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The Shtetl Olympics

March 9, 2014 | by Marnie Winston-Macauley

With the Sochi Olympics now over, let’s go back 100 years and imagine what a Russian “Olympics” in these shtetls would have really looked like.

The Sochi Winter Olympics are over. To be honest I’m ashamed to admit I thought Sochi was in Japan. Not only did I miss geography in school, I never once heard a person say, “So, Reuben, the kids and I are camping out in Sochi during Purim.”


As I’m at times aware, I eventually learned that Sochi is an upscale resort near the Black Sea that Putin wanted to push as the Russian Riviera before he started pushing himself on his Ukrainian neighbors. He allegedly added $51 billion for prepping and gilding the place. At these prices, he could’ve built subways in Moscow that don’t smell like herring heads. Or built his own little Crimea so he didn’t have to invade the existing one.

I also learned something else.

Stalin “relaxed” from killing and plummeting at Sochi. Even a terrorist needs to refresh his sinisterly with a view of the Caucasus Mountains. In fact, Tablet didn’t cover the Sochi Winter Olympics. The mag has no interest in the “glories” of the Kremlin where people are systematically oppressed and We Jews have been historically targeted for brutality.

Let’s go back 100 years or so. When these “caviar communities” were mostly market villages to poor Jews crowded in wooden houses surrounded by enemies. Survival of Yiddishkeit was essential, as was speed. Jews could get klopped or wind up running in a second.

What would a Russian “Olympics” in these shtetls be like – then. We Jews have been known to be creative and competitive. Now, as Purim approaches, let’s look at what might have been the First Olympics Russian Shtetl Olympic.


  1. * CHICKEN DE-BONING: This challenge involved three tasks. 1- de-boning a chicken plus skinning; 2- finding the most ways and people to serve; 3- making the clucker last longer. (Ice and shmaltz could be involved.) The record was set by the lovely Sadie Pinchiknik. Her liver lasted a month. On the podium, she got the liver, now sculpted in mud by a shtetl artisan while a Kletzmer band solemnly played “Klip Klap … Kwack.”

  2. FREE-STYLE COMPETITIVE SPEED CURSING OR KNOWN LOCALLY AS “MAY YOU.” Twelve adversaries fought in pairs to see which could give back better than they got when it came to Jewish curses. In every round, one would be eliminated, and two new winners would compete. For example. Not one bad word can be used. There would be three rounds in each contest.

    For example:

    Herschel: “May a dismal fate befall you for calling my Flora a mieskeit.”
    Yitzak: “May you raise goats, and may your first born resemble your herd, so she’s forced to live with you till she’s got gout.”
    Hershel: “May Cossacks eat the meat from your goats and sentence you to Siberia on a diet of your goat meat, and dark bread, and swamp water.”
    Yitzak: “And may the Cossacks fatten you up to conscript you to their Army, so you can fight against our people!” (OY!!!!)
    Herschel: “And may your name be ever stricken from the book of records by our good Rabbi!”

    Judges will be looking for a number of things: the ability to prophesize, to blot out a person, to turn a mitzvah into an evil eye (umglick), the level of vehemence, the number of times a contestant can use “stabbed,” “exploded,” and “choked” artistically, and finally the creative use of nose to nose and finger-pointing. The winner was allowed to get a little shikkered once a week – in a Jewish tavern.

  3. *BOXING: If you’re thinking fighting, forget it. No. By “Boxing” the shtetlers will be judged on how many personal Holy Books they can put in boxes within two hours … and have your wife and daughters move it on their heads two miles without a concussion. Face it, we’re always waiting for the Messiah … somewhere, and have to move on a moment’s notice. Our proudest possessions in addition to our families are our books of learning. The family that could shlep the most important books would get a seat by the Eastern Wall in shul, even if papa was a cobbler.

  4. SYNCHRONIZED RUNNING: Running was a way of life for shtetl-dwellers. Should the Czar or the locals have an ax to grind, it was pointed at We Jews. This meant we better get outta there, fast.

    So contests must have been held for “Family Running” to make sure, should a blonde beast approach with an edict, they had a chance of getting to another shtetl – in Poland. The winners had the opportunity … to get to a grimier shtetl in Poland.

  5. TREIF HURDLING: As part of a racing event, five hurdles were are evenly spaced along a straight course of 110 meters. Hit one and plop. You’re out – or behind. Contestants were expected to jump over the treif that varied in size and triefablitity. If a runner flopped, he lost time. Typical treif hurdles included jumping over rabbits and pigs. But there were tricky tests, such as potatoes with a virus or a turkey with sciatica. The judges looked at the learnedness of the jumpers – and their ability to actually jump. The winner would receive the Golden Kashrut Award … given to the tune of “Bay Dem Shtetl.”

Now let’s be serious for a moment.

Shtetls’ religious customs varied across Eastern Europe, as evidenced by what has come to be known as the "gefilte fish line" – an imaginary line that extends across Eastern Europe, dividing those Jews to the west who season their gefilte fish with sugar from those to the east who season the fish with pepper.

In Jewish memory, shtetls pulsed with yiddishkeyt. Rabbis , Yiddish, and klezmer characterized these small market towns, but they were also defined by much more than these stereotypical images. Yet to those of us still intrigued, there was and always will be a Fiddle on our Roofs; protecting, defining, and defending our promise, and our faith.


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