Tag Archives: Olympics

Jews of the Week: Oren Smadja & Sagi Muki

Judo World Champion

Oren Smadja

Shay Oren Smadja (b. 1970) was born to a Tunisian-Jewish family in Ofakim, Israel. He was the son of Israel’s first judo coach, Morris Smadja, who played a key role in introducing the sport to Israel. Trained by his father, Oren Smadja won his first gold medal in judo at the age of 12. Seven years later, he was Israel’s judo champion. Smadja went on to represent Israel at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics where he won a bronze medal. Three years later, he won the silver medal at the 1995 World Judo Championships. In 2008 he was a participant in the Israeli TV version of “Dancing With the Stars”. Altogether, Smadja won a medal or championship in 14 professional tournaments. He retired after competing in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and turned to coaching judo full time.

Sagi Muki

One of Smadja’s first students was a four-year old Sagi Aharon Muki (b. 1992) from Netanya, Israel. At the young age of 8 he had to choose to pursue either soccer or judo, and went with the latter. Under Smadja’s tutelage, Muki went on to win the under-20 European Cup in Berlin in 2011. The following year, he was Israel’s judo champion in his weight class, a feat that he repeated in 2013. He continued to win in multiple international competitions, and was ranked second in the world by 2015. That year, he took gold at the European Games and the European Judo Championship. Muki represented Israel at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Unfortunately, he failed to win a medal after severely injuring his spine. Bedridden for months, it seemed that Muki’s career was over. Undeterred, he refused surgeries and instituted an intense healing and training regime. Muki got back into shape and returned to judo at the Grand Prix Tashkent in October 2017. Silencing all of his critics, Muki won gold. Half a year later, he took another gold in the European Championships. Earlier this year, Muki climbed back to the world number 2 spot. Last week he won gold at the 2019 World Judo Championships in Tokyo, making him the first Israeli world champion. Muki also served in the IDF and carries the rank of sergeant. He takes great pride in representing Israel around the world, and is expected to bring home another gold at next year’s Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

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Words of the Week

Who can challenge the rights of the Jews in Palestine? Good Lord, historically it is really your country.
– Yusuf Diya al-Khalidi, Ottoman politician and Muslim scholar (1899)

Jews of the Week: Alfred Nakache & Ben Helfgott

The Holocaust Survivors Who Became Olympians

Helfgott at the 1966 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia

Ben Helfgott (b. 1929) was born in Poland and was only a child when the Nazis invaded his country. He was sent with his entire family to Buchenwald concentration camp. Everyone perished except for one sister. After the war, Helfgott was among some 750 Jewish kids under 16 taken to England as refugees. Now safe in England, Helfgott started a Jewish youth club and became a big fan of sports. He was soon introduced to weightlifting and wanted to take it up professionally. Being just 5 foot 4 inches tall, and weighing 154 pounds, Helfgott was told to find another sport. He persisted nonetheless, and at age 26, became England’s champion in the 11-stone division. He went on to win four more English and British Commonwealth weightlifting championships, and represented the UK at the 1956 Olympics in Australia. He returned in the 1960 Olympics in Rome as the coach of the UK weightlifting team. He also participated in the Maccabiah Games, earning weightlifting gold three times. After retiring from sport, Helfgott became a successful businessman. He used his wealth to start The ’45 Aid Society, generously supporting struggling Holocaust survivors. Helfgott was recently knighted by Queen Elizabeth. He is one of just two Holocaust survivors to become an Olympian.

Alfred Nakache

The other is Alfred Nakache (1915-1983), born in French Algeria to a traditional Sephardic family of eleven children. As a child, Nakache had a crippling fear of water. He made the decision to overcome his phobia, and soon immersed himself in swimming and water sports. He went on to become a five-time French swimming champion, and set five European and World Records. After a silver medal at the 1935 Maccabiah Games, Nakache made the French Olympic team and competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. When the Nazis invaded France, Nakache escaped to the Free Zone in the south of the country. He wasn’t safe from anti-Semitism, though. Banned from swimming in Toulouse, he moved to Marseilles. Several weeks after setting a new record in the 400 metre butterfly in 1943, he was arrested and deported to Auschwitz. Surviving the camp’s hellish conditions, Nakache returned to swimming, setting a new French record in 1946. He made the French Olympic team again and participated in the 1948 games in London. In 1993, Nakache was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. He was the subject of the 2001 documentary Alfred Nakache, the Swimmer of Auschwitz. Today, many pools across France are named after him.

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Words of the Week

According to the pain is the gain.
– Pirkei Avot 5:21

Nakache (far left) with the French relay team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Helfgott (inset) at a weightlifting competition.