MACHO, MACHO MAN
“When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob became a mild man, dwelling in the tent.” (Genesis 25:27)
There is an apocryphal tale about the Hall of Fame quarterback Sid Luckman. Luckman played for the Chicago Bears for twelve seasons, leading them to four NFL championships. He was the son of Jewish immigrants raised in Brooklyn. According to the story, Luckman invited his parents to sit on the bench during a game. These Lithuanian immigrants did not understand football. As Luckman was running from several large defensive lineman, his dad shouted out, “Give them the ball! We can always buy you another one.”
It is true that most Jewish parents do not raise their children to be professional football players. There were certainly several Jewish professional boxers; Max Baer comes to mind. But when the Village People sang their classic song Macho, Macho Man, they were not thinking of yeshiva students in Brooklyn. The idea of the tough Jew was not part of the Jewish mindset. In the old country, Jews were much more interested in developing their intellect than developing their muscles. Perhaps the list of Jewish athletes is so fascinating because it is so rare. We Jews still brag about how one of the greatest Jewish athletes, Sandy Koufax, refused to pitch in the World Series on Yom Kippur.
This division between Jews and non-Jews can already be seen in this week’s Torah portion. Twin brothers, Esau and Jacob, are raised in the same household. There is tension between them even while they are in the womb. They grow up as archetypes of two very different types of people. Esau was an outdoors man, known for his hunting skills. Jacob was a homebody, a man of the tent, his mother’s favorite. If they lived today, one could see Esau becoming a football player, hockey player, or boxer. Jacob would more likely become the accountant for the team, or perhaps the manager. The stereotype of Jews as gentle, non-athletic has deep roots.
In modern times there are Jews who have tried to break with that image. I have fond memories of our late Education Director, Mordecai Kaspi Silverman. He would regularly go to the firing range, and in his office he kept a collection of knifes. In fact, when my first-born son Natan had his bar mitzvah, Kaspi gave him a large knife as a gift. Kaspi always wore a chain around his neck with the letters O.T.J. After several months, I finally asked him what the letters meant. His answer – “One Tough Jew.” The strange irony is that, beneath that tough exterior, I found Kaspi to be a gentle soul.
The modern state of Israel has made a major attempt to change the image of Jews. Every able-bodied Israeli, male and female, must serve in the Israel Defense Forces (I.D.F.) The picture of Jewish soldiers carrying their Uzis, defending the state is a powerful message, Jews will no longer be pushed around. This is vital in this day of rising antisemitism and anti-Israel feelings around the world. Nonetheless, in spite of the importance of the military in Israel, many in the Haredi or ultra-Orthodox community refuse to serve. When these Haredi rabbis are asked why their young people are not helping to defend the state, they answer, “They are defending the state. They do so through studying Torah.”
I am pleased that Sid Luckman, Max Baer, and Sandy Koufax are examples of how the Jewish world is changing. We still admire Jacob but some of Esau is rubbing off on us. We are recognizing the importance of Jews pursuing not just intellectual scholarship but athletic prowess. Krav Maga, a self-defense course developed in Israel, has become extremely popular. There is nothing wrong with being tough.
Nonetheless, on a regular basis I ask Jewish parents why their children are not in religious school or studying for a bar/bat mitzvah. I often hear that there is no time, their children are pursuing soccer, lacrosse, or gymnastics. After all, if they are talented, they can win a college scholarship. I give a standard answer. “When your child is 40, he or she will not be playing soccer. But he or she will still be a Jew.”