Dr. Uri Miller is a historiographer who was incarcerated as a Refusenik for six years in the former Soviet Union. He succeeded in making Aliyah in 1987. Shortly after his immigration to Israel, he started working for the library of the Orde Wingate Institute for Physical Education and Sports, which was established by The Jewish Agency.
Miller: a walking Maccabi-pedia
"Did you know that in the first and second Maccabiah Games, there were swimming competitions, but since there were no swimming pools in Tel-Aviv yet, they took place in the sea?" marvels Miller.
"Also, not many people know that there was a one-time Winter Maccabiah because the European Jews loved winter sports," says Miller. "It was held in 1933 in Zakopane, a popular ski spot in the south of Poland. Following this, all the Maccabiah events were held in Israel… But here in the Middle East, we strangely have icehockey teams from Canada, Russia and America competing in the Northern Sports Center in Metula."
Second Maccabiah—"Aliyah Olympics" (1935)
"The most interesting Maccabiah in my opinion as a historian, and as a Jewish Agency employee," claims Miller "was the second Maccabiah. It took place in Israel, and was later dubbed the 'Aliyah Olympics.' By then, the Nazi regime prevailed in Germany. So, in 1935, Jews came to compete in the Maccabiah and brought their families with them so that they could get passage to immigrate from Poland, Lithuania, Bulgaria and elsewhere.
"One ship from Bulgaria held upwards of 350 Jews—athletes, their family members, and a huge orchestra! The packed ship which arrived in Jaffa port, returned to Bulgaria empty. The British, obviously, did not allow the Maccabiah to take place after that, because they feared clandestine Aliyah would increase. It was 1950 before the third Maccabiah took place," notes Miller.
Maccabiah behind the Iron Curtain
Sports, according to Miller, was a tool for socialization between Diaspora Jews and their countrymen. As a Jew in the former Soviet Union, however, Miller himself was not allowed to compete.
"The USSR banned Jews from meeting at the Maccabi youth movement and prevented them from going to the Olympic games. Some Jews did not even know the Maccabiah existed," added Miller. "There was anti-Semitism even in sports, and Jews did not receive honorary athletic titles. It was in 1989, when athletes finally arrived at the Maccabiah from behind the Iron Curtain."
If you will it…
The Maccabiah Games were born of the wild idea of Joseph Yekutiel, who, in 1912, dreamed of bringing together Jews from all corners of the world to meet on the sports field. "This was the strongest way to connect Jews in the early 1930s," says Miller.
Thanks to young Yekutiel's dream, the first Maccabiah was held on March 28, 1932, bringing global Jews together 16 years before the State of Israel was declared, in the specially-constructed Maccabiah stadium in Northern Tel-Aviv.
From that day onwards, every four years, the Maccabiah was held in that stadium, with exception of the Second World War Period and The War of Independence. The first Games included 5,000 competitors from 22 different countries; with the help of The Jewish Agency, this year's 19th Games - from 18 to 30 July - has brought over 9,000 athletes from 71 countries to Israel to compete.