What do basketball player and coach Larry Brown, swimmers Jason Lezak and Mark Spitz, and gymnast Mitch Gaylord have in common?
They’re among a group of 25 athletes who have won medals in both the Olympic Games and the Maccabiah Games, as shown in a chart at the back of Ron Kaplan’s new book, “The Jewish Olympics: The History of the Maccabiah Games.”
While Spitz competed in the 1965 Maccabiah Games before winning nine Olympic golds (including seven in 1972 alone), Lezak first took part in the Maccabiah Games in 2009, after he already had been to the Olympics three times. The same path was taken by Lenny Krayzelburg, who tasted Olympic gold a year before he swam in the 2001 Maccabiah Games.
“It’s like walking on the moon. What do you do for an encore?” Kaplan said in an interview, referring to winning an Olympic medal. For Krayzelburg and others, the Maccabiah Games provided the answer.
Krayzelburg “decided he knew about these games, and he wanted to get in touch with his Jewish heritage, so that’s why he became an athlete there and a spokesman for the games — and a very vocal spokesman, a very big supporter,” Kaplan said.
The sports and features editor for the New Jersey Jewish News, Kaplan runs the award-winning blog “Kaplan’s Korner on Jews and Sports” and wrote the 2013 book “501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read Before They Die.” Why focus now on the Maccabiah Games?
“To be slightly clichéd, I didn’t choose the topic, the topic chose me,” Kaplan said. “This actually came about because the publisher, Skyhorse Publishing, asked someone else to do the book.”
That was Howard Megdal, author of the popular 2009 book “The Baseball Talmud.” Rather than writing the Maccabiah Games book, Megdal recommended Kaplan, who proceeded to delve into the history of the Israel-based sports competition that since 1932 has grown from 390 athletes across 14 countries to 9,000 athletes from 78 countries during its most recent iteration in July 2013.
“Ron Kaplan is the expert on where sports and Judaism meet,” Megdal says in a testimonial on the book’s back cover. “Now Kaplan has written an entertaining, comprehensive history of the Maccabiah Games, the competition where sports and Judaism so often coalesce in fascinating, inspirational ways. This was the moment for such a book, and Kaplan was the perfect choice to write it.”
With a total of 20 chapters, Kaplan starts by introducing “Jews and the organized sports movement” before devoting a chapter to each of the 19 Maccabiah Games that have been held.
“I think the most obvious and neatest way to do it would be in chronological order,” Kaplan said. “I didn’t consider any other way. I just think it makes more sense to follow the evolution of the games, and what better way to do it than chronologically? I didn’t see the point in jumping back and forth between various topics or various people.”
A hallmark of each chapter is the presence of short, digestible profiles of the Maccabiah athletes themselves.
“As far as the profiles go, I wanted to get the experience of the people who actually participated in the games. I reached out to as many as I could find, and I wanted to go back as far back as I could,” Kaplan said.
The selection of Maccabiah athletes runs the gamut from British fencer Allan Jay (1960 Olympian, 1953 and 1957 Maccabiah participant) to an Israeli gymnast named… wait for it… Ron Kaplan.
“I think I found him just in a Google search for ‘Maccabiah Games,’” said Ron Kaplan the author. “I wondered, why is my name there already? That’s when I found out that he participated for Israel in one of the games.”
As the book notes, the Maccabiah Games began as a quest to debunk the age-old stereotype of the “un-muscular” or “un-athletic” Jew. (You may recall the scene from the 1980 film “Airplane!” in which a stewardess, when a passenger asks for something “light” to read, offers a leaflet titled “Famous Jewish Sports Legends.”)
At the same time, dismissing myths about Jewish weakness was about more than just athleticism.
“For thousands of years, Jews had been forced to convert to other religions, exiled, shunned, denied business and educational opportunities, rounded up and pushed into ghettos, and/or brutally victimized in pogroms,” Kaplan writes. The Maccabiah Games, notes Pulitzer Prize-winning sports writer Ira Berkow in the foreword to Kaplan’s book, would “be a statement to the world that Jews were as physically capable as any other group and, as we would learn from the numerous Israeli-Arab wars, had become quite capable of fighting back.”
But does that message resonate today, in an era when Jews — despite the persistence of global anti-Semitism — are far more accepted in mainstream society?
“I don’t think that’s the message anymore,” Kaplan said. The Maccabiah Games “have changed so much over the years, to where it’s not just an athletic event anymore, but it’s a cultural ingathering of Jews. Some of the athletes with whom I’ve spoken said they have no real Jewish education, but they saw this as a trip to Israel. A lot of people have had epiphanies about their spirituality, their culture, and I think it’s a marvelous thing that that’s how the games have evolved — from where it was the only place you could go that you’d be welcome, to turning it around and saying, ‘We welcome you because you’re Jewish. We welcome you not because no one else will take you, but just because you want to do this thing.’”
Kaplan, whose book features 28 interviews with Maccabiah athletes, said the biggest challenge posed by the project was finding information about the games due to a history of poor record-keeping surrounding the event.
“The Maccabiah Games were incredibly underreported,” Kaplan said. “I don’t know if they were reported more at the time and that information is just not available anymore, or if they just didn’t think this was a big enough deal to record it back in the 1930s and even in the ‘50s. Finding the information was difficult, and the accuracy of the information, depending on the source… you might have somebody’s name spelled three different ways. Finding accurate results was extremely difficult.”
“It’s not like going to Baseball Reference and finding the definitive number of statistics for all the players,” he added, referring to the baseball-reference.com website, a go-to destination for baseball statistics junkies.
Despite the research obstacles, Kaplan said he believes the final product “is the definitive history” of the Maccabiah Games.
“I usually don’t like saying that, because I deal with a lot of baseball literature from one of my blogs, and I hate to see the words ‘the complete,’ ‘the definitive,’ ‘the best,’ because that’s very subjective,” he said. “But objectively speaking, there’s never been a book like this before. I’m thinking it’ll be a source of pride for Jews.”