Historically, too many Jewish women have been steered away from competitive athletics. Thankfully, the notion that competitive sports for Jewish women with its concomitant tough physical contact is inappropriate and is no longer considered wise advice.(1) In recent decades, there has been a proliferation of participation of girls’ teams in day schools, creating a pathway for continued participation in competitive sports. As an NCAA All American fencer, I have seen this growth within my own experience.
Of fencing’s three weapons, foil, epee and saber, the lattermost was, for centuries, deemed too physical and not appropriate for women. Scoring in saber bouts is most often achieved with swinging strikes. The blade, a thin steel rod, strikes the opponent. While these strikes can leave bruises, they are minor. In the other fencing weapons, foil and epee, points are often achieved by a more delicate touching of the opponent with the tip of the blade – a far less physical affair. In the 21st century, women’s saber finally entered the Olympics. Men’s saber fencing had been an Olympic event since the 19th Century. The interval between the 19th and 21st centuries represents a long time of lost women’s opportunity to excel at a sport, be a member of a team and benefit from the lessons competitive sports can teach.
Shortchanging women in sport also has consequences academically. It has been found in academic studies that college competitive athletes achieve higher GPA scores than the general student body.(2) (3) Unfortunately, the well-meaning tendency to protect and exclude women from the rigors of competitive sports has had an unintended depressing academic effect.
Women as a whole and, ironically, Jewish women in particular, have been victims of short sighted parental emphasis on grades alone as the primary key to entrance to a good college and a successful life without “wasting” time practicing athletics. Well-intended parents’ constant harping on grades above all else can yield to serious negative consequences. Especially in this time of the coronavirus pandemic, well-meaning parents should take their foot off the academic pedal and be mindful that athletic activity and allowable social discourse can enhance physical health and diminish depression.(4)
Female Modesty and the compatibility in Sport
In the Orthodox Jewish community, women are raised to be tzanua, modest. This is interpreted and applied as external displays through both dress codes and expressions of attitude. Sometimes though, the fundamentals of tzniut [modesty] are weaponized, creating a double-edged sword that are at odds with the notion of Jewish women participating in sports.(5)
In order to succeed in competitive sports, modesty, or tzniut, has to be set aside. In basketball, the rebound often goes to the player who wants the ball more than her opponent, who exerts her court presence. In soccer, where opponents are crowding around a loose ball up for grabs, the player who charges into the melee and exits with the ball has practiced ometz,or courage. Courage and the presence to enter the maelstrom though receiving an elbow to the head or nose is a possibility. There is a time and place for everything. The significant benefits claimed by competitive female athletes are alien to modesty.
During my career as a competitive college fencer, I once fenced saber against the women’s Yeshiva University fencing team. The event was held on a Sunday in order to avoid conflicting with the Sabbath (which significantly restricted the number of competitions for Yeshiva fencers). The women warmed up with a loose skirt over their knickers, as some Orthodox women do not wear pants in public. Before the bout, the Yeshiva competitor removed her skirt, and stood en guard on the strip with her knickers exposed. It was a great equalizing moment in time where neither religion nor its observance differentiated between the female saber fencers. It was a fabulously unifying experience, and an example of that even as barriers are lifted to include women’s competitive sports, women of many of the world’s religions with their own religious observances are equal participants.
Competitive Sports Teaches Achievement
It is said that to excel at an endeavor, one must practice for 10,000 hours. Believing that almost anything can be achieved with hard and focused work is a priceless lesson. Practicing and perfecting one’s athletic abilities with rigorous training, especially in competitive sports, can potentially pay big dividends.
Jewish athletic competition continued to build on the basis of the above beliefs, with multiple sports clubs growing in East European countries in the late 1800’s. At this time many young Jews wanted to dampen an image of the “ghetto Jew” and emphasize the physical strength of the Jews. This belief eventually with the hard work of Jewish athletes led to the establishment of the Maccabi Work Union and the first Maccabiah games, or as some say, “the Jewish Olympics,” which was first held in 1932.(6) Jews from around the world gather to compete every four years in Israel, and it has now become the third-largest sporting event in the world. Today, this worldwide Jewish athletic competition promotes the physical strength of the Jews while building a sense of unity and nationalism among Jewish athletes.
Take a look at an outstanding athlete, mother, and Orthodox woman, Beatie Deutsch, who has set records in multiple Israeli marathons while currently living an observant Jewish life. She has become a role model for mothers around the world, after completing multiple marathons, including one while she was seven months pregnant. Deutsch’s confidence is apparent. She pushes the boundaries and knows that if she dedicates enough time and effort, the countless hours of her practice and dedication, she will once again qualify for the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo. Training to excel at competitive sports demonstrates the ability to overcome any obstacles. Thankfully, Jewish female athletes now have the ability to practice, compete and achieve. The fight must continue for female athletes to gain the same respect, funding, sponsorship, as well as prestige as compared to their male counterparts.
(1) She got game?! Women, sport and society from an Israeli perspective
Yair Galily, Haim Kaufman & Ilan Tamir (2015) She got game?! Women, sport and society from an Israeli perspective, Israel Affairs, 21:4, 559-584, DOI: 10.1080/13537121.2015.1076184
(2) YU Ideas January 2020 Jews, Sports and Society
(3) A COMPARISON OF ATHLETES VS NON ATHLETES GRADE POINT AVERAGE
(4) “Let School Go During Covid 19, Notes from a Child Psychiatrist”, Linda Jacobs, MD, MBA; Parenting in a Pandemic Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, 2020
(5) “The Interaction Between Judaism and Athletics at Yeshiva University from the Coach’s Perspective” Danielle Carr Women’s Tennis Coach, Stern College for Women
(6) Jews in Sports: The Maccabiah Games.
Danielle Kamis, MD is a Stanford trained psychiatrist, NCAA All American Fencer, who specializes in sports psychiatry in her private practice in Los Altos, CA. To learn more about Dr. Danielle Kamis, please visit her website at www.kamismd.com.
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