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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Even the boxers who fought in the 1920s, such as Oscar Goldman and Sammy Farber, did not think they had to prove anything to anyone but themselves. Yet, as their testimony indicates, there were manifestations of ethnic pride and identity in their roles as Jewish boxers.

The boxers knew of no fabled Jewish worship of education. To them and their families the choice was not boxing or college, but boxing or work. In the depression days of the 1930s, college was a remote luxury, even for second-generation Jews such as the boxers.

It is true that by 1936, 11 percent of the second-generation Jews had entered the professions and the ranks of Jewish boxers were thinning. In New York, where Jews made up 25 percent of the population, they comprised 65 percent of the lawyers, 64 percent of the dentists, and 55 percent of the doctors. But the boxers were not part of the Jewish population for whom it was feasible to enter the professions.

It should not be assumed from the boxers' lack of "national purpose" that they were not proud Jews. They were and are. Their ethnic identity was never in question. Most of them wore Stars of David on their bathrobes and trunks until religious symbols were banned in the 1940s. Usually, they considered themselves part of the Jewish community, and they participated in major Jewish holidays and rituals. They lived at home until they were married, and contributed to the family's upkeep (as did the Irish and Italians). Like 95 percent of the Jews in New York at that time, they married Jewish women and generally remained married.

Was the preeminent position of Jews in boxing during its "Golden Era" really so astonishing? Boxing was part of the urban Jew's effort to get ahead. It provided opportunity, and had Jews not played such an important role in boxing during those years, it would have been even more surprising.

Boxing in Context

Howard Sachar, in his book A History of the Jews in America (1992), reports that in 1911, 75 percent of the prostitutes in New York and other major urban areas were Jewish; 50 percent of the brothels were owned by Jews. In 1921, 20 percent of the jail population in New York State was Jewish, and practically 100 percent of the bootleggers were Jewish.

And what of Murder Incorporated and the pervasive Jewish mob influence in New York and other cities? According to Sachar, Jews dominated prostitution and the liquor trade in major portions of Eastern Europe and continued these activities in the New World. Where the Jews discerned opportunities, they took advantage of them. 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.

In 1955, Thomas Jenkins traced the history of the dominant nationalities in boxing, and concluded that the second generation of practically all urban immigrant groups gravitated to boxing. He thereby explained the ethnic succession of the English, Irish, Italians, Jews, blacks, and others. The ascendancy of Jewish boxers was a natural and predictable demographic phenomenon of Jewish immigrants and cannot be attributed to unusual causes.

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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.