Issue 5 - Summer 2007 - The Healthy Issue
An 1898 address on a
Great goalkeepers are fearless, athletic, and, usually, more than a little insane. The less-than-great who keep goal in Sunday leagues around the world are more likely to be overweight, unskilled, and prone to drastic errors. You could say, then, that I was perfectly suitable to play in goal for the Veras, a ragtag bunch of wandering amateur footballers who played through this past London winter in the Maccabi Southern Football League, Division 4. Here was my chance to wake up at dawn on cold Sunday mornings to stand in the mud, waiting to dive at the feet of marauding Israelis.
Few people actually choose to be a goalie, and so it was with me. I already had some friends who played for the Veras, and I wanted in. Technically, there were a few positions available. I could have challenged for the left-back spot, but becoming a goalie was my only real option. I am a lightning-fast, run-all-day, technically perfect attacking midfielder trapped in the body of an asthmatic weakling with two left feet. Until joining the team eight years ago, table tennis had accounted for my most strenuous form of aerobic exercise. Being an outfield player and running around the pitch for ninety minutes was not something I was cut out to do.
That’s not to say that being a goalkeeper is easy. The goalie carries the weight of the team on his shoulders; one mistake is a calamity. If a striker does ten things wrong and one thing right, he’s a hero. If a goalkeeper does a hundred things right but one thing wrong, he’s an embarrassment to all who know him. Guarding the goal can be lonely work, too. Albert Camus famously found inspiration for his work L’Etranger from standing alone on his goal line.
If you were to make your way to Regent’s Park on a winter’s Sunday morning and witness for yourself the Veras warming up, our bellies bulging over our ill-fitting tracksuits, the majority of us going bald, you would find it hard to believe that the Maccabi League has its roots in the vision of the early Zionists.
Back in 1898, Dr. Max Nordau addressed the Second Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, on a renewal of a “Jewry of Muscles.” Nordau claimed, “Others made the Jews of the middle ages into sorrow weaklings, haggard and unable to defend ourselves in the narrow alleyways of the ghetto. We will develop wide chests, strong arms and legs, a brave look. We will be warriors. But our recovery to health is not only through the body, but also in the spirit, for as Hebrews will attain more achievements in sport, so will our self-confidence improve. Hebrew sports clubs go forward and bloom.” Thus the Maccabi movement was born.
Jewish sports organizations around the globe now thrive under the Maccabi umbrella. Every four years the finest Jewish athletes from every nation gather in Jerusalem for the Maccabi Games — a bit like the Olympics but with shorter, slower, weaker people.
I have a deep affection for the Veras and the often-miserable Sunday mornings I have spent with them over the past eight years. But I can’t help wondering if Dr. Nordau would be pleased to see how his dream has played out in one corner of northwest London. He might forgive us our uncompetitive attitude — even our soft physiques — but what would he make of our decidedly un–warrior-like modus operandi?
Jewish football is certainly a place to widen your chest and even look brave, all the while harboring the knowledge that you will never come face to face with a warrior. We Jewish footballers can walk tall and talk tough without ever risking getting into a fight.
I feel at home in the Maccabi League, which is swarming with other Jewish men who have never been in a fight, much less won one. On any given Sunday, while most normal people are still tucked under the covers, fields across London are being trampled by whining Jewish men who like nothing more than to tell other whining Jewish men how they are going to beat the crap out of each other. (Not that a punch ever comes close to being thrown. The British call it “handbags at dawn”).
I don’t know much about fighting, but what I do know I learned from my non-Jewish friends. First, if you get into a fight in a pool hall, don’t pick up a cue; it’s no match for the guy who starts throwing the balls. Second, if someone says he is going to hit you, chances are he isn’t. Serious fighters punch first and talk later. Jewish football is very much the reverse: all mouth and no trousers.
Before creating the Veras and joining the Maccabi League in the early 1990s, several of the club’s founders played five-a-side non-Jewish football in Hackney, a considerably rougher part of London. On one occasion, a few of my friends were chased around a parking lot by a pack of large men brandishing metal poles. One of our shorter players recalls the time he hit the ground after a scuffle. A hulking member of the opposing team stood over him with the advice, “Stay down, little man.”
Since joining the Maccabi League, the closest any of us has come to a fight was the time when one of our defenders, Dan Swymer, called over to his teammate, “Don’t worry about their number 10 — he’s my bitch.” Whereupon he turned to number 10, patted him on the tush, and added, “Aren’t you, bitch?” Fortunately, number 10 was an Israeli who had not been in the country too long and replied a confused-sounding, “Mah?”
Another close call came a few months later when Ric Cantor, our captain, came up against a nutcase Israeli with a better handle on the English language than the aforementioned number 10. When the Israeli appealed for “offside” after Ric scored, Ric replied, “Your wife’s offside!” The Israeli proceeded to play ball, but after the game he followed Ric all the way home, leading what might have been Golders Green’s first-ever car chase.
It’s doubtful this is what Dr. Nordau had in mind, but maybe his spirits would be buoyed by the presence of Israelis in the league. I’m not so sure what he would have made of this fact, though: even though the Maccabi League is meant to be ethnically pure, only ninety percent of its players are Jewish.
The U.K.’s national Jewish newspaper, The Jewish Chronicle, broke the story of the 2005 Champions, Brixton FC. It turned out that their star midfielder “Mick Joseph” was actually Mick Johnson, a large Irish builder. Camden Park, the team that came in second place, reported Brixton to the authorities and was awarded the title. However, Camden Park would hold onto the trophy only until its own members’ genealogy came under investigation.
The Veras have always had a few non-Jewish players in their ranks, each of them given a Jewish name and taught the first line of the Shema in case he was quizzed. Non-Jewish players were also supplied with the same cover story — that his father was Jewish but his mother was not; he didn’t go to shul when he was younger; and, of course, he picked up his footballing ability from his mother.
So far, “Mark Gold” has played undetected for over ten years with only the odd incident. “Tom Fine” (née Fiennes), however, was not so fortunate. The Maccabi board of governors recently checked his metaphorical penis and banished him from Maccabi forever.
The governors hinted that they would let Tom play in the league if he would tell them he was Jewish. Much as he wanted to keep playing, Tom couldn’t bring himself to tell an outright lie, and so his Veras career came crashing to a halt.
The team has always had an informal policy that if any of our non-Jewish friends were banned from playing, we would leave the league. And when Tom had to appear before the board, there were murmurs within the club of leaving the league, of challenging the ruling, of taking the league to a higher authority for its discriminatory practices.
But when it came down to it, none of that happened. We made excuses. We were growing old. Our legs were tiring. Most of us only had another winter or two left in us. In other words, nobody was hungry for a fight. Attitudes within the club were split over an appropriate response. Only this week there was talk of a protest — of changing the name of the club to Tommy Fine FC — but we all know that’s not going to happen.
Tom had a farewell drink with the team a few weeks ago, and he harbored no grudges toward the league for ejecting him or toward his teammates for playing on without him. Meanwhile, the Veras continue to play in a league that would prefer it if a number of their friends did not play with them.
There are many on the team who feel a sense of unease at this, but the likelihood of righteous action is low. This has less to do with a natural tendency against fighting and more with a sense of disbelief that we got away with as much as we did. The life of the Veras is coming to an end, and it’s all rather fortuitous that it took until now for the Maccabi League to notice the ringers.
Football is a young man’s game, and if the Veras do survive, it will be because the club will be taken over by a whole new generation of largely unfit, averagely skilled Jewish footballers who never promised to leave the league if anyone was thrown out. The Veras of old will soon exist only in the minds and hearts of a gang of thirtysomething — soon to be fortysomething — Jewish and non-Jewish men who aren’t getting any faster. &