High Holidays Feature History of Jewish Female Athletes Celebrated in Brand-New Calendar

What does a hockey goalie, a pole-vaulter, two fencers, a marathoner and a kayaker have to do with the coming Jewish New Year? They are female Jewish athletes whose images grace a new 5766 calendar, Jewish + Female = Athlete: Portraits of Strength from around the World, produced by the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, celebrating 14 current stars and 13 legends from the past in a tribute to the accomplishments of Jewish women in sport.

"Jewish girls deserve to grow up knowing that strength is beauty," Shulamit Reinharz, the founding director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, told JTA in a recent interview. "And Jewish children of both genders should look at these amazing athletes as role models."

The calendar — and a larger-than-life, free-standing traveling exhibit available to schools, synagogues, libraries and community centers — will be officially launched at a Sept. 18 celebration at Brandeis University.

The calendar celebrates in action photography contemporary Jewish female athletes from around the world and also pays tribute to the stories of Jewish female athletes who were pioneers in breaking down barriers.

For instance, the month of April, Nisan-Iyar, highlights Israel’s professional tennis star, Anna Smashnova. It also details the "herstory" of Angela Buxton, the only Jewish woman in history to win at Wimbledon.

Buxton overcame pervasive anti-Semitism in the tennis world. She teamed with the black player Althea Gibson, winning the women’s doubles championships at Wimbledon and the French Open in 1956. Buxton went on to become the co-founder of the Israel Tennis Centres.

The "cover girls" for the calendar are Sada and Emily Jacobson, sisters and saber fencers from Atlanta, Ga., who both competed in the 2004 Olympics — Sada won a bronze medal — and have each won NCAA championships. In the photograph the two sisters are shown fencing in an open field. "You can’t win just be being the strongest and the fastest. You also have to be the smartest," said Emily Jacobson, in a quote accompanying the picture.

A senior at Yale University, Sada Jacobson told JTA it was a "big honor" to be on the cover on the just-published calendar.

Jacobson said fencing "is a great sport because it incorporates the physical with the intellectual. She and her sister, she continued, are "extremely" competitive. "When we fence each other, it’s all business. We go to win. But when the bout is over, we’re back to being sisters. We cheer each other on and try to help however possible," Jacobson said. She added that she hopes she can serve as a role model for younger athletes.

All of the women were chosen both for their athletic prowess and pride in their Jewish identity, according to Reinharz. The decision to focus on Jewish female athletes is credited to Nathalie Alyon, who worked for the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.

"We hope to help expand the understanding of Jewish women’s lives, interests and accomplishments and encourage the Jewish community to rethink traditional gender definitions," Reinharz said.

This year’s calendar is the latest in a series of produced by the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute to create a new image of Jewish women. A previous calendar featured female rabbis from around the world.

Reinharz explained that the genesis of the calendars was an effort to change the stereotypes surrounding the images of Jews — both in the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. "What’s the typical image of a Jew?" she asked rhetorically. "All too often, it’s of a bearded older man praying or blowing the shofar."

The images of female athletes portrayed in the calendar provide a sharp contrast with that stereotype — Zhanna Pintusevich-Block, a sprinter from Ukraine, in mid-stride, arms pumping, and Jillian Schwartz, a pole- vaulter from the United States, soaring over the bar, nothing but blue sky above her muscular body.

"When we’re looking at these women, we’re looking at their bodies, for sure," said Reinharz. "It’s also important for us that you look beyond the picture and see people who have accomplished so much, as humans who have a history, using their minds to figure out what’s required to achieve success, using their emotions to go the extra mile."

For Linda Borish, an associate professor of history at Western Michigan University, the calendar represents an opportunity to share her original research on the history of Jewish women in American sports. Her odyssey began in 1999 when she was asked to review a book on Jewish men in American sports for American Jewish History, the official publication of the American Jewish Historical Society.

"I wondered," she said, "why there was no inclusion or record of Jewish women athletes. Was it because women did not participate or play, or was it because the author didn’t look."

What Borish found was that Jewish women not only played but were often leaders in their sports. To her, the Jewish + Female = Athlete calendar adds to the historical record about Jewish women seeking opportunities in sport and society.

One of the most compelling stories, according to Borish, is that of Charlotte "Eppy" Epstein, who founded the famed New York Women’s Swimming Association and led the way for the recognition of women’s swimming as an Olympic sport in 1920. Her swimming champions, known as "Eppy swimmers," set 51 world records and won 30 national relay championships.

"Many people know the story of Jewish athlete Marty Glickman, a sprinter, being denied the opportunity to race at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin," Borish said. "In 1936, Eppy resigned as assistant manager of the U.S. Women’s Olympic Swim Team and from the U.S. Olympic Committee in protest of Nazi Germany’s persecution of Jews."

Now, says Borish, the story of Epstein and other Jewish female athletes are being rediscovered

"For the first time," Borish told JTA, "the new edition of Encyclopaedia Judaica will have new entries about Jewish women and sports," based on her research. "I’m waiting for when there are trading cards for Jewish women athletes," she said.

The calendar, which is available for $13.95, can be ordered online at www.brandeis.edu/hbi or by phone at (781) 736-8114.

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