NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–The Jewish year turned 5766 yesterday.

And for Sylvia Barack Fishman, professor of contemporary Jewish life at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., that means it’s high time to regard Jewish women in a strong, athletic light.

For that purpose, there’s now a calendar, “Jewish + Female = Athlete: Portraits of Strength from around the World,” produced by the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, where Barack Fishman is co-director.

“We are still combating very negative stereotypes of Jewish women in the media,” Barack Fishman told Women’s eNews in a recent interview. “The image of the weak Jewish man was one of the most potent symbols of anti-Semitism throughout history. Because Jews were historically rarely allowed to own land they did not have land to work, or places to exercise, so the image took hold.”

While Fishman says the image of the weak Jewish male has faded, “we still have no trouble talking about Jewish women playing mahjong instead of tennis, or starving themselves to be thin instead of working out.”

They’re Not Playing Mahjong

The women in the Jewish Female Athlete calendar are definitely not playing mahjong or starving themselves.

The front of the calendar–which runs from September 2005 to September 2006–shows two women fencing on a green field.

Flip forward and you find page after page of women in a highly vigorous state: running, paddling, splashing through the water, slamming a tennis ball with gritted teeth.

Each page, meanwhile, offers a story of yet another athlete who in some way broke ground and smashed a gender barrier.

In 1893, for instance, Senda Berenson, director of physical education at Smith College, took the model for the brand new game of basketball–invented as a class exercise for boys–and organized the first basketball game for women. No men were allowed to watch.

Charlotte “Eppy” Epstein founded the National Women’s Life Saving League in New York in 1914. She then went on to persuade the U.S. Amateur Athletic Union to allow female swimmers to register as athletes and to realize her goal of having women’s swimming included as an Olympic sport. She coached her famous “Eppy” swimmers to dominate three Olympiads in 1920, 1924 and 1932.

Famous 1956 Tennis Duo

In 1956 top-ranked British tennis player Angela Buxton–who faced religious discrimination throughout her career–teamed up with African American tennis star Althea Gibson. They won the women’s doubles at Wimbledon as one of the greatest duos in tennis history.

In 2000, swimmer Keren Leibovitch, paralyzed from the waist down, won four gold medals, two silvers and a bronze in the Paralympics, breaking three world records along the way.

More currently, kite-surfer Hagit Oz swirled 30 meters in the air before touching her surfboard down on the sea below, setting a world record for airtime for women in this extreme sport in 2002.

Olympic cyclist Nicole Freedman, whose photograph illustrates the May page, spoke at the Sept. 18 opening of a Brandeis exhibition celebrating the calendar. She said she had never had to think of herself as either a female athlete or a Jewish female athlete.

“The brilliance of the calendar is that it juxtaposes contemporary athletes like myself and younger with the Jewish women athletes in history who paved the way against discrimination so we could compete freely and fairly in the absence of prejudice,” said Freedman, who also helps develop talent for Israel’s nascent Olympic cycling program. “Equally important, the calendar lets previous generations–our mothers and grandmothers–see, share and celebrate in the successes they helped create and were part of.”

Scientists, Rabbis and Writers

Over the last few years the institute has produced calendars of Jewish female scientists, writers and rabbis.

“When people discovered that the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute was producing a calendar about great Jewish women in sports, most were surprised to learn that there were enough athletes to fill the year,” said Shulamit Reinharz, Hadassah-Brandeis Institute’s founding director and driving force behind the calendar project.

Reinharz said that once the researchers got going there were so many Jewish female athletes to consider, the problem was narrowing down the list.

“This calendar adds to the historical record about Jewish women seeking opportunities in sport and society,” said Western Michigan University history professor Linda J. Borish, who is producing a film based on her extensive research on Jewish women in American sport history.

Women’s National Basketball Association president Donna Orender praised the calendar for providing inspirational stories and imagery of “just what is possible when women focus on achievement.”

Along with the calendar, the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute has hosted a free-standing exhibition since Sept. 18, that the institute will make available to other host organizations.

Ruth A. Seligman is a free-lance writer based in New York City.

For more information:

The Hadassah-Brandeis Institute–
Jewish + Female = Athlete: Portaits of Strength from around the World:

Jews in Sports Online:

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