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The Saber vs. The Pen: Jewish Women in the Olympics

Like most everyone with a television set the world over, I too have been watching the Olympics — and getting more excited about sports and my country than I expected to be. When an article mentioning U.S. Fencing Team member Sada Jacobson, who is this year’s silver medalist in the women’s saber competition and who just happens to be Jewish, caught my attention (Jacobson “was honored in 2002 by the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame with the Marty Glickman Award,” according to her bio), I found myself wondering how many other, non-Israeli Jewish women are competing in this year’s Olympics.

But when I bunkered down to tally up the Jewish-sounding names on the U.S. team’s website, it soon became obvious that my method was so inaccurate as to be worthless, and that the task, in general, is rather petty. (Not to mention that there are A LOT of Olympians and I have better things to do with my time.) What would be the point of saying there are such-and-such-number of Jews on the team? Am I so insecure about the athletic capabilities of Jewish women that I have to do a head count to prove that we, too, can be Olympians?

These questions run much deeper than the Olympics, though. We, Jewish journalist and civilians alike, often try to claim Jews who’ve made it into the mainstream spotlight (Adam Sandler’s “Hanukkah Song,” anyone?). But does it really matter that Regina Spektor went to a Jewish day school? That Seth Rogen mentions his Jew-fro in “Knocked Up?” That Sacha Baron Cohen was spotted at an Upper West Side synagogue on the High Holidays or that he spoke in Hebrew instead of Kazhak all through the “Borat” movie? And do I really care that Amy Winehouse (God help her) got married under a chuppah?

The answer, I find upon some reflection, is yes.

And here’s why. Secular, pop-culture has for so long been white-washed of any ethnic markers. The movies and TV have generally been an equalizer, creating a common American culture of assimilation. Many early American films, like “The Jazz Singer,” for example, dealt with the tension between the younger generation’s assimilation and their parents wanting them to hold fast to their tradition — and assimilation usually won out. Hence actors and performers changing their ethnic-sounding names to more zingy, “American”-sounding monochres with marquee appeal. And actors today, or a generation ago, still do this. (Hello, Winona Ryder?) In the last decade or two, ethnic practices were brought into media as a politically correct nod to multi-culturalism. But the pop-Jews mentioned above, and numerous other Jewish blips in pop culture that have come up lately, have come about organically, from people’s honest connection to their culture and their willingness to flaunt it, or at least talk about it. And seeing those examples of famous people who’ve “made it” in mainstream culture still clinging to their Jewish identity makes us all feel, at least subconsciously, a little prouder of our own roots, and like we, too, can be super stars, whether or not we go to High Holiday services.

And that’s OK.

Now, how to get out of this cultural diatribe and back into the Olympics? Oh yes. Sada Jacobson. Surely Judaism has little if nothing to do with her and other unaccounted for Jewish Olympians’ athletic prowess. But the point we can take away from this is that their being Jewish didn’t hold them back. Clearly there are many Jews who value athletics, but as a community, athletics for the sake of athletics is not a particularly valued pursuit, particularly not for women (and, no, spending 45 minutes on the treadmill three times a week does not an Olympic runner make).

One need only look to the sports leagues in Jewish day schools, where the cool sport that gives team members the most social capital is boys’ gym hockey (no ice, not even a field, just gym). And there is no equivalent hockey team for girls.

But it needn’t be that way. True athletics is not about running around a gym getting sweaty. It’s about form, skill, discipline and dedication – values that can be transferred to any task – physical or intellectual. So I call on all the yeshiva girls out there to go out and show the boys up: pick up a pair of ice skates and a hockey stick and start practicing for a girls’ ice hockey league, by far more impressive and more difficult than gym hockey.

Or, better yet, pick up a saber and start a fencing team. Because, while as a writer I hate to admit it, sometimes the sword really is, if not actually mightier than the pen, at least mightier-seeming, and seeming mighty is sometimes the key to being so.

–Rebecca Honig Friedman

© 2011 Lilith Magazine