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Who Says Jewish Women Don’t Play to Win?

The eyes of every player on the Brandeis women’s tennis team scanned the exhibit hall, and when they sighted their target, they zoomed in to get close. The subject of their awe towered over nearly all of them. She was Angela Buxton, the only Jewish woman to win at Wimbledon, where in 1956 she rocked the competition on the world’s most prestigious tennis courts. She’d endured bitter and limiting anti-Semitism that threatened her career, and lived a life lifted, in her words, “out of the ordinary.” Responding to a question about talent, Buxton insisted “I was really only above average.”

Buxton, along with Olympic cyclist Nicole Freedman, winner of the 2000 and 2001 US National Cycling Championships, spoke at the September opening of “Jewish + Female = Athlete: Portraits of Strength from Around the World,” a project of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute at Brandeis which features a traveling exhibit and a 13-month calendar of 27 Jewish women athletes with lively biographies and action photos of contemporary competitors and historic trailblazers.

Buxton revealed that, as a young woman, she had held the idealistic conviction that, “If I could get the ball over the net that final time, no one could take it away from me.” But the better she did on the court, the more discrimination she faced. Buxton’s mother, Violet, her greatest influence, recognized politely worded exclusions for the anti-Semitic barriers they were, and deftly deflected them. But she could not force people to play tennis with her daughter if they didn’t want to, so Buxton found herself without a doubles partner until she met fellow outcast and African-American tennis great Althea Gibson. It was with Gibson that Buxton won Wimbledon. The Match: Althea Gibson & Angela Buxton: How Two Outsiders—One Black, the Other Jewish—Forged a Friendship and Made Sports History, by Bruce Schoenfeld (Amistad, 2004), tells their story.

Freedman, a Jewish female athlete in a later era, tells a different story. “I was fortunate to grow up in a place and time where religion and gender didn’t matter,” she said. It wasn’t just the Jewish women athletes of prior generations who paved the way, she said; it was also the survivors of pogroms and the Holocaust, the grandparents and parents who worked hard so their children would have opportunities they could only dream of.

At least in the U.S., Jewish women athletes face far less hostility today, but still it took a phone call from one university president to another to ensure that the Intercollegiate Tennis Association Regional Tournament was not scheduled for the High Holidays this year, as it had been in the past; Shani Reich, who is Orthodox and captain of the Brandeis tennis team, was the woman who spoke up and made it happen