Recent news that the Israeli netball team found glory in Ireland brought a warm glow to my face that I almost confused with the beginnings of a hot flush. A couple of years ago, I heard about a friendly Jewish netball game in London. As I started to explain that it had been many years since I last played and that I was not in the best shape, Jenny, the team organiser, gently interrupted me: “Don’t worry,” she said. “Everyone says the same thing. You’ll be fine.” And so it happened, that after 25 years of self-imposed netball exile, I picked up a ball again. Although I felt the coach staring at me in disbelief as I struggled with the complicated and unseemly warm up exercises, I was feeling great. The bibs were distributed and I was assigned GA – goal attack.
Apparently, new-comers are always given the less-favoured positions of GA or GS (goal shooter). After five minutes of play, I understood why. I was completely exhausted and ready to go home, willing to admit defeat and delusions of grandeur. But I persevered and made it to the end of the game, feeling very proud of myself and determined to return the following week.
And I did. I have returned nearly every week, and have been upgraded to Goal Defence, the same position I had as a teenager and that allows me to run across two thirds of the court. Netball distinguishes itself from basketball by the rule that a player cannot run with the ball. In a fast paced game, the ball is barely in your hands before it has to be passed to the next person. People are running around the court in their assigned areas with speed and focus, following the ball in anticipation of its destination. No dribbling and no wimps here.
However, there is one considerable difference between the delicacy of women’s netball and the sweat of men’s basketball. Women say sorry when they miss a catch, ill-time a throw or snuff a goal. It’s sorry, sorry, sorry. It’s as if they don’t even believe they’re entitled to be on the court. Aside from the obvious physical benefits of running around for an hour, there are existential benefits that are harder to measure. As I play, I’ll often smile to myself because of a fleeting flashback to my teenage playing years. I’ll suddenly remember the embarrassing moments such as getting a period in the middle of a game or the euphoric memories of blocked goals and brilliant throws. It seems as if everyone is carrying the repercussions of their teenage years around the court. When people ask me who I play with, I usually answer that it’s a bunch of 40-year-old overweight Jewish mothers. But the truth is, as usual, more complicated and I have come to see this group as a microcosm of the fractures that make-up the lives of contemporary Jewish women.
Some are much older than 40, and some are their teenage daughters. Some are devoutly religious while for others, chicken soup is as Jewish as it gets. Some have scarves tightly bound around their hair and are wearing a skirt on top of their long tracksuit bottoms, while others are in skimpy shorts and singlet tops. Some are single professional women, others are working at home looking after their large brood. Many are struggling to juggle work and family commitments. Some are married, some are looking for marriage and a couple are happily settled in lesbian partnerships.
Some are avowed Zionists who visit Israel regularly, while others prefer Majorca. In the milli-seconds of friendly chit-chat between goals, our partners (or lack thereof), financial troubles, children and beauty anxieties are shared. This hour together is an opportunity to see each other as women, stripped of our Jewish allegiances that have so often served to separate and stereotype us. It is an hour that has spawned great friendships across these divides and if women in Israel can also use a game of netball to enable these sort of relationships, and also with Arab women in their neighbourhoods, then it’s certainly a sport worthy of some funding from private and public sources.