This Jewish year started out with athletes playing to empty stands, and ended with … well, Olympians playing to empty stands. Yet, in between, there were the fans — masked and excited to be cheering on their favorites, and those at home watching our TVs and witnessing moments of Jewish athletic greatness. Nowhere was Jewish sports talent on display more than the delayed Tokyo Olympics, where dozens of Jewish athletes competed and six Jewish athletes won gold medals. Without further ado, here are the best Jewish athletes — and the best Jewish sports moments — of 5781.
Is there any Jewish athlete who had a more dominant year than Sue Bird? Bird began the Jewish year winning her fourth WNBA title with the Seattle Storm on October 6, 2020, becoming the third-ever basketball player — and the first female basketball player — to win championships in three different decades.
“I think the fact that I’ve been able to do it in different decades, with the same franchise, not many people can say that,” said Bird, who won the championship two weeks before her 40th birthday. “To recreate it over time and stay at a high level over time is definitely something I’m proud of, because it hasn’t been easy.” The fourth title came while playing in the Wubble — the WNBA Bubble — created to keep players and staff safe during the COVID pandemic.
Then, towards the end of 5781 at the Tokyo Olympics, Bird competed in her fifth Summer Games — and took home her fifth gold medal. With teammate Diana Taurasi, they became the only basketball players — men’s or women’s — ever to win five gold medals. Bird also served as the Team USA flag bearer at the opening ceremony.
With her wins this past Jewish year, she is now a five-time Olympic gold medalist, four-time WNBA champion, 12-time WNBA All-Star, and the WNBA’s all-time assist leader. Oh, and a five-time EuroLeague champ, a five-tme Russian national league champ and a two-time NCAA champ. NBD.
She had quite the year off-court as well: Sue got engaged to soccer star Megan Rapinoe, was active in the WNBA union as vice president of the player’s association, played a role in helping elect Rev. Raphael Warnock as Senator in Georgia (he was running against WNBA owner Kelly Loeffler), and co-founded TOGETHXR, a media and commerce company with fellow athletes Alex Morgan, Chloe Kim and Simone Manuel.
This is Sue Bird’s world, we’re all just living in it.
Breakout Jewish Olympic Athlete
Linoy Ashram, a 22-year-old Mizrahi and Sephardi gymnast from Israel, had a golden moment at the Tokyo Olympics. Ahead of the Games, she was described as “Israel’s best Olympic hope,” and there, she delivered, winning gold and becoming Israel’s first-ever female gold medalist (and third-ever gold medalist of any gender). Her victory broke Russia’s two-decade Olympic gold-medal streak in the individual rhythmic gymnastics contest. Basically, it was a big deal.
“I feel a bit like Wonder Woman,” Ashram said after her win. “Even Gal Gadot, who plays Wonder Woman in the movies, sent me a message right before the competition which got me so excited. It inspired me to do the best that I could. This is the most satisfying moment in my life. I only dreamed of making it to the Olympics, not to stand atop the podium in first place. But it’s all thanks to everyone who supported me.” We’re not crying, you’re crying.
Best Jewish Sports Moment
Perhaps one of the most memorable moments in Jewish sports history of all time was Sandy Koufax’s decision not to pitch the first game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. Well, Jewish baseball fans should rejoice, because we now have two more proudly Jewish baseball players. The best Jewish sports moment for 5781 goes to Jacob Steinmetz and Elie Kligman, the first two observant Orthodox Jews drafted into Major League Baseball.
Seventeen-year-old Jacob Steinmetz, drafted 77th overall by the Arizona Diamondbacks, is a pitcher and was raised in the Modern Orthodox movement. Steinmetz does pitch on Shabbat (as long as he can walk to the stadium), and his religious observance is important to him, which he made clear to the Diamondbacks organization before he was drafted. You can watch the joyous moment he learned he had been drafted here:
Eighteen-year-old Elie Kligman, raised Orthodox, does not play on Shabbat. He was selected in the 20th round by the Washington Nationals. “That day of Shabbas is for God,” he told the New York Times of playing on Shabbat. “I’m not going to change that.” Ultimately, Kligman has decided to forego professional baseball to attend college, where he’ll be playing on the Wake Forest team.
While there have been plenty of Jewish baseball players in the history of the MLB, drafting the first two Orthodox players is a momentous occasion. Not only is this a proud moment for the Jewish community, but it also holds two important reminders for everyone: No, not all Orthodox people look like how you imagine them, and yes, Jews are good at sports.
Best Jewish Athletic Performance
On Rosh Hashanah 2020, Jewish tennis player Diego Schwartzman did the seemingly impossible: He defeated the “King of Clay” Rafael Nadal in the Italian Open quarterfinals. In their 10th-ever meeting, Schwartzman stunned Nadal in straight sets after losing his nine previous matches to the Spanish player.
Schwartzman, 28, is immensely popular in his hometown Argentine Jewish community and undeniably the world’s best Jewish tennis player right now. He’s listed at a height of 5’7″, but is likely shorter, making his defeat of Nadal — 6’1″ — all the more impressive.
Tennis TV posted highlights from the match with the title “Diego Schwartzman GOD MODE,” which, yeah:
It was an unbelievable upset — Schwartzman won 6-2, 7-5. After the match, the Jewish tennis player said, “Today, I played my best tennis ever.” It’s a match we won’t forget for a long time. In their next meeting in the French Open semifinals, Nadal prevailed, but Schwartzman entered the top 10 in the rankings for the first time in his career — making 5781 a momentous year for El Peque (“shorty”).
Best Jewish Team
Australian Jewish athlete Jess Fox is considered by many to be the greatest paddler of all time. At the Tokyo Olympics, she was the only athlete to medal in both canoe slalom and kayak slalom. She finished a disappointing third in the kayak race, but rallied for the gold in the historic canoe event; it was the first time that women’s canoe slalom has been contested at the Olympics.
But she didn’t get there alone. She credited her Jewish mom and coach, Myriam Fox-Jerusalmi, with helping her succeed. Myriam won bronze for France at the 1996 Olympics; her dad, Richard Fox, paddled for Britain and just missed the podium at the 1992 Olympics. Fox recalls, “20 minutes before the final. I went in and I [told Myriam], ‘I feel good but I just went and threw up’. That’s never happened to me. I have never felt that sick and that nervous.” She went on. “I think she had some good words to me after that. It was just about ‘do what you know how to do, be you’. And I think we make a great team. I’m super proud to share it with her and she is my biggest inspiration.”
Jewish mother-daughter teamwork? You love to see it.