We’re taught at a young age that Jews are more book smart than playground tough, a big reason why guys like Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax and, perversely, even Kayo Konigsberg are inspirations to young Jewish boys. If this were the case, and it is, boxing would be the last sport to search for Jewish sports stars. Think Freud in flamboyant shorts. Actually, don’t.
But though their ranks are thin, the brotherhood of Jewish boxers has included two greats: “1920s light-weight champ Benny ‘Pride of the Ghetto’ Leonard, and the Depression-era fighter Barney Ross,” who left the bigger mark.
He was born Dov-Ber “Beryl” Rasofsky in 1909 to Eastern European immigrant parents living on Manhattan’s Lower-East Side. Two years later the family moved to Chicago and settled in that city’s Maxwell Street Jewish Ghetto, where his father owned a small grocery. The young Beryl showed some talent as a Talmud scholar, but after his father was murdered by two robbers when he was 14, he became a street kid who demonstrated even more potential with his fists.
He first put his fighting skills to the service of the Al Capone gang that ruled Chicago at the time, providing occasional muscle and beginning a life-long friendship with a fellow Jewish tough guy named Jack Ruby, later to gain fame as the killer of JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. By 1929, the re-named Barney Ross was recognized as one of Chicago’s top young boxing talents, traveling to New York City to win one of the first inter-city Golden Gloves tournaments ever held.
Tales of Talmud and tape still arise from time to time, like the lengthy piece in New York magazine two years ago about the holiness of a Chasid who pummels pugs for a living.
Tribal identity and ethnic politics have always played a major role in boxing. ... Dmitriy Salita is different. Heâs Jewish, for one thing, in an era when âprofessional Jewish athleteâ is most likely to serve as a punch line or trivia answer. And unlike great Jewish boxers of the past, who heard the bell as a clarion call to assimilation, not spirituality, Salita is openly devout. Orthodox tenement tough Benjamin Leiner changed his name to Benny Leonard so his mother wouldnât discover he had taken up prizefighting. When she did learn his secret, she is said to have declared, âA prizefighter you want to be? Is that a life for a respectable man? For a Jew?â
More recent Jewish boxers have strayed even further from religious practice. Or they had far shorter to stray in the first place. Max Baer, the sneering villain of Cinderella Man, fought with a Star of David on his shorts but in fact was raised Catholic (Baerâs Jewish manager apparently encouraged the display for marketing reasons). Mike âthe Jewish Bomberâ Rossman, the 1978 light heavyweight champion, was born Albert Michael DiPiano and tattooed the Star of David onto the calf of his right leg, in direct violation of the Jewish prohibition against self-mutilation. And for sheer sacrilegious chutzpa, few will ever outdo Vincent Morris Scheer, a New York City Jew who apparently decided heâd be a bigger draw as âMushy Callahanâthe Fighting Newsboy.â Role models? True believers? Feh!
Today, the New York Times got into the mix with a profile of Yuri Foreman, a light middleweight boxer and ... rabbinical student.
Foreman said his studies to become an Orthodox rabbi eased the physical stress of his boxing training. But he said he set the sport aside while reading the Talmud or attending classes twice a week at IYYUN, a Jewish institute in Brooklyn.
âBoxing and Judaism go side by side, because itâs a lot of challenges,â he said. âI would love to be a world champion and a rabbi.â
Not surprisingly, the Times found a rabbi who questioned the piety of Foreman inflicting pain on others and another who said they were proud that a Jew was debunking the myth that members of the Tribe are all meek. (Where have we heard this before?)
Well, the conclusion of “Raging Bull” aside, Foreman’s foray is definitely holier than Meir Kahane‘s old motto: “Every Jew a .22.”