Boxing: A Jewish Sport

Jews' participation in professional boxing in the interwar period is not as surprising as it might seem to be.

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At the 1907 Hanukkah meeting of the Menorah Society at Harvard University, Harvard's president Charles Eliot stated that the Jews "are distinctly inferior in stature and physical development . . . to any other race." Dr. Eliot lamented the loss, since the days of the Maccabees, of the martial spirit among Jews and thought it would be beneficial if "many of you joined the militia."

Eliot's pejorative description of Jewish physical prowess ignited some controversy. A considerable number of Jews perceived themselves as Eliot did, agreed with him, and urged the Jews to attain greater bodily strength and ability. Others were outraged by what they considered to be thinly disguised anti-Semitism, and argued that Jews were no different from anyone else physically.

What motivated so many Jewish young men to careers as prizefighters? Was it a response to the kind of criticism leveled by Eliot? Was there a need to prove the manliness of Jews who had been persecuted for so many centuries and who consistently appeared to be physically helpless and unable to defend themselves? Did the Jews who became boxers believe thereby that they were representing Jewish people or, more pointedly, Jewish power?

Why Boxing?

Most Jewish boxers denied that they were acting for anyone other than themselves and their fans, and asserted that their only thoughts in becoming boxers related to the desire to earn money, and had nothing to do with their Jewishness or other Jews, except as they were fans. But the responses are really more complex than that and more subtle. From some of the fighters, we discern a sense that in various ways their ethnicity played a more defining role than they would admit or have thought about.

The thesis that Jewish boxers represented the Jewish people as a whole is a theme that recurs, with variations, throughout Jewish boxing literature. In discussing the motivation of the Jewish boxer, Jimmy Johnston, a well-known (non-Jewish) promoter of the 1920s and 1930s declared:

"You take a Jewish boy and sooner or later his race is decried. He tries so much harder to fight back for himself and for his people since he regards himself as a representative of all Jews. The knowledge that more than one Jew is on trial when he fights gives him an incentive for training more faithfully and taking greater pride in his work."

Related to the "mission" theme is the thesis that boxing helped the fighters to acculturate as Americans. While this may have applied to many Jewish fans, it played no conscious major role in the boxers' thinking. They were already Americans. Living as they did among Jews on the lower East Side of Manhattan or the Brownsville section of Brooklyn; the vast majority imagined no broader society into which they were seeking entree.

A Pragmatic Approach

They boxed because they loved it and sought to make money, not because they wished to negate the stereotype of the Jew as weakling or to be accepted as Americans. If they were aware of the stereotype at all, they could not have cared less.

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Allen Bodner is an attorney with a remarkable entry into the world of boxing as his father was an amateur boxer during the 1920s, and a professional manager during the 1930s and 1940s.