"A sport at which Jews excel": Jewish basketball in American society, 1900--1951

by Sclar, Arieh, Ph.D., STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK AT STONY BROOK, 2008, 308 pages; 3338249


Between 1900 and 1951, Jews played an important role in the development of basketball in American society. A Jewish basketball culture emerged both from an ‘Americanization’ project intended to facilitate immigrant adjustment and from a Jewish project that sought to normalize Jewish masculinity through sport. Jewish basketball flourished within the public space of American society as an inter-connected network of local neighborhoods, independent clubs, Jewish centers, public schools, colleges, and professional basketball. As it grew, Jewish basketball confronted internal and external tensions, which complicated its role in American Jewish life. Due to a complex interplay of cultural and political factors that arose from the effort to unite a fragmented American Jewish community, the culture eventually diminished, but not before Jews had helped transform basketball from a marginal sport into a mass, commercialized spectacle.

During the interwar period, public recognition of Jewish basketball led both Jews and non-Jews to describe basketball as a uniquely ‘Jewish game.’ The ‘Jewish game’ existed not simply because of the prevalence of Jewish players, but also because Jews were considered inherently good at basketball. This led to the construction of a racialized ‘basketball Jew,’ whose small, but quick body and mental agility produced the ideal basketball player. By considering the connection between racial identity and athleticism, this study of Jewish basketball will help reveal the relationship between sport and American Jewish culture, which involved play on the court and the meanings associated with this play.

Jewish basketball reflected the experiences of American Jews during the first half of the twentieth century as they moved from being viewed as an ‘alien’ immigrant group to a relatively accepted minority within mainstream society. This dissertation will examine how the negotiations and power struggles involved in controlling the direction of, and the meanings associated with, Jewish basketball elucidate the complexities of a developing American Jewish community under the stress of integration.

Source TypeDissertation
SubjectsAmerican history; Judaic studies; Recreation
Publication Number3338249

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