Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Jews and Boxing Before the War

L.P. Hartley had it right, of course: the past is another country. Things really are done differently there. But this is true both of the distant past and the more recent. The more you read about cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries--places no longer in living memory of anyone, but places which we can learn a great deal about with minimal effort--the more you realize how alien they were in so many ways. When we read about them and look at photos and watch films shot in those cities, the rough outlines are familiar, but the details are often not, and might as well have come from fiction. (Which is why I've long claimed that one of the best secondary worlds (in the Tolkienian sense) ever created is the film M, from 1931).

So Stephen Norwood's "`American Jewish Muscle'; Forging a New Masculinity in the Streets and in the Ring, 1890-1940" (Modern Judaism v29n2, May 2009) feels in many ways like a bunch of outtakes from the best novel never written, while also having poignant overtones because of the tragedy which was to come.

In Norwood's words, the article is about how Jewish boxers "helped undermine hoary stereotypes of Jewish males' physical incapacity, cowardice, and effeminacy that dated almost from the beginning of the Second Diaspora. These stereotypes were so pernicious that many gentiles in Europe and America believed Jews were unqualified for military service."

Some highlights:

- Following the Kishinev pogrom, Jews across Eastern Europe and the Pale of Settlement established armed self-defense groups. "Less than two months after Kishinev the Atlanta Constitution reported that in Odessa, which contained one of the largest Jewish populations of any Russian city, "Every Hebrew carries a gun." Jews there developed a communications system that enabled units of armed men from across their community to quickly converge on a particular section that came under attack."
Not that Odessa Jews were soft or unarmed before Kishinev. Many of them were hardcore chatta. Daniel Panzac wrote, in "International and Domestic Maritime Trade in the Ottoman Empire during the 18th Century" (International Journal of Middle East Studies, v24n2, May 1992): 
...brokers, always of local origin, were essential mediators between the European merchants, on the one hand, and the buyers and suppliers, on the other. They spoke Turkish or Arabic, perhaps both, as well as one or many European languages, and had wide commercial experience on both sides. They were always drawn from minority groups--Armenians, Greeks, or Jews. The last had a monopoly on dealings with French merchants. They organized the sales and shipments of European merchandise with local Muslim or minority buyers. They harassed debtors and even supplied European merchants confined with the plague.

This Jewish readiness resulted in attempted pogroms turning into actual battles. The pogromists at Gomel in 1906 were, according to a Jewish Morning Journal reporter, "met by Jews armed with revolvers, knives, and iron bars" who after "fierce combat...succeeded in beating back the attacking multitude." Many Jews died--it was a pogrom--but so did many pogromists.

- Americans have no call to feel superior to Russians about this. From the 1890s through the 1920s, "Jew-hunting" was a pastime for Christian youths in the big cities. They'd rampage through Jewish neighborhoods, assaulting and even mutilating the residents. Beatings were common, rapes less so but not unheard of. Boys were forced to display their circumcision, girls had their clothes torn off, and orthodox Jews had their beards pulled. Synagogues were desecrated, merchandise was stolen from Jewish shops, and the police were either indifferent to the Jew-hunters or aided them. Jewish peddlers in Chicago in 1901 even said that "Jews in Russia...were safer from assault and insult in that country than they are on the streets of Chicago."
However, a number of the Jewish boys who suffered through this took up boxing, and used their skills in self-defense. One such was Meyer Lansky--yes, that Meyer Lansky. Another was Mickey Cohen, the Mickster so memorably portrayed in James Ellroy's novels. In 1938 eight Irish-American thugs invaded Cohen's neighborhood:

The marauders had already "snatched a yeshiva boy's glasses from his face and spun them into the street," seized a Jewish newsboy's papers and thrown them into the gutter, and pulled an old man's beard when they attacked Cohen. But with "swift and terrible precision" the Jewish boxer struck down each one of his assailants, leaving them groaning in pain, "all broken up...on the sidewalk." When one of the two who had remained conscious cried out, "in a child's voice," that Cohen had hurt his testicles, the Jewish fighter, "kicking him...into his companion's vomit," replied, "Save you money if I have. Kids cost an arm and a leg these days."

- I knew about the Jewish boxers of England in the late 18th and early 19th century, of course--introduced scientific boxing, introduced the uppercut, helped make the sport more than Irish stand-down, etc. But I didn't know that Daniel Mendoza, the "Light of Israel," was on a ship, sailing to Ireland in 1791, when it was attacked by pirates. Mendoza personally beat two of the pirates into unconsciousness, causing the rest to flee back to their ship.

- It was Jews who desegregated boxing. Most prominent white prizefighters, including John L. Sullivan and Gentleman Jim Corbett, refused to box blacks. Jews did. The great Jack Johnson was knocked out in a fight in Galveston, Texas, in 1901 by "Chrysanthemum Joe" Choynski, but Texas Rangers arrested both Johnson and Choynski for violating an anti-prizefighting law. Choynski and Johnson shared a cell for four weeks, and Choynski taught Johnson as much as he could about how to box.

- Most of us know--I would hope--about Jesse Owens clowning the Nazis at the '38 Olympics, and about Joe Louis beating Max Schmeling in 1938, and about the symbolic importance of those victories. But I didn't know about Max Baer's fight with Schmeling in June 1933.

Norwood disagrees with Wikipedia on one point (I'll side with Norwood, of course--if Wikipedia said the sun rose this morning I'd run to the window to make sure): that Schmeling was a friend to the Nazis. (Wife was a "strong Nazi sympathizer," Schmeling gave the Nazi salute to Mussolini in Oct. 1933, and Schmeling praised Hitler to the press).

In June, 1933, Max Baer--who at this point was publicly identifying himself as a Jew--took on Schmeling. Before the fight Schmeling, "the Black Uhlan of the Rhine," declared his support for Hitler and claimed that (per Norwood) "Germany had never been more peaceful than under Nazism, and that he had seen 'no cruelties against Jews.'" Baer responded by announcing that he would wear the Star of David on his trunks during the match and for every match following, which he did. During the match, Baer "taunted Schmeling by placing his hands on the portion of his trunks with the Star of David, and fluttering the symbol of Jewish pride at him." In "the dirtiest heavyweight brawl since bare knuckle days" Baer won on a TKO in the tenth round.
There's a lot more in the article, of course. Norwood talks about how closely tied the Jewish boxers were to their individual neighborhoods, about their efforts to provide good role models for other Jews and to be flawless in the press, and about what happened with these boxers after WW2 (short version: a lot of them joined the George Washington Legion and the Irgun). If you're at all interested in this subject, the article is well worth searching out.

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