Boxing reminds me of my late father. He loved it and whenever there was a match on TV he would be glued to the screen and sit there throwing punches at an imagined adversary. He would get so excited that mother usually had to turn it off in case he suffered a heart attack! How he would have loved this story.
At a time of so much media coverage of the tension between Arabs and Jews in Israel, a beacon of light shines in the most unlikely of places – a cramped converted underground bomb shelter in a working class area of Jerusalem. This is where you will find Israel’s only official Boxing Club, established 34 years ago by the Luxemburg brothers, Gershon and Eli.
Born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, the brothers began boxing at a young age, to protect themselves from anti-Semitic attacks. They developed such proficiency that Eli became Soviet champion and Gershon champion of Uzbekistan and then seven times Israeli champion.
Gershon immigrated to Israel in 1972, aged 28, and served in the army during two wars. In 1981, he decided to follow his dream and set up a club to train young players to compete in national and international boxing events.
The club opened to everyone and aspiring boxers came from all levels of society – Jews and Arabs, men and women, religious and secular – a mix rarely seen in the outside world. Many of his pupils were successful at events including the Olympics, the Maccabiah and European Championships. Gershon gradually realized, however, that he was not only teaching a sport, but also creating a second home.
In spite of the violent reputation of the sport, he has never once seen a clash between Jews and Arabs in the gym. One 37-year-old Palestinian said, “The trick is to leave politics and religion at the door – once we are in the gym we are all brothers with a common bond.”
It was time for me to pay a visit and see the club for myself. I went with my taxi driver friend Gaby, also originally from Uzbekistan. He was delighted to come, as unbeknown to me he knew Gershon very well, having trained with him 30 years ago.
Descending the steps into the shelter we were immediately confronted by a large portrait of Muhammad Ali, surrounded by thousands more photographs of boxers covering every inch of the walls.
The trainees began to arrive – maybe 30 or more, aged anything from 7 to 70. As each one entered, the first thing he did was to shake Gershon’s hand or give him a big hug. It was like a family get-together with him as the benevolent father.
Next, training began – circuit after circuit round the perimeter of the two rooms – running, skipping, hopping, carrying one another – an endless succession of fitness exercises that exhausted me just watching.
This warm-up continued for an hour. They then paired off, wearing protective gear, to practice sparring or attacking punch bags with determination.
For me it was an occasion for reflection. I had always recoiled from boxing, regarding it as a gory exercise in testosterone-fueled aggression. To my great surprise, however, I began to see it in a different light, as creative, skillful and almost balletic.
Apparently those who really understand boxing know that while it can be brutal, it also combines finesse and strategy. The way the fighters dance to avoid being hit, whilst simultaneously planning one move ahead of their adversary, was a true art form.
I never knew until I began researching this story that boxing is known as the Sweet Science. This phrase, coined in 1813 by British sportswriter Pierce Egan, described boxers as tough, forward thinking and tactical.
Former undisputed world heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis said, “In boxing you create a strategy to beat each new opponent, just like in chess” and it was said that former welterweight and middleweight world champion Sugar Ray Robinson boxed so elegantly that it was as if he were playing the violin.
The “father of scientific boxing” was Daniel Mendoza, a Sephardi Jew who became the first Jewish prize-fighter to hold the UK Championship, from 1792 to 1795. At that time boxing was with bare knuckles, but Mendoza, being only 5’7” and 160 pounds, developed strategies to help him win against much bigger opponents. His techniques included side-stepping, ducking, weaving, blocking and in general avoiding being hit. His book, The Art of Boxing, became the bible for every subsequent boxer.
In addition to his writing, Mendoza became an authority figure giving public demonstrations and teaching. He opened two academies of boxing where visitors would pay to see him spar or take a private lesson. He also established and performed in shadow boxing events at prestigious venues such as the Lyceum Theatre in London and others throughout the country.
He was nationally accepted as an honorable man. He changed the image of the weak and defenseless Jew into someone who won respect. He helped to transform the stereotype of “the perfidious Jew” into someone who could be trusted, so much so that he is supposedly the first Jew ever to meet and talk to royalty in England.
A second UK boxer, closer to home, is a distant cousin of my husband. In his youth he was a boxer called “Fat Moishe” and “Cockney Cohen.” He was also a petty thief, being trained by a crook called “Harry the Ganof.” (Yiddish for thief) In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, he rose to fame as “Two Gun Cohen” and eventually became the aide de camp of Sun Yat Sen and a major-general in the Chinese National Revolutionary Army.
These are just two examples of how boys from poor backgrounds could, through boxing, rise through the ranks and elevate their status. This dualism combining strength and skill intrigued me, and was something I identified in Gershon’s personality. He is not interested in just teaching kids how to throw punches – instead he wants them to grow to respect themselves and others, regardless of their background.
“I don’t care if they become boxing champions, so long as they become champions in life.”
He says, “I take an ordinary stone from the ground, clean it, polish it, care for it and it becomes a beautiful piece of sculpture.” Gershon has soul, integrity and sensitivity, so it was almost no surprise to discover that he has had three books published, not on boxing, but on poetry.
This extraordinary man is on a mission. He has a day job as a security guard, but several times a week he runs the gym, without recompense, giving of himself to everyone who comes. His satisfaction is evident.
Youngsters arrive at the club for the first time, angry, aggressive, often from poor or broken homes. With Gershon’s guidance they develop confidence and the realization that they no longer need to look for battles.
My time there reminded me once again not to be judgmental, particularly about things I know little of. This is the first and only boxing club I have ever entered and I was astonished to see a prayer in Hebrew pinned to the wall. It is a request to the Almighty for peace together with a strong and healthy body and concludes with quotations from the Prophets.
I wondered if this is was common practice, and, after investigating further, I found another prayer, this time from a Bishop Kelly in Ireland. The content is virtually the same and I found it touching to realize that this ethos is intrinsic in a sport that originally I had rejected as more than somewhat barbaric: I ask you not for victory.....for somehow, that seems wrong, but only for protection and the courage to be strong; strength – not to conquer but just that I’ll fight well and prove myself a sportsman at the final bell.
Ruth Corman, who lives in both London and Jerusalem, is an art consultant and photographer. Her next book,
Unexpected Israel, is due to be published soon.