The role of sports in jewish-american society

An analysis of certain aspects of jewish-american participation in sports

Term Paper, 2003

16 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Jewish-American Experience of Sports
2.1 Historical Context and the Evolution of American Sports
2.2 Jewish-American Participation in Sports
2.3 Sports as a Means of Assimilation as well as Preserving Jewish Identit
2.3.1 The Importance of Baseball as The National Game

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

It is the aim of the following work to analyze the role of sports in Jewish-American life, mainly concentrating on the time until the end of the World War II.

Up to the present day the notion of Jewish culture and tradition emphasizing intellectual accomplishments and the life of the mind and not having place for sport and the physical has been prevalent. Due to the traditional emphasis of learning and an appreciation for sophistication during all of Jewish history, the stereotype view of a general rejection of sports by Jews and the image of Jewish physical weakness seems to have evolved as a consequence. This image has even been misrepresented by anti-Semites, as Henry Ford, to show that Jewish-Americans are “ill-fit to be true Americans”.[1]

Previously read books dealing with Jewish sports in Germany and an article on the importance of sports within Jewish religion that contradicted the image mentioned above, let an increased interest in the specific mind-set of Jewish-Americans towards physical activities develop.

Due to the complexity of the topic and the extent of this paper only certain aspects can be presented in the discourse, unfortunately excluding other interesting ones. The focus will be on the actual participation and achievements as well as attitudes of Jews towards sports and the effects of this field on the integration of Jewish immigrants. The time frame has been limited to the period between the first large waves of immigration and the end of World War II because of the adjustment of Jewish sports to general developments thereafter. Nevertheless, some general tendencies of the post-World War II decades will be discussed.

Background information on the general historical context and the evolution of American Sports will ensure a better and deeper understanding of the issues discussed.

2. The Jewish-American Experience of Sports

2.1 Historical Context and the Evolution of American Sports

As for the analysis of sports participation in general, a variety of sports-related and other historical backgrounds and developments with reference to Jewish-Americans need to be considered in advance.

The time of the evolution of American Sport coincides with the mass arrival of Jewish immigrants - mainly from Southern and Eastern Europe – most of whom settled in the New York City area. Larger numbers of “German Jews” had already settled in different geographic areas of the United States during the so called “first wave” of Jewish immigration which began around the 1830s.[2]

American Sport developed from an unorganized activity to a well-structured and organized phenomenon during the late 19th century and the early 20th century. These decades can be distinguished by a tremendous rise in industrialization, the invention of new technologies, mass immigration and a decline of religious opposition to recreation and leisure activity as well as an expanding middle and working class.[3] Historically, leisure has mostly been a privilege of the aristocracy. Because of the socioeconomic situation before the end of the 19th century, the majority of the American population, and therefore also Jewish-Americans, could hardly enjoy any kind of leisure activities.

Still it needs to be considered, as SHIVERS points out, that since the codification of Judaism time has always been set aside for prayer, rest and contemplation. There is an “[…] accepted standard that leisure was necessary if the individual was to recuperate from his weekly chores.”[4] Conclusively, leisure has always played a vital role in Jewish culture, although for a long period in history this time has exclusively been dedicated to religious purposes. Therefore, it probably differs from a contemporary mainstream definition of leisure activities such as sports, meeting friends, reading secular literature, attend cultural events, etc.. Despite this fact, time for these kinds of activities was not available for the vast majority of Americans until the late 19th and early 20th century, as has been mentioned above.

Those developments taking place during that time, played roles in the establishment of collegiate sport, an increased organization and control of amateur athletics as well as a growing stability of professional sport. Furthermore, this period witnessed the formation of several important clubs, athletic associations and leagues. It is also the time of the invention of such sports as volleyball and basketball and the beginning of certain well-known competitions as the Davis Cup.[5] Though not immediately, these developments would have to have an effect on every American citizen, including Jews.

2.2 Jewish-American Participation in Sports

According to SHIVERS, the generations of Jews who were forty-five to seventy years of age or older in the 1970s - the time of the publication of his essay on Jewish attitude towards leisure - grew up in an America where they had to face widespread discrimination in the fields of work, education and daily life in general until after the Second World War.[6] Due to this situation, for these generations the term “workaholic” applies since they realized that only by their own hard work would they become upwardly mobile. Through their effort and determination many of them achieved middle and upper class status and a few became wealthy but as “workaholics” and because of the still deeply rooted Jewish attitude towards leisure, which has been described earlier, they could not enjoy free time in the contemporary sense.

“If the activities engaged in did not carry overtones of work, economic gain, or some sense of cultural attainment, the individual felt guilty because he or she was not getting any optimum payoff from the time invested. […]. For the most part these Jews never learned to enjoy leisure. If, by chance, some of them began to participate in recreational activities, it was within a narrow range of experiences and almost without exception confined to passive, rather than active or physical activities.”[7]

The situation described by SHIVERS most likely presents a general tendency in Jewish-American attitude towards leisure, especially among Orthodox Jews. Many Jewish immigrants did express, although with varying and gradually declining severity through the years, their opposition to sportive activities and tried to prevent any participation of their children in order to preserve the traditional lifestyle, focusing their children’s attention on “activities of the mind” and successful careers in traditional fields. Nevertheless, the author shows an incomplete picture of the time until after World War II by stating that Jews were “almost without exception confined to passive activities”.


[1] cited in Levine 1992; pp. 4 (primary source not available)

[2] cf. Hertzberg 1997; pp. 90-100, 140-164

[3] cf. Wiggins 1995; pp. 117

[4] Shivers 1977, pp. 63

[5] Wiggins 1995, pp. 117

[6] Detailed facts can be found in any literature dealing with the history of Jewish- Americans and therefore won’t be analyzed in the discourse of this paper.

[7] Shivers 1977, pp. 64

Excerpt out of 16 pages


The role of sports in jewish-american society
An analysis of certain aspects of jewish-american participation in sports
University of Potsdam  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Jewish-American History and Life
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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420 KB
Jewish-American, History, Life
Quote paper
Anja Dinter (Author), 2003, The role of sports in jewish-american society , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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