Jewish Muscle
02/19/2007
Editorial Intern
Photo Galleria: 

’The United States today is the greatest fistic nation in the world, and a close examination of its 4,000 or more fighters shows that the cream of its talent is Jewish.”

No kidding.

It may seem a flight of fantasy today, but these words were actually spoken — and were indeed true — by the great boxing announcer Joe Humphreys in 1930. There was Abe “The Little Hebrew” Attell, Mushy Callahan (né Vincent Morris Sheer), Ruby “Jewel of the Ghetto” Goldstein, Benny “Ghetto Wizard” Leonard, Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom, and Barney Ross (né Dov-Ber Rasofsky), to name a few.

Most were prizefighters in the lightweight and welterweight divisions (though the equally renowned Max Baer and Samuel Berger were heavyweights),

which between 1910 and 1945 had 27 Jewish champions.

It is a fascinating history, and one that gets recycled in fits and starts (usually in book form) then recedes again, as American popular culture fixates on the towering goliaths of more immediate boxing fame: the Evander Holyfields, Mike Tysons, Muhammad Alis, and George Foremans.

“Jewish Boxers,” the series by the Brooklyn-based painter Charles Miller currently on display at Think Tank 3, is one such fit. In this intimate, smartly curated show by Sharoz Makarechi, we get a taste of the gritty, pesky, effervescent life that once defined the boxing scene in and around the Depression era.

Miller, a boxer himself who was raised in the Jewish home of his stepfather, began painting these portraits in the late ‘90s (he named his daughter Dempsey after the former heavyweight champion). After a longtime friend and executive at Sony Music, Josh Rosenthal, lent him a copy of Allen Bodner’s book “When Boxing Was a Jewish Sport” in 1998, he painted a portrait of Ruby Goldstein, who won 50 of his 55 professional fights between 1925 and 1937 and later went on to become a famed referee. Rosenthal bought the painting, and word quickly spread in the music and film industry about Miller’s skill and his subject matter. Harvey Weinstein, the former executive of Miramax, commissioned a painting, and so did Joe Roth, the former Disney studio chief.

“Any success you have as a painter is a surprise,” Miller said in an interview with The Jewish Week. He declined to identify what other well-known people have commissioned him more recently (the latter names were reported in a 2001 Jerusalem Report article), and said that anyone who buys a painting of his touches him.

“Most people who buy these paintings say they look forward to looking at them when they’re away from them,” he said.

It is easy to see why. Among a selection of nine prints on display is Barney Ross, who crouches down in a defensive pose, his right fist protecting his chin, the left one tucked near his breast. His lips are pursed, the black specks of his eyes peer under finely bridged eyebrows, and a thick mane of black-brown hair is combed as if he were a waiter about to serve cocktails, not a vicious boxer ready to go for one of his 72 career wins.

More menacing is the portrait of Benny “Baruch” May, a lesser fighter in reality, but in Miller’s rendition a scurrilous-looking lout eager to knock out an opponent. May is in an open stance, just barely angled to the right. His fists seem to be caught in motion, circling towards his body, as if to say: “Come closer, I dare you.” His hair is thick with curls, cut close to his scalp, and his eyes are no more than slits, brooding with vengeance. And, like many of the boxers in Miller’s portraits, May wears trunks stitched with a Star of David on the left thigh. This practice, apparently, was common procedure among the fight promoters who were eager to trumpet the boxers’ ethnicity, knowing that it would sell, especially when fighting non-Jews.

Miller, of course, knows this, and recognizes the marketability of his fighter’s Jewishness back then as well as now. But he says, “That’s more important to the crowd. The fighters don’t care about that. [Boxing] is a lonely sport.”

Miller went on to note that the boxer’s fighting “had nothing to do with carrying on the tradition of the Maccabees.” And on this point, there seems to be at least a bit of difference in interpretation between artist and curator. On the placard that introduces the show, it is written that popular culture has “portrayed Jews for centuries as people who settle differences with ‘wit, guile and rhetoric’ as scientists, scholars and moneylenders.”  But the notion of “Jewish warriors goes back as far as Cain, King David and the Maccabees.”

The portraits themselves say next to nothing about the fighters’ religiosity, and it is known that most of the Jewish fighters in the prewar era were irreligious and eager for greater acceptance into American society. They fought, as the show’s introduction states, mostly for money and respect. Once they got both, but mostly the former, they moved on, either paying their way through college or, occasionally, getting involved in the business aspect of their sport. The founder of the Everlast Company, boxing’s most famous outfitter, was Jacob Golumb, a Jewish trainer from the early-1900s.

Miller, both in conversation and in his paintings, seems most fascinated with the basic drive and grit that characterizes his Jewish boxers. The large-scale portrait of Ted “Kid” Lewis, shows the fighter in training gear — an olive green collared sweater, black tights, shorts and shoes — holding a leather medicine ball. He looks blankly into the distance, as if thinking about nothing but the next obstacle in his training regimen. There is a young Ray Miller, shadow boxing in the mirror, his skin-and-bones body not yet muscled like so many of his companions. His time will come.

Since beginning the series, Miller has painted an estimated 50 portraits, and like most viewers, he was first fascinated by the seemingly odd mix of Jews and boxing. But nearly 10 years after painting Ruby Goldstein, he says “on some level, it’s become much less important that they’re Jewish.”

This exquisite exhibit suggests that their less obvious importance lies in the driving ethos that bound them. They fought to defy the stigmas that were associated with Jews. They fought for money. They fought for greater repute. They fought to be accepted on their own terms.

They are fighting still.

“Jewish Boxers” is on view at Think Tank 3, 447 Hudson St., noon-6 p.m. (most days). (212) 647-8595 or visit info@thinktank3.com.

Ron Ross, author of “Bummy Davis vs. Murder, Inc.: The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Mafia and an Ill-Fated Prizefighter” (St. Martin’s Press, 2003), will discuss Jews in boxing at Think Tank 3 on Wed., March 7, at 7 p.m.

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