February 18, 2005

Boxing Jews

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

While the notion of Jewish boxers may seem as incongruous today as was the idea of a Jewish army a century ago, Jews actually once comprised a sizeable portion of the boxing world.

The heyday of Jewish boxing in America was in the early part of the 20th century, when more than 20,000 Jews fought as professional boxers. In England, Jewish boxers had their heyday in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

"From the 1890s to the early 1950s, boxing was second only to baseball in popularity," said Mike Silver, an American boxing historian and curator of a new exhibition on Jewish boxers at the National Museum of American Jewish History, in Philadelphia. The exhibition is called "Sting Like a Maccabee: The Golden Age of the American Jewish Boxer."

"During the 1920s and 1930s, almost one-third of all professional boxers were Jewish," Silver said. "For many sons of struggling immigrant parents, boxing was a path to rapid economic advancement. Even a four-round preliminary boxer could make more money in one bout than his sweatshop laboring father could earn in an entire week."

There were 26 Jewish world-boxing champions between 1910 and 1940, though Jewish champions were underrepresented proportionate to their participation in the sport, according to Allen Bodner, author of "When Boxing was a Jewish Sport."

But at the time, boxing represented one of the few sports-and professions, for that matter-where Jews could compete on an equal level with gentiles. There were no Jewish quotas, and Jews were well represented both in the ring and outside it, as promoters, managers and even trainers.

"Boxing was part of the urban Jew's effort to get ahead," Bodner writes in his book. "While boxing was a new activity for Jews, it was no different from anything else that urban Jews were doing to advance their economic position in life."

More than anything else, Bodner writes, Jewish boxing fell apart when restrictions against Jews in other professions were lifted, and Jews sought to make a living in white-collar professions that previously had been off-limits. In 1928, Jews were the predominant ethnic group among American boxers, followed by the Italians and the Irish. By the eve of World War II, Jews had fallen to third place, according to Bodner, and by the late 1950s very few Jews could be found in the sport.

Today, the boxing world in America is predominantly black, Hispanic and, to some extent, Irish.

Aside from Dmitry Salita, there are two other Jews whose stars are rising in the world of professional boxing, according to observers: junior middleweight Yuri Foreman, a native of Belarus who was a three-time national champion in Israel before he moved to New York about five years ago, and Roman Greenberg, a Russian-born heavyweight who grew up in Israel and now is fighting out of England.

And there is a small but dedicated group of American Jews who are trying to revive boxing among Jews in the United States. One of them is Philadelphia businessman James Caplan, who has been trying to persuade administrators at Jewish day schools to incorporate at least 30 minutes of boxing practice into their weekly curricula. The program will help boost self-esteem and develop a much-needed safeguard against rising anti-Semitism, Caplan says.

"We've got to be tough to be able to stand up to all the Concordia Colleges and Duke Colleges and Columbia Colleges and so forth," Caplan said, mentioning the names of several US universities where anti-Israel sentiment has featured prominently either in the classroom or on campus.

"It's a pathetic paradox of history that a people who were horribly persecuted didn't grasp the message of history and learn to defend themselves after the Holocaust. Instead they spent millions of dollars on museums," Caplan said. "These Holocaust museums just don't work. We can't rely on the Christians to defend us."

But so far, Caplan has had no success convincing schools to adopt his program.

Salita says he does not expect today's American Jews to embrace boxing-though if they did, they'd reap significant benefits.

"I wouldn't necessary advise people to become professional boxers," Salita said. "But if schools and yeshivas started including it as part of their gym, it could help with a lot of great character traits."