Tennis Anyone?

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published July 07, 2006, issue of July 07, 2006.
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Tennis, anyone? For much of the 20th century, American Jews had a passion for sports. Some took pleasure in boxing, others in baseball and basketball, and still others in keeping score. Bowling, tennis and golf also had more than their fair share of fans. Far more than an idle pursuit, a form of easy sociability or simply a way to burn off excess energy, sports provided American Jews with the opportunity to demonstrate their modernity as well as their athletic prowess.

At a time when doubts about their physical assimilability loomed large, the ease with which American Jews dribbled a basketball, held a bat, swung a tennis racket and wielded a golf club put the lie to widespread notions that they were not only of inferior stock but also somehow insufficiently American.

These days, such notions may strike contemporary readers as ludicrous, if not downright far-fetched, but a look at how American Jews of, say, the 1920s talked of sports suggests how much was at stake when it came to collective displays of physical bravura. Within the American Jewish community of the time, sports were heralded as an exercise in normalization.

Take golf, for instance. All throughout the Jazz Age, American Jewish newspapers such as the American Hebrew made much of American Jewry’s newfound affection for the golf course, or what it defined as “golf fever.” In its annual Country Clubs and Sports issue, itself a testament to the community’s cultural investment in the sporting life, discussions of golf took pride of place. Documenting the number of golf clubs throughout the country that were established and frequented by American Jews, as well as profiling those members of the tribe who excelled in the sport, the newspaper made sure to record American Jewry’s “astonishing turn toward outdoor life.” This new trend, it went on to say, “may be adjectived as a virtue or a vice, depending on your point of view. We state it here merely for the obvious fact that is.”

But then, the American Hebrew was being somewhat disingenuous. For explicit throughout its detailed coverage of the sporting scene was a real sense of pride at the speed and ease with which American Jewish men and women of the interwar years had transformed themselves from bookworms to sports hounds, from outsiders to insiders — or at least to more typical, middle-class Americans. By its lights, American Jewry’s attentiveness to the ins and outs of golf, with its strange talk of birdies, eagles and bogeys, was clearly a virtue. By playing golf, the American Jew absorbed “many of the habits, customs and social amenities of the American non-Jew,” the paper told its readers. By playing golf and cultivating an ethos of good sportsmanship, the American Jew learned how to relax and to modulate what many thought to be his characteristic competitiveness. Success, he would discover while out on the links, was “not necessarily the concomitant of winning the game.”

And if that weren’t enough to persuade thousands of American Jews across the country to perfect their swing, the American Hebrew was convinced that the ancient Scottish game had the potential to break down barriers between Jews and non-Jews by generating an easy, effortless sense of camaraderie. Admittedly, an awfully large number of golf clubs at the time (and well into our own age) did not freely admit American Jews as members. While acknowledging this lamentable state of affairs — “We hope for the advent of the day when men and women will be welcomed in a country club by virtue of their sportsmanship, not their religious affiliation,” the paper editorialized — it nevertheless held out the possibility that Jews and non-Jews could find common ground on the fairway. No matter if the invitation to play was extended only by the Jewish party: “Eighteen holes of leisurely, pleasant, sporting rivalry tends to promote mutual good feeling and the in-between chats that develop as [players] wander over the fairways always adds to their good fellowship.”

As much an occasion for celebration, then, as for stock taking, the paper’s coverage of the Jewish golf club scene underscored its role as an agent of acculturation. “Given half a chance and shown the way, the Jew proves himself [as] human out of doors as other Americans,” the American Hebrew ringingly declared, insisting that the “American love of sports, no less than the ardor for democracy, fair play and the square deal [had] entered the Jew’s soul,” and all for the better.

Deeply felt, even stirring, this statement made clear just how profoundly the American Jewish community valued sports. It may strike us as a tad overwrought, but to America’s Jews of the interwar years, the affirmation of sports as a key American value, alongside those of democracy and fair play, clearly hit home.

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