Maccabiah tales from a proud parent
Sue Gordon, the mother of Hong Kong head of delegation Daniel Gordon, relieves her experiences of the 19th Maccabiah Games in Israel.
I don't remember the exact day but it was some time in October 2012 when I received a call from my son in Hong Kong. "Mum, I have been asked to lead the delegation for Hong Kong China at the Maccabiah this summer". Daniel is usually quite understated and typically won't get overly excited, but I could hear when he was telling me about this he was more animated than usual. I have seen over the years the work Daniel and others have done in HK building up Maccabi and for them the Maccabiah would be the result of that work.
For many of the last 12 years when Daniel has lived in HK my holiday each summer is spent with Daniel, his wife Claire and three of my grandchildren - Dylan, Tyler and Maddi - in Israel. The summer of 2013 was again going to be spent together in Israel but it was going to be unlike any other.
As we counted down the weeks to the Maccabiah it became even more exciting when my eldest grandson, Ollie, was selected for the under-18 GB Rugby squad. Unfortunately, shortly before the Games began, Ollie dislocated his shoulder, and had to withdraw. I know Ollie will do his best to make it next time.
The Hong Kong Jewish community is around 3,000 and includes a high percentage of Israelis. When I would ask Daniel in the months leading up how many athletes were going from HK, he would say "mum-you tell me". I know he and others spent a lot of time trying to convince people to come and represent HK in this unique lifetime experience but tying people down was proving difficult.
When Shimon Peres spoke about the centrality of Jerusalem to Jews and how this opening ceremony was living proof that the Nazis failed it became clear to me that the Maccabiah is not just a sporting event – it’s a symbol, perhaps the ultimate symbol, of Jewish identity.
Eventually and with just a couple of weeks to go Daniel confirmed that the HK delegation would be a team of 15 athletes covering a range of sports including swimming, squash, tennis, taekwondo fencing as well as masters futsal. In the delegation were some of Daniel's closest and oldest friends including Jason Webber who Daniel has been friendly with for over 40 years.
Myself and Valerie Hyams, whose son Andrew also lives in HK and had been picked for the over futsal team, flew out together. We flew to Israel on July 16 with the Games due to start on the 18th.
THE OPENING CEREMONY
The HK supporters travelled on a bus together to the stadium in Jerusalem and all our seats were next to each other in the lower part of section 5 near the track. As I was about to enter the stadium, I was so sidetracked by everything that was going on I ended up getting lost from the group and took my seat an hour later than everyone else supporting HK!
When I did finally join the HK fans all of whom were wearing red and carrying flags and banners I was absolutely struck by the incredible array of colours that were in the stadium. The sheer noise was also something I had rarely heard. The opening ceremony finished at just after 11pm with each of the 77 countries parading around the stadium as well as a variety of singers and entertainment the time went by in a flash.
July 18 was one of the the most amazing nights of my life. To be in a stadium in Israel with your grandchildren, watching your son carry his adopted county’s flag amongst 9,000 other Jewish athletes was an emotional experience beyond all expectation. When Shimon Peres spoke about the centrality of Jerusalem to Jews and how this opening ceremony was living proof that the Nazis failed it became clear to me that the Maccabiah is not just a sporting event – it’s a symbol, perhaps the ultimate symbol, of Jewish identity.
I have sung Hatikvah many times, but never with such emotion. The waterworks were in full flow and as I looked around I was not the only one in need of a tissue. My tears were a mixture of pride – in my son and my Jewish identity but also of sadness. My late husband, Michael, loved three things. His family, sport and Israel. Nothing else really mattered to him. Happy events since we lost him are always tinged with sadness and none more so than this.
THE FUTSAL MATCHES
Going to watch the first futsal game against Israel was another unique experience. It was again extremely moving to see the players stand side by side for the anthem and then hug each other warmly before the game begun. Jewish men from different parts of the world united and as one. It came as no surprise when HK lost convincingly against the eventual winners, but when we scored our consolation goal we screamed as if we had won. Even the Israelis themselves were pleased for us!
After the game my thoughts turned back to Kenton where we grew up, when KJYC was the centre of our lives and Daniel and his fellow 11-year-olds were winning Jewish and non-Jewish cups. The truth is then they cried when they lost – especially my son. Now they were just ecstatic to score a goal. Whether we were playing Argentina, Mexico, Russia or GB this incredible sense of "we are all one" just kept hitting me. Only can you get this feeling of complete solidarity when you are in Israel and this Maccabiah experience I was having made me more appreciative of the State of Israel that at any other time in my life.
By the end of the Games the HK athletes had won 10 medals including four golds, a quite remarkable return from just 15 athletes. These medals were won in swimming with Ana Scherer winning four golds and silver in squash and taekwondo. Two other medals were won by a 16-year-old para-swimmer who 10 years ago lost a leg. The inspiration this young man gave us and watching the pleasure on his parents and his grandmother's face. Belma, a 92-year-old lady, had flown alone from the US to watch. That is another lasting memory of the Maccabiah.
The plucky HK delegation, one of the smallest delegations at the Games captured the imagination of the Israeli public. Everyone knows that there are big active Jewish communities in the US, the UK, Australia, but Hong Kong? The delegation was interviewed on Israeli mainstream TV which seemed to create even more excitement and interest and got extensive coverage in print and TV media back in Hong Kong and China.
The delegation also were also invited to an informal tea at the Chinese Ambassadors residence who was incredibly proud of the delegation.
HK didn’t win a futsal games but it didn’t matter. If results were measured by vocal support, we would have won gold. Wherever we went we were cheered by people wearing HK colours and a sea of red shirts were everywhere.
The Maccabi HK facebook page Neil Hyman was updating became a must read for all those following HK. A constant question all of us got asked by the other teams was "your players don't look very chinese". The team was indeed made up of ex-pats living in HK but this question is exactly why Daniel and his friends were so keen to partcipate. The sport for them was important, but to educate other Jews about life in the East and also for them to learn about life in other Jewish communities was much more important and why HK China and other smaller delegations are so crucial for the long-term success of the Maccabiah.
The memories will live on in each of us for ever and I will never forget the experience – especially the opening ceremony.
Daniel wrote a note to his delegation on the last day saying that they had all achieved so much. They had proved what a small determined delegation can achieve on the field and off it and how they had made themselves and their families proud. He ended with a reference to how his Dad, who had represented London Maccabi in the late 50s and early 60s, would have understood their achievements as much as anyone.
At which point, the tissues were once again required.