Before I go any further, I need to give a shout out to my “mentor” Eli Valley. (No, Eli I will never let that joke die. I will beat that dead horse, resurrect it, and then beat it again, ad infinitum.) For those of you who don’t know Eli, he is a comic artist and satirist of great renown. He is also the author of Diaspora Boy: Comics on Crisis in America and Israel. He is perhaps most famous for getting Meghan McCain to tweet things so she’d look even dumber on Twitter, which is no mean feat. Several months ago, I was rereading the opening parts of Diaspora Boy, which you should absolutely buy and read, and came across his discussion of how the the early Zionists used things like gymnastics to help recreate the image of the Jew from the “weak” and “degenerate” to “strong” and “virile.” How this part about gymnastics hadn’t stayed with me during my first read is beyond me. (I blame weed.) Anyway, I reached out to Eli and he told me that this was based on Todd Samuel Presner’s work in Muscular Judaism: The Jewish Body and the Politics of Regeneration, and so much of this newsletter is based on Presner’s research with some other sources sprinkled in.

One of the first people Presner introduces the reader to in his book is Max Nordau, the person who coined the term “muscular Judaism” (Muskeljudentum). Nordau, the son of an Orthodox rabbi, was an important figure in the early years of Zionism. He, like many other early Zionists, had internalized antisemitic stereotypes that circulated about Jews, particularly Jewish men—that they were weak and small and nervous—and this made them unfit for the project of nation building. But they didn’t see these conditions of diasporic Jewry as necessarily intrinsic to them. Many believed that the oppressive conditions under which Jews had lived for centuries were the reason for their “degeneracy” and that Jews could be transformed via the kind of discipline derived from things like gymnastics. Nordau, as Presner notes, pointed to a mythic Jewish past to bolster the case that Jews are indeed capable of nation building. Presner writes:

“Although fundamentally connected to the Jewish body, “muscular Judaism” was not about weight-training or bodybuilding per se; rather it was about the cultivation of certain corporeal and moral ideals such as discipline, agility, and strength, which would help form a regenerated race of healthy, physically fit, nationally minded, and militarily strong Jews.”

Nordau invoked Simon Bar Kochba, the leader of a Jewish revolt against Roman rule, which briefly resulted in the creation of an independent country with him at the helm. Eventually, the Romans crushed the rebellion; the failure of the rebellion led to death, disease, starvation, and massive depopulation of Jews from Judea. It was an utter disaster for Jews of the post-Second Temple period. The very first Zionist gymnastics club in Berlin was named for the rebellion leader—or false messiah—depending on your perspective.

The early Zionists also claimed the Maccabees that defeated the Seluicid Greeks, which is the basis for the minor holiday Hanukkah. (If you learn one thing from this newsletter other than how much Unorthodox sucks, it’s that Hanukkah is a minor Jewish holiday. It isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Tanach and I only got a couple of days off from yeshiva for it despite the fact that it’s eight days long.) As my friend Gary Belsky pointed out in his excellent long piece about the Yeshiva University Maccabees, the team that owns the longest winning streak in college basketball, the fact that the name “Maccabee'' and variations of it have been stamped on all things Jewish sports—from basketball teams to major sports tournaments—is ironic given how much the original Maccabees despised sports. He writes:

“In particular, as recounted in the First Book of Maccabees, the assimilationist Jews were warming to the Hellenist’ notable extreme sport culture. Gladiator fights, naked wrestling, sacrifice to pagan gods—all were seen as corrupting and later forbidden by Jewish law.”

I’m sure the Maccabees are rolling in their graves right now over how their name and legacy has been bastardized. Not that I truly care what they think because they were kind of religious fundamentalists.

A movement looking to a heroic past and transforming it to create a modern mythology that justifies their present aspirations and behavior is not exactly unique. It’s the MO of many fascist and nationalist movements. We saw it during the January 6th Capitol insurrection with QAnon conspiracy theorists wearing Viking imagery. Other white supremacists like Jason Kessler, one of the organizers of the violent Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, has linked their movement to the Byzantine Empire (!), wrongly believing that after the fall of Rome, the Byzantines were responsible for preserving “white” culture even though the historical evidence is that the empire was pretty diverse, from a racial and ethnic perspective.  Even the nationalistic Jahn, the father of modern gymnastics, leaned into this when creating terminology for the sport in the early 19th century. He drew on older terminology, going back to the Teutons, an old Germanic tribe, to create words like “turnen” meaning to “do gymnastics.” 

“By insisting upon an ostentatiously Germanic neologism rather than simply adopting a name of Greek or Latin origin (like “calisthenics”) the Turner meant to emphasize the cultural uniqueness of their nationalistic physical activities,” writes Allen Guttmann in Games and Empires: Modern Sports and Cultural Imperialism. And let’s not forget—Jahn was a nationalist and saw the gymnastics movement he was creating as foundational for creating a modern German state. 

Presner writes this about Jahn and his movement:

“Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, the ‘father’ of German Turnen (gymnastics), turned his attention to the actual bodies of  individual German citizens in order to ‘resurrect’ the body politic of the German people. Not unlike the Zionists at the end of the nineteenth century, Jahn developed a theory of bio-power linked to the practice of gymnastics that did not begin with the state or extend its control but rather abetted the formation of the state itself. For him, a new citizenry of ‘muscle Germans’ would produce a new, unified national body.”

The early Zionist leaders, including the founder of the movement, Theodore Herzl, took inspiration from Jahn and expressed similar ideas about their burgeoning ideology. Here’s Presner again:

“In 1898, for example, shortly after the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Nordau published an essay entitled ‘Die Aufgaben de Zionismus’ (The Tasks of Zionism) in which he argued that Zionism had two fundamental goals: the first is ‘to conquer’ Palestine for the Jewish people and the second is ‘to prepare’ the Jewish people for Palestine. He considers the second to be the absolute prerequisite of the first and urges Jews to begin to think of themselves simultaneously as a single ‘people’ (Volk).”

The early Zionist leaders could not have been more explicit in making their imperialist intentions clear. It’s not subtext; it’s text. It’s even clearer in this 1901 dispatch from Elias Auerbach: 

“Jewish colonists...who submit the ground to their difficult work and face off against Bedouins with shotguns in their fists are a reflection of this direct and personal national Jewry. No one who spent a year doing gymnastics with us will tolerate anti-Jewish insults without raising his arms; and this defense of Judaism seems to me to be as noble as that with fists, pistols, or even with the pen. Inevitably we are raising every Jew to become a national Jew, regardless of whether he calls himself such or even knows the word.”

And just as Jahn prescribed to the Germans, the Zionists felt that they needed to build strong, disciplined bodies in order to achieve their nationalistic ends. That meant building up their much maligned musculature. 

Nordau writes:

“Our muscles are outstandingly capable of development. . . . No one need be satisfied with the muscles they are given. Everyone can have the muscles that he wishes for. Methodical, persistent exercise is all  that is necessary. Every Jew who is or believes himself to be weak can attain the musculature of an athlete.”

Before we even get into the nationalism and ideas of racial hygiene, I want to spend a moment with Nordau’s line about “everyone can have the muscles that he wishes for.” If Nordau was alive today, he’d totally be an Instagram fitness influencer telling you that if you do his program for 30 days, you’ll get the abs (and nation state) of your dreams. In Diaspora Boy, Valley describes an ad from Herzl’s Zionist weekly where an exercise machine called a Teuton was being promoted. “This is the heart of the Zionist enterprise: Rebirth as Maccabees modeled on Teutons able to farm the land—in this case via an instrument that appears to be no more than a couple of resistance levers attached to a beam.”

Valley also writes about Ephraim Moshe Lilien, a late 19th Century Zionist artist, who depicted Diaspora Jews as “old, agonized men clad in prison stripes, covered in thorns, attacked by waves, assaulted by snakes, and greeted by patient looking Death…Lilien’s sad sacks were too withered and depressed to move an inch, let alone make the leap to euphoria in Palestine.” This stood in contrast to the “New Jews,” the Jewish gymnasts that performed at the Sixth Zionist Congress. In an account of their performance, they were described as lacking “pale faces, hunched over backs, and broken hearts and chests; instead they were healthy ruddy men with strong muscles, young men whom, up until now, we were used to encountering only among the non-Jewish people of the world.”

(Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that this kind of thinking is ableist AF. Not everyone can work out and develop their muscles the way that Nordau is describing. And since Nordau is basically making physicality a prerequisite for participation in this new Jewish paradigm, well, you can see how problematic that is. We can’t put this all on him and the Zionists. This is the heyday of the eugenics movement, after all. So much credit must go to American eugenics of the 19th and early 20th centuries, which influenced Hitler and the Nazis.)

It’s not a bad thing to give advice to people who want to exercise nor is it wrong to create groups and clubs where people can do it. I love exercising. I particularly love doing it with others. Getting to see friends was one of the things that kept me going back to gymnastics long after I should’ve stopped, post-spinal fusion. And after gymnastics, I spent years breaking within a community; I even ended up joining a crew. I do CrossFit now for similar reasons. For me, camaraderie and physical activity have always gone hand-in-hand. That’s true for many other people, if the proliferation of sports teams and clubs is any indication. The problem with all of these emergent exercise based ideologies of the 19th century was that the physical prowess indicated a racial and ethnic superiority that justified the conquest of others who were deemed lesser.

I can understand how a long marginalized and oppressed group would latch onto an ideology and program that promises that you can overcome that which made you so oppressable to start with. (Of course, lack of calisthenics training had nothing to do with the oppression of the Jews in Europe.) But the targets of this newfound “vitality” weren’t the ones who oppressed the Jews in the first place. In fact, the Zionists desperately wanted to be recognized by their oppressors as “equals.” In the case of the Zionists, it was the Palestinians, who basically had nothing to do with a millennia of antisemitic violence and repression; their “sin” was living on land desired by the Zionists. And it was other Jews, particularly those Eastern European descent and still holding onto traditional Jewish practice and language, like Yiddish, that were the targets of the Zionist scorn. Herzl didn’t see any place for Yiddish in the Jewish state he was hoping to create.

The Zionists even commemorated Jahn on the fiftieth anniversary of his death despite the fact that the father of the sport was something of an overt antisemite. Presner refers to Theobald Scholem’s tribute to Jahn in 1902: 

“Although the article itself is hardly an unreserved paean to Jahn’s greatness (in contrast to the legions of tributes paid to Jahn in 1902 by German gymnastics associations), Scholem clearly posited that ‘the father of universal, strictly nationalist gymnastics’ paved the way for the development of Jewish gymnastics and the cultivation of Jewish nationality. He concedes that Jahn ‘never spoke good of Jews’; however, he does point out that Jahn’s book, Die deutsche Turnkunst, provided ‘systematic instructions for all branches of gymnastics,” instructions that are now being carefully followed by Jewish gymnasts.’”

Jahn is commemorated with some caveats about his antisemitism while their Eastern European brothers and sisters are described in ghastly terms. (Also, reminds me of current Israeli politicians breaking bread with far right leaders in Hungary while demonizing leftist diasporic Jews. In fact, some Israeli politicians have described us as “Un-Jews.” History is full of reruns.)

In some ways, this smacks of respectability politics. Members of a historically marginalized group trying to prove to the dominant majority that they are worthy of inclusion, that they deserve a seat at the table. Rather than point out all the ways in which the dominant group is terrible, they turn the criticism onto members of their own group that they deem lesser, the ones that refuse to adapt to the new ways. And then, in theory, the path should be clear for assimilation. In this case, success would mean that they prove that they’re worthy for a country of their very own.

This sort of respectable Jew/bad Jew was all over Zionist writing and thinking. Presner writes:

“A strict binary thus emerged on the pages of Die Jüdische Turnzeitung: on the one side was degeneracy, characterized by diasporic wandering, physical weakness, disease, mental nervousness, and particularity; on the other side was regeneracy, characterized by national groundedness, physical strength, health, mental agility, and universality.”

This binary reminds me of something that Valley wrote about in Diaspora Boy. He spoke about visiting the Museum of the Diaspora and seeing how the dioramas depicting Jewish life outside of Israel as dreary and dark and devoid of joy. And he compares this representation of Diasporic Jewry to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum and finds that the two depictions are disturbingly similar. 

Valley writes: 

“The eerily colorless dioramas, which were blessedly if belatedly removed during a recent revamp, were remarkable for the desperation, misery, and alienation of their figurines: Diaspora as a hallucinatory nightmare prison theme park...This was the site where generations of Israelis would be taken to learn about the world’s Jews; it’s where Diaspora youth would be hauled to learn about themselves. The displays featured over 100 figurines, some at ostensibly joyous events like a Bar Mitzvah ceremony or a wedding, and yet not even a single one of them was smiling...Whenever I visited Israel I was always sure to pay a visit because it was literally the Saddest Museum in the World. But the laughter wouldn’t last, as a short trip away in Jerusalem, I’d find Israel’s other monument of memory and iconography: Yad Vashem’s, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Center. Inside the memorial, dioramas depict in excruciating detail every stage of the mass murder. But what’s stunning is the figurines: they’re the same colorless, tormented bodies used in the Diaspora Museum, as if the models were manufactured en masse and then distributed equally to the two institutions. The two museums are like Israel’s twin pillars of self-conception, drawing an unbroken narrative arc from the ghetto to the gas chamber.”

This all stands in contrast to how the Zionists and then the Israelis saw themselves—remade, reborn, strong, triumphant, not tormented and oppressed. It’s quite telling that Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Yom Hashoah, is on the anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. (And its official name is actually “Day of the Remembrance of the Holocaust and of Heroism,” which is even more telling.) This is in keeping with what we saw from the early Zionists, who, in naming their gymnastics associations and clubs, called on the memory of Jews who fought back—the Maccabees, Bar Kochba. Ditto for the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto. These were the Jews who were to be honored. Not those that went like “sheep to the slaughter.”

In Israel after the Holocaust, prior to the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann, a high ranking Nazi, in the 60s, Holocaust survivors who hadn’t participated in ghetto uprisings—there were others in addition to the most famous one in Warsaw—or didn’t fight with the partisans/underground were made to feel ashamed. Israeli textbooks tended to overemphasize the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in discussion of the Holocaust. These beliefs about Jewish passivity were false; in addition to the aforementioned ghetto uprisings, Jews also led revolts at the death camps. But the belief that the Jews had legitimate opportunities to thwart Nazi terror but instead chose to passively accept their fate only served to reinforce the dichotomy that the Zionists had established half a century earlier between the regenerated Jews who would build the nation state and the diasporic ones.

As a Jew who grew up in the Diaspora in a very Zionist community, I can attest to the fact that we were encouraged to view Israelis as superior to us strictly in a physical sense—stronger, more attractive. They were considered hotter than their American Jewish counterparts. It was the mandatory army service or the Middle Eastern sun or some combination thereof, we were told. As the early Zionists had written, militaristic activity—don’t forget, early gymnastics was used for military training—was supposedly helping to create a “New Jew”that is distinct from their diasporic predecessors and modern counterparts.

This contrast between American Jew to Israeli is similar to the dichotomy that has been perpetuated about Diaspora Jew to the gentile, which is most apparent in the discussion of sports. Belsky, in his piece for ESPN, cites the most iconic expression of the notion that Jews are bad at sports, this scene from the movie Airplane! (The movie was written by Jewish men.)

It’s a really good bit. 

I accepted this characterization of Jewish athleticism—or the lack thereof—and reacted to news of a successful Jewish athlete as anomalous. These were Jews who were good at things that allegedly we weren’t supposed to be good at. We weren’t so much celebrating their achievements as we were confronting our own surprise that one of our coreligionists was gifted athletically. 

But as Belsky noted (and as I realized as an adult), this was never true. We were no better or no worse than any other group when it came to sports. He writes:

“What’s curious about this trope is its dogged persistence in the face of facts. Jewish athletes have sufficiently represented in the modern era, beginning with multiple medalists in the 1896 Olympics and extending through heavyweight boxing champ Max Baer, Hall of Fame quarterbacks Sid Luckman and Benny Friedman, baseball legends Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, and the swimming icon Mark Spitz. Just this fall, three Jewish ballplayers (Atlanta’s Max Fried and Joc Pederson, Houston’s Alex Bregman) featured prominently in the World Series. The list goes on, like an Adam Sandler Hanukkah song, and includes the presently relevant fact that the first basket of the precursor league to the NBA was scored by Ossie Schectman of the New York Knicks, a Jew.”  

I’ll forgive Belsky for leaving out renowned Jewish gymnasts, such as 1996 Olympic gold medalist Kerri Strug; three-time Olympic champ Aly Raisman; 1992 Olympic beam gold medalist Tatiana Lysenko; Maria Kondratyevna Gorokhovskaya, a Jewish Soviet gymnast who won a record seven medals at the 1952 Olympics.  (This list is, by no means, comprehensive.)

Anyway, here’s Lysenko’s gorgeous beam routine from the 1992 beam final:

 It feels like that even by listing the names of various successful Jewish athletes through the years, I’m admitting that this line of inquiry is somehow legitimate, that it's okay to ask whether some groups are more athletic than others (or more intelligent or possessing of some other supposedly “innate” quality) and then provide evidence to either bolster or discredit the claim. The fact is that none of this should matter. It shouldn’t matter whether people are good at sports or not; or that they’re intelligent or not. The issue here lies with those creating these hierarchical systems that ascribe value and worth to these attributes and suggest that those lacking them were somehow deserving of punishment or scorn. It never mattered whether Jews were less or more athletically inclined than any other group. The Zionists accepted the antisemitic stereotypes as the correct diagnosis of Jewish “faults.” They internalized the logic of their oppressors. The rest is history.  

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