“It’s like the Olympics, but for Jews”
I know better than to live vicariously through my children’s experiences—truly, I do. But last week when I drove my son to the airport to meet up with dozens of Jewish kids from the Greater Washington, D.C. area to compete in the Junior Maccabi Games in St. Louis, the severity of my pangs surprised me.
Oh, the Maccabi Games. Sigh. The summer before my junior year in high school, I told my best friend that I was going to try out for the original Maccabiah Games, an open competition held in Israel the year following the Olympic Games.
“I thought you were going to quit swimming,” she said. I thought so too. There was a time when I fancied myself the female version of Mark Spitz (the Michael Phelps of my generation, but Jewish). I imagined standing on the podium, the national anthem playing, my hair dripping on the collar of my U.S. Olympic team warm-up jacket. Once I hit high school, I hooked up with a gaggle of pretty, Catholic volleyball players, and restricted my swimming to the few months of the high school season.
“What are the Maccabi Games anyway?” she said.
“They’re like the Olympics, but for Jews,” I replied shyly. “The best Jewish athletes from throughout the word compete.”
She didn’t say it, but I knew she was thinking, “I thought you’d quit Judaism.” I thought I had too.
I thought my Judaism made me a freak. I spent a good chunk of my early childhood in an Orthodox community and wanted to disinherit the men with long beards and ladies with wigs, whom I’d called aunt and uncle when I went to their homes for Shabbat lunch. I attended a Milwaukee Jewish day school until I was in fourth grade. Since our physical education was spotty, my mother enrolled my brother and me in the local swim club so that we could get some exercise. When I was 9 years old, my family picked up and moved to Jerusalem, , and after we returned to Milwaukee, we entered public school.
My brother and I continued swimming, though, and soon replaced Saturday morning Shabbat services with swim meets. I was happy to ditch my Jewish friends and challah after services for hanging out with mainly Gentiles in sticky swimming pools, licking treyf Jell-O (gelatin is made from a pig) out of the palms of our hands before our races. I bought a pendant with a blue zodiac sign that I hoped passed for a St. Christopher’s medal and saved for a Claddagh ring.
I also stuffed down my deep love of Israel: the scents of the shuk, the taste of warm pita, or the rush I felt writing a note and wedging it into the stones of the Western Wall. I wanted to expunge the images of barbed wire fences and piles of shoes that I’d seen at Babi Yar. I wanted nothing to do with the Reform girls either. I scoffed at BBYO youth groups and summer camps. Oy, my arrogance.
I wanted to erase my Judaism, yet like anything you cram into a box, the tighter you coil it, the more fiercely it springs out at you. Once I made the decision to try out for the Maccabiah team, I was willing to sacrifice anything to reach my goal. I watched my high school friends attend parties with the popular crowd and date cool older boys, while I logged hours at the pool. I drove home from practice, exhausted, my wet curls frozen, dreaming about returning to Israel. I’d flirt with soldiers in Hebrew, eat falafel, float in the Dead Sea, and climb Masada with a team of Jewish swimmers who would understand how freeing it felt to merge two parts of myself: my passion for swimming and my sublimated Jewish identity. Maybe I’d meet a Jewish boy with bigger shoulders than mine! Oh, man. I could taste it.
To my surprise, that year I qualified for the Junior National competition, the perfect meet to drop the time I needed to secure a spot on the Maccabiah team. I shaved off seconds from my two best events. I was a contender. My hard work had paid off. My coach submitted my times, and we waited. And waited. It might have been for a week, but it felt like 10 years. I can’t recall who broke the news to me, but I think it was my mom. I missed making the team by .01 of a second.
My son did not need to train at all to make the Greater Washington Maccabi team. The week before he left for St. Louis, a friend asked me if he was excited about the trip. He was indeed looking forward to the adventure, but the Maccabi experience didn’t mean to him what it had to me.
He had an absolute blast at the four-day competition. He bubbled over when he talked about chatting with his host family, trading pins at the opening ceremonies, racing his heart out, cutting seconds off his times, and eating the best roast beef sandwich he’d ever had in his life. On the drive home from the airport, I asked him if he sang the Hatikvah, recited the blessings before or after a meal, or spoke Hebrew with the Israeli kids. He was enthusiastic about the Jewish parts of the experience but said, “Mom, it was really more about making friends.”
Throughout the years, my son has made many Jewish friends, some athletes, some not, and their religion is merely a biographical fact that he never ponders. His faith is an organic part of his being, not a part of himself to be tamped down to fit in or amplified to stave off an anti-Semitic remark. It took me years to untangle my Jewish identity enough to marry a Jewish man who shared my desire to raise our kids with a solid spiritual foundation.
So no, I did not live vicariously through my son while he competed in his Maccabi Games, and not because I didn’t want to. His experience was uniquely his own, and one that I couldn’t have ever conjured, one that I couldn’t have known to dream for him.