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Why Every Depression-Era Jewish Boy Wanted to Be a Boxer

Why Every Depression-Era Jewish Boy Wanted to Be a Boxer

Boxing Gloves

In Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing (Lyons Press) renowned boxing historian Mike Silver revives the glorious era of boxing, when from the early 1900s to the late 1930s, Jewish fighters were a dominant force with 29 world champions and nearly 200 title contenders. Encyclopedic in scope, the volume is richly illustrated with 255 photos, some of them lost for years. Why did so many Jewish boys become professional boxers?

Mike Silver: In the first decades of the 1900s, impoverished young Jews on New York City’s Lower East Side and in other cities with sizable immigrant populations who wanted to help support their families had very few alternatives beyond pushcarts and sweatshops. Two attractive alternatives were show business and boxing.

How easy was it for teenage boys to begin a career in boxing?

Very easy. Every inner city neighborhood had a gym. If you lived on the Lower East Side, you could walk into the Educational Alliance, which had a gym and regulation boxing ring, and take instruction from Hymie Cantor, one of the best coaches in the business. All you needed were sneakers and a pair of trunks.

There wasn’t much regulation back then. You could walk up to a promoter and say, “I’d like to fight next week,” and he’d say, “Fine, here’s a bunch of tickets, sell them, and you’ll make half of every ticket you sell.”

Did immigrant Jewish parents approve of their sons becoming boxers?

Jewish parents considered it a shanda (scandal). That’s why many boys used aliases; for example, Morris Sheer fought as Mushy Callahan and Beryl Rasofsky as Barney Ross. The general disdain for boxing in the immigrant Jewish community was reflected in the Jewish Daily Forward, whose editors viewed boxing as exploitative of the poor, and a magnet for gamblers and gangsters, which it was.

But even the Forward could not ignore the championship fight between Benny Leonard, the most famous Jewish boxer in America during the 1920s, and fellow Jew, Lew Tendler, which drew 63,000 fans to the new Yankee Stadium on July 22, 1923.

You portray Benny Leonard (Benjamin Leiner), the lightweight champion of the world from 1917-1925, as the person Jewish boys most aspired to be when they grew up. How do you account for Leonard’s popularity?

Leonard was a magnificent boxer. He had the heart of a warrior and the grace of a ballet dancer. His public image was impeccable and he gave generously to Jewish and Catholic charities. A self-described “good Jewish momma’s boy,” he phoned her after every fight. When Leonard retired in 1925, a prominent Hearst newspaper columnist wrote that he had done more to combat anti-Semitism than 1,000 textbooks and all the Jewish writers combined.

You’ve described Barney Ross, a world champion in three weight categories from 1933-1938, as a Job-like character. What happened to him?

When he was 15, his father, a Talmudic scholar, was killed during a holdup at his Chicago grocery store. Barney’s mother suffered a nervous breakdown, his siblings were sent off to live with relatives, and Barney turned to the streets, a lost soul running errands for mobster Al Capone.

Aware of of Barney’s scholarly Jewish background, Capone told him, “This isn’t the life for you. Go find something else to do.” One of Barney’s friends introduced him to his boxing gym, and it was there that Barney found a purpose in life.

His first big payday as a pro yielded $36,000, a huge amount during the Great Depression, enough to buy his mother a luxury apartment and care for the rest of his family.

After becoming a world champion, he returned to his religious roots and was often seen at training camp studying his father’s books. He even began wearing a garment with tzitzit, fringes worn by Orthodox Jews, under his custom-made suits.

During World War II, Ross was awarded the Silver Star for saving the lives of two Marine buddies. Given morphine for his wounds, he became addicted to the drug. Four years later, he overcame his addiction and thereafter led a productive life.

Why is this boxing legacy important to Jews?

The 166 fighters profiled in my book made young Jews feel proud to be Jewish. In mastering the art of boxing and rising to the top of the sport, they debunked the myth that Jews were weaklings and cowards who ran from a fight. That’s no small achievement.

As the last of these boxers die off, it is worth remembering and appreciating how they used their intelligence and drive to open another door to opportunity, and eventually came to dominate, both as athletes and entrepreneurs, what for several decades had been the most popular sport in America. 

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism’s editor-at-large. He is former editor of Reform Judaism magazine (1976-2014) and founding editor of Davka magazine (1970-1976), a West Coast Jewish quarterly. He holds an M.A. and honorary doctorate in Jewish education from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. His books include Jagendorf’s Foundry: A Memoir of the Romanian Holocaust (HarperCollins, 1991) and Jews: The Essence and Character of a People (HarperCollins, 1998) with Arthur Hertzberg.

Photo credit: Rose Eichenbaum

Aron Hirt-Manheimer

Published: 7/19/2016

Categories: Jewish Life, Arts & Culture
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