RAMAT GAN — Be careful who you shake hands with at the Maccabiah Games — you just might end up in the grip of an 80-year-old judoka with something to prove.
Disarmingly soft-spoken and standing a scant five feet tall, the Israeli representative of the Russian delegation Josef Roytman says he still participates in the games to this day — as a wrestler. Given the series of moves he proceeds to display on an unsuspecting reporter, the claim is not hard to believe. If there was any room for doubt, Roytman showboats the point home by making his chest dance.
The pummeling by the overeager octogenarian is far from the only surreal element at play in the lobby of the upscale Kfar Maccabiah Hotel in Ramat Gan, where, on the eve of the 20th Maccabiah Games — also known as the Jewish Olympics — athletes, administrators, and heads of delegations from all over the world crisscross the floor, warmly reconnecting after years apart.
Rodney Sanders, adviser to the director of the Maccabi World Union, immediately pounces when he senses a reporter. The Times of Israel was treated to a long-winded history of the games — along with histories of any other sporting events that happened to come to mind along the twisting, tangent-filled monologue.
Sweeping his arm before him grandiosely, Sanders illustrates the scope of the operation in an elegant South African staccato.
“Here in the hotel are just the senior officials of each delegation. You’ve got 208 suites, 143 rooms — it’s a considerable hotel. And wherever you go there’s names on these things like it’s Hadassah hospital,” he says, cutting himself off to point a finger at a man walking by. “Michael, my fellow warrior. Keep that shirt. Even if you don’t have an official function… oh, you do? Oh okay, cool, so you do have a job.”
“Olympic village, man, what do you bloody need that for?” Sanders says, turning back to me. “We’ve got hundreds of buses going all around the country.”
In fact, Sanders informs me, as the third-largest sporting event in the world, housing 10,000 athletes and attracting over 20,000 additional fans, the 20th Maccabiah Games is nothing short of a logistical masterpiece.
“You need to understand,” he says. “For example, the largest touring delegation in the world of sports is the US Summer Olympic delegation. What is that, 600 people, including athletes, coaches? This [Maccabiah US delegation] is 1,200. Logistically, it doesn’t make any difference what you’re moving, man. These are by far the largest delegations in the history of sports.”
It’s a far cry from what was in its first iteration, like so many other things in this country, a much smaller scale grassroots project.
The Maccabiah Games were the brainchild of 15-year-old Yosef Yekutieli, who got the idea for an international Jewish sporting event after hearing about the Stockholm Olympics in 1912. Nearly two decades after the games were conceived of, 390 athletes from 18 countries participated in the first Maccabiah Games in Tel Aviv in 1932, competing in a stadium — the first of its kind in what was then Mandatory Palestine — that was completed just prior to the opening ceremony.
Seventy-five years later, a record-breaking 10,000 athletes from 85 countries are participating in 45 sporting events. Past competitors have included Olympians, including four-time Olympic gold medalist Jason Lezak, and players of major professional sports.
The Maccabi World Union is comprised of six confederations: Maccabi Israel, the European Maccabi Confederation, Maccabi North America, Maccabi Latin America, Maccabi South Africa, and Maccabi Australia. There are 50 countries in the Maccabi World Union representing 400,000 members.
The games take place in stadiums all over Israel, and Maccabiah Village — or Kfar Maccabiah, as it is known in Hebrew — is on elaborate grounds lush with greenery and containing numerous sporting facilities, administrative offices, and a luxury hotel.
In front of an elegant events space across from the hotel, sweaty athletes with tennis gear walk by an ultra-Orthodox bride being photographed ahead of her wedding, which is set to take place there later in the afternoon.
There is an air of resilience about the whole place subconsciously juxtaposed with buried memories of a dark history, making the games especially meaningful.
‘It’s a story of going where the Shoah was particularly strong against our people and saying that we’re alive’
“Maccabi is part of my family, my life, my education and involvement,” says Claudia De Benedetti, vice chair of European Macabbi Confederation. “Mostly I’m educational in the sense that we work to educate people about the program all year long in all countries.”
De Benedetti, proud of the 50-strong delegation coming from her native Italy, won a silver medal in fencing during the 1977 Maccabiah Games, and has been a part of Maccabi all her life. But she isn’t a professional athlete. De Benedetti says she’s in real estate – and that she used her vacation days to come to Israel for the games. She stresses the importance that Maccabi has culturally for Jews on the Continent.
“Every four years we also have the European games,” she says. “Next will be Budapest, and it has been held previously in Berlin and Vienna. So it’s a story of going where the Shoah was particularly strong against our people and saying that we’re alive. And for us, as Maccabi, being alive and being part of the future generation, I think is very important — especially in Budapest, especially in those countries that have so much less Jewry now than before World War II.”
The Slovak delegation, headed up by gynecologist Dr. Dagmar Gavornikova, is a testament to this.
“Before WWII, Czechoslovakia had 70,000 Jews,” says Gavornikova. “Nowadays, that number is closer to between 2,000 and 3,000, and most of them are from mixed marriages. Our goal is to find people of Jewish heritage and bring them back to their Jewish identity. And what better way to do this than sport?”
‘Our goal is to find people of Jewish heritage and bring them back to their Jewish identity. And what better way to do this than sport?’
It’s an endeavor not taken for granted by delegations from other former Soviet bloc countries. Wrestler Roytman, who himself survived the Holocaust as a child, fleeing Romania for Uzbekistan with his mother in 1941, points out the head of the Russian delegation Vadim Polianski — a towering, bearded man in a gold-embroidered captain’s hat, whom he credits with breaking the Soviet ban on Maccabi participation in 1989.
“It was illegal before,” says Roytman. “No religion, no other nationalism. So you couldn’t participate in Maccabi. But then Vadim started gathering people in St. Petersburg anyway, and the movement got bigger and bigger, and finally, Gorbachev said that this fell under freedom of speech and allowed it.”
“Me? No, I didn’t join,” Roytman says modestly. “But I did become the Russian representative in Israel after I made aliyah in 1974.”
The 80-year-old can also be credited with bringing the Russian martial art Sambo to Israel, as well as popularizing it by training his good friend Dutch martial artist Chris Dolman.
“We needed some help with funding to get the Israeli team to the finals,” says Roytman. “So I called Chris. He said, ‘I’ll tell you what, teach me and I’ll go with you.’”
Dolman went on to win the world championship in Sambo in Madrid.
Roytman says there is a tournament named after him in honor of the 20th Maccabiah Games that will take place in Bat Yam on July 11, with participants from the world Sambo team, Maccabi Russia, and the Israeli team all competing for the Josef Roytman medal.
“And,” he says, letting go of my throbbing hand, “you’re invited to come watch.”