Saturday, August 11, 2012


I suppose that it has been noticed in cyber-circles that I have not
had anything at all to say about the Olympics. That is not a
coincidence. I am an irritable curmudgeon and a fussbudget geezer,
and I must confess that I have never found anything interesting about
sports of any sort. You of course need not agree with me, but do not
try to persuade me of the excitement in sports, because it would just
be a waste of your time.
I hate sports. I refused to participate in them when I was a
camper in Zionist summer camps back in the Olde Country, nor later
when I was a counselor. Except for the prospect of making 50 cent
betting profits, I never took any interest in the baseball World
Series back when I was a whippersnapper. In the 1970s, when I was a
graduate student at the Hebrew University, the other students would
invariably ask me after the weekend if I had seen the game, and I
would ask them if they meant a chess match. That usually was enough
to get them to stop talking to me.
I have never seen the attraction of a bunch of sweaty men chasing
a plastic ball across the grass. I have on occasion posted my
suggestion that soccer hooliganism be dealt with by laws requiring
that all sports reporting be in Latin. Just like I think that no
newspaper that carries horoscope advice can be taken seriously about
anything, so I have serious doubts about any newspaper that has more
than 2 inches of news print about sports. In the past I have timed my
visits as a tourist to major cities for the week of some major
sporting event, so that I could be sure that the museums I wanted to
visit would be empty. When I buy a newspaper or get one for free (a
lot in Israel are now free), I carefully dump the sports section in
the trash before walking off, lest anyone suspect me of reading it.
All of which takes me to the nostalgic feature in this past
weekend's Israeli newspaper, Makor Rishon. You will be relieved to
hear that Makor Rishon does not have any sports pages (as far as I
know - it is possible my brain simply tunes out when I stumble across
them). It is also the main newspaper of the Zionist Non-Left in
Israel. This weekend's paper carried an interesting look back in time
to the Israel of the 1950s, and I thought I would paraphrase it for
you in English. The story is part of a column by Hagai Segel, one of
Israel's better columnists.
It begins with the observation that Israeli athletes were not
particularly good at bringing home Olympic medals back in the 1950s
and 60s either. But it was a different era, a different world. The
star of the country, the equivalent of the focus of paparazzi
obsession, was one Amos Chacham. His fame came from the fact that he
was the champion of the 1958 international Bible contest. All the
newspapers "kvelled" over him. The Prime Minister Ben Gurion followed
every round in the competition and was openly cheering for Chacham.
When Menachem Begin was driving around the outskirts of Jerusalem, he
happened to spy Chacham. He ordered his driver to stop, and he jumped
out to shake Chacham's hand and tell him how much he admired him.
Begin then quickly slipped away because he was afraid that the
paparazzi would photograph them together and Begin would be accused of
cynically exploiting the popularity of the Bible contest winner (it
was election season). The scandal sheet Haolam Hazeh, at the time a
sort of Israeli National Enquirer that later moved to the far Left and
went bankrupt, proclaimed Chacham its man of the year. It ran a
cartoon of Chacham as an athlete lifting bar bells, on both ends of
which were Bibles.
The international Bible contest in Jerusalem in which Chacham
excelled attracted international attention. It was open to non-Jews.
The Pope gave a special prayer and blessing for success of the Italian
team. Protestant and Catholic churches throughout Europe prayed for
the success of their own representatives.
Chacham, who passed away last week, was 37 years old at the time.
He made short shrift of the foreign non-Jewish competitors, but ran up
against serious challenges from the other Israeli contestants. They
included teachers, academics, mathematicians and rabbis. The father
of the Israeli atomic energy project was in the audience, following
every question and answer.
One of the toughest challengers was also the oldest contestant,
a 67 year old repairman of sewing machines. 460 Israelis participated
in the contest. The first prize was a box of books worth 500 lirot
(or about 200 dollars).
A mathematician who participated in the contest, one Dr. Baruch
Ben-Yehuda, was later offered the job of Minister of Education. I
think the best thing about him was how he responded when a young A.B.
Yehoshua, today the leader of Israel's pro-Palestinian Literary Left,
proposed that none of the more "nationalist" parts of the Bible be
taught in Israeli schools, and that in particular the sections that
refer to Jews as a chosen people be deleted. Ben-Yehuda dismissed
A.B. Yehoshua's idea as "self-abasement bordering on mental illness."
I think the writings of A.B. Yehoshua's, who also led the recent
campaign to subject book prices in Israel to bolshevik controls,
should be confined to the sports pages. (To be read with Google
translation software from the Latin.)

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