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Jewesses with Attitude

Does cheerleading matter to Jewish women?

The National Collegiate Athletic Association is considering a proposal to recognize competitive cheerleading as an emerging sport, a step towards legitimacy as a championship sport. Anyone who has seen competitive cheerleading (and the injuries cheerleaders often sustain) can understand why; it’s a physically demanding and dangerous version of gymnastics where people perform flips and handstands not on a balance beam, but on top of a human pyramid.

Still, the sport’s origins are sexist and that is troubling for some. Cheerleading in its traditional form still exists; not all cheerleading is competitive or particularly athletic. Professional cheerleading at NBA or NFL games is actually more like dance than gymnastics, often sexualized. But if we separate competitive cheerleading from its not-so-feminist sisters, competitive cheerleaders can receive the recognition they deserve as legitimate athletes. Nancy Hogshead-Makar of the Women’s Sports Foundation said, “As long as it’s actually operating as a sport, we welcome it into the women’s sports tent.”

Traditionally, cheerleading is not thought of as “Jewish.” This past month I have learned about a number of Jewish women athletes through #jwapedia, our campaign to tweet the Encyclopedia. Jewish women have made strides in basketball, baseball, table tennis, figure skating, track and field, and even the biathlon, but I hadn’t heard anything about cheerleading.

A quick search of the Encyclopedia brought up one entry: Eydie Gorme, who Gwen Nefsky Frankfeldt describes as “One of the great stylists of the American popular song.” Born Edith Gorme on August 16, 1932 (some sources say 1931), in New York City, she was the daughter of Turkish-born Jews of Spanish descent. At William Howard Taft High School in the Bronx, New York, she was voted “the prettiest, peppiest cheerleader,” starred in most of the school musicals, and sang with her friend’s band on weekends. After high school, she signed her first recording contract in 1952 and soon made the Top Twenty. She went on to have an impressive career, joining the cast of Tonight! in 1953, headlining at the Copacabana, performing on Broadway, starring in the Jerry Lewis Stage Show, and winning a Grammy Award with her husband, singer Steve Lawrence. In 1995, Gorme and Lawrence received Lifetime Achievement Awards from both the Society of Singers and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Okay, it’s unlikely that the kind of cheerleading Eydie Gorme did in the late 1940s was the same kind being considered by the NCAA today. More likely, it was the sexist, less physically-demanding, sort that makes modern feminists cringe. Still, it's interesting to think of a second-generation Jewish girl as the “the prettiest, peppiest cheerleader” in her high school.

The iconic “cheerleader” conjures up images of blondeness and thinness – the Aryan beauty ideal that American Jewish women have struggled with for so many decades. Cheerleading is something that American women who do not fit the blonde beauty standard have felt excluded from in every generation. Somehow, on some level, it feels important to prove that Jewish women can be cheerleaders too.

Cheerleading may never be very “Jewish” (it’s hard to imagine Jewish mothers encouraging their daughters to participate), but Jewish cheerleaders are not completely invisible thanks to Eydie Gorme and maybe even Diana Agron, a Jewish actress who plays a Christian cheerleader on Glee. I'm sure other Jewish women have been cheerleaders and it would be interesting to hear their stories. Despite my distaste for its sexist origins, the new, legitimate sport of competitive cheerleading may well become a more welcoming and attractive option for Jewish women athletes.

2 Comments

I was a cheerleader my freshman year in college. Looking back, it seems like the antithesis of Jewish ideas of womanhood - totally based on appearance, status, and attention. But at the time, it was a lot of fun. I think my first boyfriend was thrilled to find someone who was Jewish (we attended synagogue together) AND a cheerleader.

My husband also liked the fact that I was a cheerleader. It definitely has a certain appeal - you are perceived as athletic, outgoing, energetic, loyal, etc. But of course, he would never let our daughter do it!

I was a cheerleader in high school. Maybe that isn't odd enough for you.

I was a Jewish cheerleader in high school. Wait, there's more.

My father was the only rabbi in town and I was one of three Jews in my school.

Though I have always been slender, I have dark hair and a (stereotypically, I have been told) large chest. Being a cheerleader wasn't easy. Though I tried out, I could never perform as a football cheerleader because those games were often on Friday nights. Being the only daughter of the only rabbi in town, I was in synagogue every Friday night, not on the mat cheering. There were times my Judaism didn't jive with my cheering. Cheer camp on Saturdays (can't have it Sundays, Talia, the girls have to go to church!), prayer before games but I always used my position as the only active Jew in my school as an educational opportunity. My cheer friends learned about Shabbat and holidays through me. I taught them why I can't accept their "witnessing" for the J man.

There are many reasons why Jewish girls aren't cheerleaders. As I have gotten older and more involved in Orthodox Judaism, the uniforms aren't very modest. The practices often fall on days when Jews don't work. And in a small but very Christian town, telling the coaches that invoking Jesus' name in prayer isn't legally acceptable for a teacher doesn't go over well.

Cheerleaders as sex symbols is not a sport. Cheerleaders who do 400 situps, 200 pushups, and run 2 miles before practice where you repetitively practice movements, tumbling, and stunting until perfection certainly is.

Cheerleading as a means of marring an athlete or as a status symbol is certainly not Jewish. But promoting goodwill and cheering on your fellow athletes is a kiddush HaShem and does not oppose Jewish ideals.

What is funny is the true history of cheerleading. Did you know that women were not involved at all at the start? It was men, dancing around with megaphones trying to excite the crowd and leading the alma mater song. Women entered the picture much later.

So that's my story of being a Jewish, rabbi's daughter, cheerleader. If you ask my father, he will say that I did it just to rebel and be 'normal.' And his least favorite time of year was when I had tryouts... because he couldn't stand it if and when I was rejected from one of the squads. :)

Cheerleading
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How to cite this page

Berkenwald, Leah. "Does cheerleading matter to Jewish women?." 25 May 2011. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 25, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/does-cheerleading-matter-to-jewish-women>.

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