Gabby Douglas’ Hebrew Leotard

As is now typical, the top gymnasts, through leotard manufacturer GK Elite, often release the designs of their leotards before the start of a major competition. I tend to not pay attention to those press releases, preferring to wait to see what the leotards looks like on the gymnast in the competition under bright lights.

But thankfully Twitter user Becca Feldman told me to take a look at Gabby Douglas’ nationals leotard. In addition to the usual sparkle and bling, it contained a surprising addition: the Hebrew word “elohim,” expressed in Hebrew letters, on the left sleeve.

Gabby Douglas’ championship leotard via GK Elite

This is not the first time in recent memory that a gymnasts performed at nationals with writing in a different language on her leotard. Back in 2008, Shawn Johnson competed with Chinese characters on her nationals leotard to honor her Chinese coach, Liang Chow.

GK Elite released an explanation of Douglas’ unusual sleeve design choice on their site: “The Hebrew word ‘Elohim’ (translation: The Strong One) was added to the left sleeve to honor her rich heritage of faith.”

Douglas wrote of her family’s participation in some Jewish rituals in her memoir so her desire to use Hebrew is not necessarily that surprising. What’s raising my eyebrow is the proffered definition of “elohim.”

I spent 13 years in yeshiva, which is not something I ever thought I’d be forced to invoke when discussing gymnastics. I’ve never encountered that definition of “elohim” before. Typically, “elohim” is a term found in the Old Testament and is commonly understood to mean “God.” Or, depending on the context, it can be plural and refer to pagan deities. (The “im” suffix usually signifies that masculine plural.) In the Ten Commandments, the word “elohim” appears in this context, “You shall have no other gods before me.”

Which brings us back to Douglas and her use of “elohim” on her leotard. While God/gods are undoubtedly strong–an all powerful deity certainly signifies strength–the term itself does not appear to mean what has been stated in the explanation. At least I can’t find an interpretation or translation of “elohim” that fits theirs.

Still, Douglas’ Hebrew leotard has provoked a robust and interesting debate over the particulars of Hebraic grammar on the Gymternet and Twitter, which is not something I’d ever thought I’d see. It has also enabled me to put my 13 years of yeshiva training to gymnastics use, which has been so much fun. My worlds colliding in the best possible way.

UPDATE #1: Rachel Abrams reached out to her father, who is an ancient Hebrew linguist, to see if Douglas’ translation of “elohim” has any sort of basis. He wrote back pretty quickly because this is clearly an urgent matter and she sent it my way.

He said: I have a faint recollection of some 19th century scholars who suggested that אל and אלהים may originally mean ‘strong’, based on a hunch —  but there is no real evidence for this, other than the fact that both words can be used as the superlative, e.g., הררי אל ‘lofty mountains’.  Dvora got it right, go yeshiva education!
UPDATE #2: This one comes from my college friend via Facebook. He offers an explanation that gets closer to Douglas’ intent. He writes:

As best I can tell, the word אֵל (short for Elokim) can also refer to general power, not just divinity. See Genesis 31:29 (JPS 1917 Translation)

יֶשׁ-לְאֵל יָדִי, לַעֲשׂוֹת עִמָּכֶם רָע; וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבִיכֶם אֶמֶשׁ אָמַר אֵלַי לֵאמֹר, הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ מִדַּבֵּר עִם-יַעֲקֹב–מִטּוֹב עַד-רָע.
“It is in the power of my hand to do you hurt; but the God of your father spoke unto me yesternight, saying: Take heed to thyself that thou speak not to Jacob either good or bad.”

Also, in the interpretation of Rabeinu Tam on the 13 Attributes of G-d (Exodus 34:6-7) the name אֵל refers to the power of G-d (at least according to the note in the Artscroll siddur).