The name Maccabee — drawn from the historic group of Jewish rebel warriors who founded the Hasmonean dynasty — has come to symbolize strength, prowess and pride. Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team is internationally known. It rose out of the Maccabiah movement, a Zionist enterprise that was established to build the health and strength of Jewish youth. The movement continues today in the quadrennial Maccabiah Games, also called the Jewish Olympics. And more recently, when billionaire Sheldon Adelson wanted to start a campus student movement to defend Israel, it was given the name Campus Maccabees.
Strength, prowess and pride. These words are appropriate to describe the remarkable success of Yeshiva University’s men’s basketball team, the Maccabees or “Macs.” At 40 straight victories as we go to press, YU’s Maccabees have the longest winning streak across all levels of men’s college basketball. The Maccabees play in the “unheralded Skyline Conference of the NCAA’s third division,” as ESPN put it, “along with such hoops juggernauts as Sarah Lawrence College and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.”
Yeshiva University is best known as a gateway to Jewish knowledge, the rabbinate and a wide array of scholarly and professional accomplishments, not to the NBA. But now, the sports world is taking note.
With its home in Manhattan, Yeshiva University doesn’t recruit for athletics or offer athletic scholarships. Its athletes need to work their schedules around a rigorous dual curriculum that makes little or no accommodation for competitive sports. Yet, the men’s basketball team keeps winning.
ESPN surmises that the Maccabees have become a national story because of the lingering stereotype that Jews don’t excel at athletics. This is so, notwithstanding some well-known Jewish athletes, like boxing champ Max Baer, Hall of Fame quarterbacks Sid Luckman and Benny Friedman, baseball legends Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax and the swimming icon Mark Spitz. And in the recent World Series, three Jewish players — Atlanta’s Max Fried and Joc Pederson and Houston’s Alex Bregman got a lot of Jewish media and broader attention.
When before have we seen a small, determined band called the Maccabees, fighting for prominence in a backwater league and accomplishing an improbable victory? With Chanukah beginning at sunset on Nov. 28, the victorious Maccabees of Yeshiva University bring to mind the holiday story. The Chanukah story is anchored in the uplifting account of liberation and dedication in which a day’s worth of pure oil was used to light the Temple menorah, with a flame that lasted for eight days. All of that is part of the messy story of the Jewish fight against the Damascus-based imperial rulers of the land and of conflict between two rival Jewish camps.
The improbable victory of the Maccabees of old continues to inspire hope and pride. So, too, some 2,200 years after that event, we have our 21st-century Maccabees — the winningest team in men’s college basketball. That’s something to celebrate.