When we left for the Maccabiah Games in Israel, I had no doubt this would be a once in a lifetime experience for my daughter, Emma, who would play tennis for the U.S. women’s team. It was not on my radar that it would be a once in a lifetime experience for me.
It started with the opening ceremonies. We couldn’t wait to pick Emma out of the crowd as she entered the stadium with the U.S. team, but tickets cost $250 apiece. We weren’t sure how long we should wait to make the purchase, hoping our Israeli network might be able to come up with a better price.
When we arrived at the stadium, we practically dove into the last remaining space in a tiny parking lot, paid our $12, and thought it was a fair price, but our cousin, Ayal, was outraged; he said the man taking the money didn’t even own the lot. He couldn’t understand why we didn’t care. He wanted to start a fight; we just kept walking.
Our seats were unbeatable: Through our cousins’ connections, we had four front row center seats — for free.
We sat close enough to see the faces of each country’s athletes, each beaming with pride as they waved to the crowd in the stands. Every athlete was a winner by just being there.
We cheered every country, but when the U.S. athletes were announced, the cheering turned into a roar. Being an American is a good thing again. A record-setting 900 U.S. athletes entered the stadium in a column so long that it seemed to go on forever.
The athletes stayed in hotels scattered around the country, each close to the venue where they would soon compete. The women’s tennis team was based high on a hilltop at the Shalom Hotel in Jerusalem. We knew about athletes in Tel Aviv, Netanya, Ramat Gan and more, but there was no coordinated effort to share news of victories and defeats. If you weren’t in the same hotel, you had to get your Maccabiah news off the Internet.
The Jerusalem Tennis Center is large, with maybe 19 courts. No one seemed to mind the sun or the chaos, and there were plenty of both.
Printed schedules were for the trusting, not for those looking to be in the right place at the right time. Everything was fluid, even if that meant players getting a 7 a.m. wakeup call to jump out of bed and onto the bus to the courts because of a change in schedule.
The tennis players all played many matches over the course of the tournament: singles, doubles and mixed doubles, and there was a back draw for players who went out in singles. The U.S.-Israeli matches were the most competitive, and they weren’t always pretty. At first we rooted for the Israelis, on their home court, when they weren’t competing against us, but as the players dwindled down and it became us against them, we all took sides, mostly in good fun.
The most contentious match would be the women’s singles final, an American against an Israeli, and we were eager to get in the mix to take sides. But getting there was unusually slow and we couldn’t park close to the courts.
Before long we found out why. During the women’s finals match, an announcement was made that a 10 a.m. military exercise would be conducted — right in front of the match court with explosives, helicopters and rescue vehicles. What a show. The exercise lasted 45 minutes. Who knew what to watch, the tennis or the helicopters?
The distraction proved to be a winner for U.S. player Hanna Mar, who won the Gold medal in three sets. Mar said the exercises only made her focus harder. She won three Golds at the Games.
As for Emma, she and her partner missed the Bronze medal in mixed doubles by one point.
I was sad to see our Maccabiah event come to an end — in what seemed to be the blink of an eye — because it gave me a spirit I didn’t know I had. It surprised me that I could cheer so loudly for our team. The tennis center was a place to go at least twice a day, every day, to enjoy the matches in the sun, chat with Israeli family members who faithfully came to watch and consider with amazement that everyone there was Jewish.
(Angela Leibowicz can be reached at email@example.com.)