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By Douglas Century
215 pp., $19.95
The recent victory that earned Russian-Israeli boxer Roman Greenberg the International Boxing Organization's Intercontinental heavyweight title was a welcome reminder that Jews were once no strangers to the upper levels of the sweet science.
Beginning with the British boxing pioneer Daniel "the Jew" Mendoza in the late 18th century, Jews played a prominent rule in professional pugilistic ranks until the 1940s, when their numbers in boxing (and most other professional sports) began to dwindle to the point that one could comfortably joke about the world's slimmest book being "Great Jewish Sports Heroes."
But boxing did produce at least two truly great Jewish athletes, the 1920s light-weight champ Benny "Pride of the Ghetto" Leonard, and the Depression-era fighter Barney Ross. (His contemporary, heavyweight champion Max Baer, was not actually Jewish, despite the fact that he occasionally wore trunks embossed with a Star of David in a PR bid for ethnic support.) While Leonard may have been the better fighter, Ross had the more dramatic life, as Douglas Century's welcome biography makes abundantly clear.
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.
A few years later he turned pro to challenge for the lightweight crown held by Italian-American favorite "Tough Tony" Canzoneri. Leonard won that match, as well as several subsequent classic battles with Irish-American welterweight champ Jimmy "the Babyfaced Assassin" McLarnin. These were more than just sporting events; as Century writes, "In the classic era of tribal fight fans, each boxer's management played the ethnic card to the hit: Canzoneri would hop through the ropes to the strains of a tarantella; McLarnin to an Irish jig; Barney Ross, to the tearjerker 'My Yiddishe Momma.' Ross always avoided the obvious symbol of the Star of David on his trunks - his shorts were emblazoned with a simple 'B.R.' Yet there was unmistakable symbolism in the inexpensive striped-blue-and-white terrycloth he wore throughout his career."
Although his ring career ended in 1938 after he bravely endured a savage 15-round beating at the hands of rising welterweight star Henry Armstrong, Ross's fighting days were not behind him. In 1942, Ross enlisted in the Marine Corps, and after turning down army offers to spend his days giving boxing exhibitions, he was shipped off to do some real fighting in the South Pacific. In the brutal battle of Guadalcanal, he proved himself a genuine hero by single-handedly killing 22 Japanese soldiers during a 13-hour stretch in which he defended a lone foxhole filled with wounded comrades. Returning home severely wounded, he was awarded the Silver Star, and Hollywood began planning a movie about his life.
Unfortunately, Ross had also become severely addicted to morphine during his post-combat convalescence. Unable to control his habit, he went public with his problem, checked into a rehabilitation center and underwent a grueling cold-turkey withdrawal.
By 1947, Ross had recovered sufficiently to become active in the efforts of "The American League for Free Palestine," a pro-Zionist group formed by the Irgun's operative in the US, Peter Bergson (Hillel Kook). Ross raised money for the cause, reportedly called on his old mob connections to arrange illegal arms shipments for the pre-state Israeli forces, and even talked about going to Palestine to fight for the Zionist cause, until the State Department announced it would deny him the passport to do so.
Ross died in 1967, still a beloved sporting figure, widely regarded as much as a mensch outside the ring as he was a man within it. He deserves to be more widely remembered today, not just by boxing fans, and one hopes this book will help that process.
Century, a journalist and former contributing editor to The Forward, does a good job of sketching the highlights of Ross's life, recreating on page the excitement of his top bouts and putting the boxer's public image in a broader Jewish cultural context. He writes: "Barney mentions toward the end of his memoir, No Man Stands Alone, that his whole family would gather from around the country on Purim, one of his favorite Jewish festivalsâ€¦ Of course, the Purim story itself ends with a fantasy of Jewish power: Mordechai avenges his people by ordering the slaughter of the Persian plotters. The call to violence has troubled Jewish commentators for centuries. Barney Ross was everything the Diaspora tradition had warned the Jews not to become, but a fulfillment as well of its secret fantasy."
Unfortunately, because this book is part of Schocken's pocket-sized "Jewish Encounters" series, it's more of an extended essay on its subject than a full biography. I was left wanting much more than Century provides on such intriguing subjects as the depth of Ross's involvement in the American Zionist movement; the circumstances of his testimony to the Warren Commission about his decades-long friendship with Jack Ruby; and the true nature of his relationship with his Gentile second wife, showgirl Cathy Howlett, whom he divorced while in the throes of his drug addiction, and later remarried and stayed with until the end of his life.
Even more than a book, Ross deserves a movie, especially since he was cheated of the one he should have gotten. When Ross returned home from the Pacific a war hero, actor John Garfield bought the rights to his story and made plans to star in a big-screen bio pic. But when Ross went public with his morphine addiction, Garfield dropped those plans, and instead lifted several aspects of the boxer's life to make the classic 1947 fictional boxing drama Body and Soul.
Garfield would have been a great Barney Ross, but so would some of the current crop of young Hollywood talents that can play tough, urban ethnic characters, such as Vin Diesel. C'mon, Hollywood; it's time to finally give this raging Jew the shot at big-screen immortality he so richly deserves.
Calev Ben-David is director of The Israel Project's Jerusalem Media Resource Center, www.theisraelproject.org.
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