When Boxing Was a Jewish Sport

By: Gad Nahshon

This title certainly is surprising since fewer and fewer Jews are known to be prominent in sports. More surprising is to learn that boxing was a Jewish sport. Jews and boxing? Even in Israel, boxing is almost a dead sport. Can one believe that boxing was a major Jewish sport in America? Can you accept the fact that there was a Golden Age of Jewish Boxing in America from 1900-1945? Who knows today that so many Jews were also world champions? Yes, it is a fact.

Thanks to Allen Bodner, an attorney from New York and the son of Leo Bodner, a boxer and a professional manager, we learn about the rise and fall of Jewish boxing in America. Bodner conducted research, used oral history and professional literature and managed to publish a unique, illuminating account: "When Boxing was a Jewish Sport" (Praeger Publishers Wesport CT, 1997).

Bodner touched many bases. The book is about boxing, Jewish boxing, the youth culture of 1900-1950, characteristics of the boxers, and the contribution of Jews to American boxing per se. Bodner certainly is right when he complains that American Jewish historians have ignored the subject of Jewish sport in America. Indeed, this book is a new contribution to this field. Bodner=s approach is the right one: a sociological approach to this issue. Indeed, the core of this book is oral history. Bodner managed to interview 31 famous Jewish boxers, managers and promoters. Some were legends in the 1930's.

Among the personalities that Bodner interviewed were: Leo Bodner, Julie Bort, Danny Kapilow, Herbie Kronowitz, Artie Levine, Al Ried, Maxie Shapiro, Allie Stolz, Vic Zimet, Charlie Gelman, Bernie Friedkin and others. Bodner remarked in his preface that he could not interview many "stars" and world champions because they died. These included the two legends: Benny Leonard (1911-1931) and Barney Ross (1931-1938), plus Yale Okun Bobolin, "Slapsie" Maxi Rosenblum, Jackie "Kid" Berg, Sid Terris, Lew Tendler, Rube Goldstein, Ben Jeb, "Corporal" Izzy Schwartz and many others.

Many Jews during the beginning of this century became world champions (Appendix B) such as Joe Choyinski (1888-1904) and in America Abe Attell (1901-1912). But later the American Jews held the torch of Jewish boxing: Louis "Kid" Kaplan (1925-1927), Benny Bass (1927-1928), Izzy Schwartz (1927-1929) and many others.

Of course, Bodner tells us about many excellent Jewish boxers who did not win the titles but were great fighters such as Lew Tendler, Artie Levine, Maxi Shapiro and others.

Bodner illuminated the unknown fact that in the 1920's and 1930's Jews were the major source of boxing in America. They were the boxers, they were the major tribe with the "King" Benny Leonard and Barney Ross.

These boxers were the idols of many Jews and especially the young ones. They were "active heros" to the Jewish ghetto children. "I still think of Benny Leonard as an early century counterpart to the latter day boxing saint Muhammad Ali," wrote Budd Schulberg in his forward to Bodner's book. "Like Ali, Benny Leonard, with his six pointed star he wore so proudly on his trunks, sent a message to Jewish ghettos across America. You may think of us as pushcart peddlers and money grubbers. But we can climb into the ring with you, the best you have to offer, and maybe you can knock us down but you cannot keep us down. We've got the skill and the courage to beat you at your own game. Ready or not, we are moving up."

Well, those were the days of the struggle of the American Jews in the urban ghettos against poverty and anti-Semitism. Boxing was for many kids a way out. It was a way to ease their inferiority complex of being immigrants and members of an ethnic group before the process of the melting pot. Boxing operated without anti-Semitism. It was open to immigrants. But one should keep in mind the fact that "boxing" was not related as a Jewish profession: The Jewish press, Bodner pointed out, tended to ignore it in its reporting. For many Jews, boxing was shameful. The boxers had to hide their profession from their own families. The mother of Benny Leonard or Benjamin Leiner (most boxers had their professional names ) once condemned this sport as a shame. She did not know that her own son was a boxer!

In 1924, a silent film was made on the life of a Jewish boxer and one of its subtitles said: "A Box-Fyteh!? So that's what you become? For this we came to America? So that you should become a box-fyteh? Better you should be a gangster or even a murderer. The shame of it. A Box-Fyteh!"

Shame? Well, Bodner himself in his typology of "Jewish boxing" remarked that by the 1950's, this phenomenon almost suddenly disappeared. In other ethnic groups, the process of decline was a gradual one: Irish, Italian, Puerto Rican. The disappearance of Jewish boxing was a drastic act. Why? Perhaps because the sons of these Jewish stars refused to follow their fathers' tradition. Also, the parents told their kids: "Move on, go to college, be a doctor or a lawyer."

One can only say that the number of Jews in the world of sports today is very small. How many Jews can be counted in American sports? Great Zionist prophets such as Max Nordow used to say: "We need muscle Judaism." In America, we had "Boxing Judaism" but it vanished in 1950.

Bodner suggested the following typology of the Jewish boxers:

  1. They contributed to the developing of boxing in America as a good, respected sport. This was a classic kind of boxing. It was not the super-commercialized boxing of our time.

  2. Jewish boxers were young, aged 16 to 25. Their I.Q. was higher than the average boxer, although most of them did not have a college education. They also had the sense to retire on time. This also explains the fact that they wanted to avoid brain damage. They fought intensively but only for five to six years. The maximum was ten years.

  3. Their managers and promoters helped to build boxing in America. Even the boxing glove producers were Jewish. . .

  4. Boxers were proud Jews. Most of them were traditional. Only two converted and left Judaism. But they did not choose boxing as representative of the Jewish ghetto. They liked to be, first of all, champions. And they needed the money badly. They gave the money to their families. They fought against poverty. Some really made a lot of money by fighting in places such as Madison Square Garden.

  5. Jews contributed many world champions - but never a heavyweight champion.

Most of these Jewish champions were in lightweight or bantamweight divisions. Four Jews won world championships in light-heavyweight: Battling Levinsky (1930-1934), Maxi Rosenblum (1934-1935), Bob Olin (1934-1935) and suddenly surprise: Mike Rossman (1978-1979). Bodner introduced to the reader a beautiful panorama of Jewish boxing in America. Well, everything is only nostalgia.

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