Physical Culture and Judaism: Reflections on Yom Kippur via Richard Hoggart

– By Meir Lewin

Meir Lewin is a Ph.D. student in Physical Cultural Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Yom Kippur translates to “Day of Atonement.” There is a heaviness that comes with the idea of atoning for ones sins. We are instructed to fast for 24 hours in order to sharpen our senses, to reach a level of heightened sincerity in our apologies for the past year’s transgressions. To a fault, I don’t connect with the idea of atoning, in this specific way. What I do appreciate is the notion of an active reflection—reflecting on the year, our lives, our relationships, and most of all, our families. In this sense, it seems beyond the realm of simple coincidence that Dr. David Andrews, in discussing the work of Richard Hoggart (1957) in our current class on British Cultural Studies, encouraged us to engage with our own genealogy.

As a second year graduate student in Physical Cultural Studies, I try as I might; I accept that inevitably my thoughts will stray to considerations of physical activity, culture, and sport. I’m fortunate, because if I take Dr. Andrews’ advice, I can reflect on my family, those who came before me, and consider the importance of physical culture in their lives.

I think of my grandfather, who played on the football team in the tiny village, David Horodok, in Belarus. Given the circumstances of poverty and antisemitism, one would be forgiven for wondering what these Shtetl Jews were looking for when they decided to simply play. I’ve heard stories of my grandfather from the other side, on his field hockey exploits in South Africa. His son, my dad, was an exceptional (I’m told) footballer, cricketer, and rugby player during his younger years in Johannesburg. (He can still take points off of me in tennis.)

It’s not unique to my family. Jewish teams in Vienna and Budapest were among the most successful in Europe during the 1920’s and 30’s. These teams, (Hakoah Vienna and MTK Budapest, most famously) provided the tactical foundations for what would be known as ‘total football’ in Holland, and then Barcelona.

For all the pressure put on me in my youth to finish my homework and behave better in school, the stories that were repeatedly passed down to me were that of sport and, inadvertently, Jewish physical culture. Did I have a choice? Before I could walk, they put a football in my crib. I slept with it every night for years. My first word, in Hebrew, was ‘ball’. I got older, and unbeknownst to me was fighting for the same sense of acceptance that previous generations of Jews strived for. I wanted to be strong and quick, not a bookworm.

My own parents even tried to combat my embodied obsession with football. They made me study or finish homework before practices and games. I remember them being seriously worried that I would not graduate from middle school, then high school, because the only thing on my mind was football. They fought against me, and against football. Perhaps here in America, removed from the Shtetl’s, it doesn’t feel important to embrace the tenants of muscular Judaism. But as a young footballer, the sense of being an outsider did penetrate my sporting experience.

Now, in the hours before Yom Kippur, I see that although my parents were less than thrilled about my radical focus on sport, I was fulfilling their wishes for me to embrace the culture of our past. I reflect on my own experience adjacent to the backdrop of the lives of my ancestry and realize, despite questioning aspects of religion and faith, I belong.


Hoggart, R. (1957). Who are “the working classes”?; Landscape with figures-A setting;  The new mass art: Sex in shiny packets. In The uses of literacy (pp. 15-26; 27-61; 202-223). London: Chatto and Windus.


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