People of the Boot: the triumphs and tragedies of Australian Jews in Sport…a book review by Geoffrey Zygier

June 3, 2018 by Geoffrey Zygier
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‘People of the Boot’ is a neat pun as the title of a book about Australian Jews’ contribution to their country’s – and international – sporting life.

And if you have a liking for deconstruction, this title is also appropriate as an observation about a People who have been kicked around for millennia. For, as co-editor Dashiel Lawrence states, “In conceiving this book, we wanted to cast aside some very well-worn assumptions and stereotypes about what it means to be Jewish. We wanted to introduce some new ideas about Jewish experience.” It seems to me that Lawrence and his colleague Ashley Browne definitely have surpassed their aims.

‘People of the Boot’ works on two fundamental levels.

Firstly, as adverted to above, it can be read as a socio-political study of the progression of an alien group, often not welcomed to Australia’s shores. As the editors write (based on the views of Professor Colin Tatz) in their introduction: “Yes, Australia has represented a largely safe and secure place of Jewish domicile. But is has not been free of discrimination and anti-Semitism. Jews were once denied the same opportunities as other Australians to fully participate in economic and civic life. This, too, extended to sport.”

This theme and the forward movement to positions of equality and acceptance are elaborated on in many of the articles, most often implicitly and sometimes explicitly. Two prominent examples can be seen in ‘The Year Choco came to Town’, an engrossing article by Adam McNicol about former AFL premiership coach Mark ‘Choco’ “Williams’ taking the reins at AJAX (a Jewish club in a minor AFL competition in Victoria), and in Ashley Browne’s ‘All the Presidents’ Men’. The regular (and ugly) tropes of ‘Jewish wealth and influence’ are clearly discernible in both. As the editors observe, however, while not disappearing entirely, such attitudes lessened with post World War Two Jewish migration to Australia and subsequent integration.

Secondly, ‘People of the Boot’ also warrants reading on a more straightforward level; as such it offers a gripping read because sport (in its different manifestations) is inherently gripping for many, if not most, people in the world. Billions of people follow sports of all kinds and for good reasons. Its themes are almost Biblical, involving struggle and sacrifice, superhuman effort, heroism, the joy of success and of course the agony of loss. As Bill Shankley, Liverpool’s legendary manager, once said, “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” Even more, this book is about us, people we actually know. What could be more appealing to an often tribal and insecure people always looking for heroes?

The unputdownability of this book is further enhanced by the editors’ discerning choice of contributors. There are so many fine pieces, many with the potential to be expanded on by other media. Not only is the writing of an evenly high standard, but the editors’ take on sport is admirably broad, including not only those with a huge following in Australia and worldwide (e.g. the various football codes, the Olympics, basketball, tennis and cricket), but also more niche sports such as baseball, canoe slalom, billiards and mountaineering. This eclecticism extends to pieces about those Australian Jews who support competitors in various ways e.g. AFL doctors, vital back room men and women, those in media and business (including sports technology), and there is even a piece on the devastating loss of Australian sportspeople at the opening of the 1997 Maccabiah Games, and its ramifications.

While readers may prefer some sports or sporting personalities to others, this is a cohesive volume that should be read from cover to cover, not in one sitting, but rather savoured at one’s leisure (and here’s where I can mention that an index would have been very useful). It really brings home the diverse and disproportionate contribution Australian Jews have made to the larger Australian community. Yes, we can be proud of our Jewish doctors, lawyers, spiritual leaders, politicians, soldiers, academics and business people, indeed of the vast majority of our community.

However there are few fields of endeavour that offer as much simple pleasure as that of sport. Ashley Browne and Dashiel Lawrence are to be congratulated for creating a fine work bringing the involvement of Australian Jews in sport to our attention. And as an afterthought, I now look forward to someone bringing out a similarly structured work on the part local Jews have played in the arts on the local and world stages. Any takers?

Hybrid Publishers, Melbourne 2018

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