This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Home Team Blues*

News Item:

Frequent occurrence--The Calgary Flames lose another hockey game.

My beloved Calgary is a city that takes its sports very seriously .

I have had occasion to point out the difference between the Calgarians' unconditional loyalty to their home teams, and the sensible attitudes of the pagans of old, who, when vanquished by a mightier army, easily transferred their devotion from their own ineffectual deities to the victorious gods of their conquerors. Not so the good people of Calgary, who will continue supporting their losing athletes in defiance all reasonable hope!

The adulation that is currently heaped upon hockey and football players was once the privilege of chariot racers. In ancient Rome their popularity surpassed that of statesmen and generals. Under the Christian Byzantine empire, they rivaled even the monks and saints as heroes of the masses.

The residents of the Holy Land were not immune from the general enthusiasm for chariot-racing. King Herod is said to have erected a hippodrome in Jerusalem, and a fourth-century author counts Caesarea among the world-class centres of that sport. So famous was it that a Hebrew mystical text speaks proverbially of celestial fire-eating horses whose mouths are so immense that they can be measured as "three times the size of the Caesarea stable doors."

To be sure, there was a cost to this manifestation of civic pride. The local chariot teams were subsidized by tax moneys, and aristocratic citizens were under strong social pressure to contribute to their sponsorship, even if this caused them considerable financial hardship.

Society in those days was split between the supporters of the Blues and of the Greens. The devotion of the fans to their teams was so volatile, often leading to violent riots and rebellions, that historians have sought a social, political or religious background to the rivalries. At any rate, graffiti cheering on the favoured team have been unearthed in various sites in Israel, including a Greek inscription from Jerusalem that reads "Good luck, let the Blues win: Long life to them!" A seventh-century monk laments that the Blues and Greens of Jerusalem were evil and unruly men who filled the holy city with bloodshed. Tales of brutal outbreaks between Blue and the Green supporters are well attested. Sometimes the fans would support rival political leaders, with the conflicts erupting into uprisings and civil wars. Under different circumstances, the two factions were also known to join forces to combat a common enemy.

The Jews were involved in at least one such outbreak in Caesarea in 555, though historians are not in agreement about how to interpret the evidence. A witness to the events reports that the Samaritans and the Jews made common cause "in the manner of the Blues and Greens" in a violent attack on the Christians that led to several deaths and the burning of churches.

The report, with its comparison to the racing clubs, is susceptible to several possible interpretations. Some scholars see it as a simile, indicating that though Jews and Samaritans were normally as antagonistic to one another as supporters of competing teams, on this occasion they made common cause against a mutual foe. However most historians, conscious of the of Caesarea's reputation for fierce sport loyalties, discern an actual correlation to those loyalties. Perhaps an altercation that began as a sports riot snowballed into a full-fledged insurrection.

What team did the Jews support? Apparently it was the Blues. This is explicitly documented with respect to the Jewish community of Antioch, and finds indirect corroboration in a medieval midrash about "the throne and circus of King Solomon." The author of that work depicts Solomon and his entourage in accordance with the conventions of the Byzantine imperial court, including the obligatory sponsorship of monthly athletic contests. In that portrayal, they are likened to the Blue team arrayed in the hippodrome: The king, the sages, disciples, priests and Levites were garbed in the blue `tekhelet" of the ritual fringes, whereas foreign visitors, who gathered from afar to see the races and bring tribute and gifts to the Israelite king, were clothed in green.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers


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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

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