PRAGUE (May. 1)
For four days, there were possibly more Jews in the Czech capital than at any time since World War II. They were so full of joy, bursting into song in the Old Town or trading shirts and pins with tourists, that many natives wondered how such a large group of mostly male visitors could be so well-behaved.
What also made the Jews stand out was their appearance. Yarmulkes? Stars of David? Side curls?
Nope. They were swathed in yellow, head to toe. Yellow shirts, hats and face paint.
The new Jews in town were the 10,000 to 15,000 Israelis who flew in to cheer for what was, until Sunday, the best basketball team in the European League. And even though Maccabi Tel Aviv, with its yellow and blue uniforms, was defeated by CSKA Moscow in a close game in the Euroleague final, the impression made by the fans will last a while.
Their team was a loser, but by all accounts, the Israeli fans were winners.
“This is not what we are used to in sports fans,” observed Martina Kucerova, a Prague sportswriter who worked during the Final Four at Sazka Arena, the venue for the tournament. “They don’t get drunk, they don’t get aggressive, they are just happy and fun. It’s so refreshing.”
Her observations were echoed by journalists, police, stadium staff and just regular folk used to the lowbrow antics of European hockey or soccer fans, known for starting fights or at least annoying others with their belligerent and often drunken carousing.
Instead, you could find the Israelis singing everything from the Hatikvah to Maccabi team songs, exchanging memorabilia with fans of the other three teams in the championship — including the one they crushed in the semifinal, Spain’s Tau Ceramica, and the Russian squad that denied them this year’s championship.
Some Czech journalists attributed the fans’ respectability to the more laid-back attitude of basketball fans worldwide in comparison to fans of other sports. Others said that anyone able to plunk down more than $1,200 for a trip to the championships was going to be more sophisticated than your average soccer yahoo.
But there were so many other qualities that distinguished the Israelis. First was their sheer number.
Sazka stadium holds 18,000 spectators, and in the semifinals and finals in which Maccabi participated, more than 80 percent of the seats were filled with yellow-and-blue-clad Israelis who sang, clapped and danced for the entire game, without the usual taunting of the opposing side.
Frantisek Bouc, a veteran Czech sportswriter, said organizers were hoping Maccabi would make it to the finals.
“It’s known all around Europe that they have some of the most loyal fans,” he said.
As is the case with most European teams, Americans number among Maccabi’s stars, including the team’s most beloved player, Anthony Parker. The team is about 40 percent native Israeli, and two of the American players are married to Israelis.
“It doesn’t matter to us if they are from Pluto — they are the Israeli team, and we love them,” said Guy Alalof, who came to Prague for the game from the Negev town of Yeruham.
“There is no other European basketball team that can generate such a following,” said Iren Harel, from Kfar Saba.
Dedication to the team comes also from a desire to focus on something positive and unifying “when there are so many political and security issues that trouble Israelis,” Harel said, an opinion endorsed by many other fans during the weekend tournament.
The Israeli fervor led to some remarkable scenes in Prague.
After Maccabi won its semifinal Friday, 500 Israelis made their way to the Hilton to welcome Shabbat with Chabad. In a city with only 1,500 registered members of the Jewish community, and typically no more than 200 at any religious event, the spontaneous singing and dancing in the Hilton entry hall was a unique spectacle.
“We came from the March of the Living,” an annual visit to the sites of Nazi concentration camps in Poland, “and I cannot think of a greater and more wonderful contrast than to watch this celebration,” said Sylvia Camlot of Montreal, a hotel guest,
At the Shabbat dinner, chants of “moshiach, moshiach” — Messiah, Messiah — were interspersed with “tzahov, tzahov,” or yellow, in honor of Maccabi.
The Shabbat event was held thanks to Ya’acov Globerman, reportedly the only rabbi in Israel closely associated with a sports team. He is the rabbi of Maccabi coach Pini Gershon, who met him three years ago at a Chabad class that teaches the basics of Judaism to secular Jews.
Since that time the two have partnered in a charity organization, Hand to Hand, that has helped more than 50,000 needy Israelis. Gershon, who has said this would be his last season with Maccabi, has become more observant in recent years, mentioning God in his press conferences and even walking five miles to the stadium from his hotel on Saturday — “although without a yarmulke,” Globerman noted.
As for the relationship between God and basketball, Globerman told JTA, “A stronger belief in God can help the coach in everything he does.”
Ziv Rafalovitz, a fan from Tel Aviv, said he thought Globerman brought the team good luck.
“A lot of miracles happened for this team to get to the Final Four this year, since they were not having a great season,” he said.
Maccabi fans range from Orthodox to secular. Rafalovitz said more religious Jews were beginning to follow basketball because of Globerman’s celebrity status.
Fortunately for them, Sazka Arena served up kosher hot dogs — though, at $13.33 each, they cost about 15 times as much as a non-kosher Czech wiener.
Prague’s Chabad rabbi, Manis Barash, was ecstatic to have hundreds of people at the Chabad house on Saturday, which normally hosts no more than 20 or 30 worshippers on Shabbat. He arranged the Hilton dinner and set up “mitzvah stations” for people to lay tefillin outside the stadium.
“You see these Israelis on a Friday night? They could go to the disco, but instead they are going to pray,” Barash said, though he acknowledged that many went to the disco or the casino after praying.
Even in defeat, the Israelis dutifully waved their flags and sang several choruses of “Maccabi Maccabi.”
“We’ll be in Athens next year,” said a slightly dejected Oren Rosenberg of Tel Aviv, sweating through the yellow and blue paint on his cheeks after the game ended, “for sure at the finals.”