Gershon Luxemburg fights the good fight

Filmmaker Helen Yanofsky’s documentary debut tells the fascinating story of the man behind the Jerusalem Boxing Club.

JERUSALEM BOXING club founder Gershon Luxemburg allows Arab and Jewish fighters the chance to escape the battles of the outside world.  (photo credit: RUTH DISKIN)
JERUSALEM BOXING club founder Gershon Luxemburg allows Arab and Jewish fighters the chance to escape the battles of the outside world.
(photo credit: RUTH DISKIN)
‘You can pass by and not dream what is there,” says Helen Yanofsky, the director of the fascinating documentary Jerusalem Boxing Club, which will be shown on April 19 at the Jerusalem Cinematheque at 6:30 p.m.
The club itself, which is located in a bomb shelter in the Katamonim neighborhood, is run by the very charismatic Gershon Luxemburg, and is open to Jerusalemites of every background and gender.
Yanovsky, a graduate of the film program at Tel Aviv University and a photographer born in Georgia, stumbled across the subject of her debut documentary by chance, when Luxemburg came into the photo shop where she was working.
“He radiates positivity and energy,” she says. He was also generous and a bit eccentric. “Sometimes he would bring me medals.”
Intrigued by Luxemburg’s photos and stories, she began visiting the gym.
Although she knew nothing about boxing before she started making the movie – “In my life, I would never have dreamed I would have something to do with professional sports” – she was drawn in by Luxemberg’s magnetism and the intense stories of his boxers. Luxemburg emerges as a complex and appealing figure, who has devoted himself to training boxers, both Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims, immigrants and sabras, men and women, religious and secular. It’s also clear that young people coping with trouble in their lives are particularly drawn to the discipline he imposes in his gym, and that he becomes a father figure for them, pushing them to push themselves.
The moment she stepped into the gym, Yanovsky knew she had found the subject for her first film.
“I fell into this world and I started shooting from the first minute. Usually it takes time, you do research, you think it over... but right away I knew this would be something I would want to film more and more, because the place attracts people with stories.”
The central story of the film is that of Luxemburg himself. Luxemburg was a boxer in the Soviet Union who was prevented from fighting and training for years after he asked to move to Israel. Out of shape, he eventually was allowed to emigrate and began to fight again and train others in Israel. Sent to fight in the First Lebanon War, he composed Russian poetry about what he saw in that conflict. In the late Eighties, Luxemburg was arrested for stockpiling weapons, allegedly to be used against Palestinians. He spent half a year in prison and more time under house arrest.
“He was very sensitive about how much he wants to reveal of himself. To get the story out of him, that was not easy,” says Yanovsky.
He first told her of his imprisonment when the group from the gym was traveling to Kfar Yassin for a competition.
“I didn’t turn on the camera... I didn’t dare ask to film him... it took a year for him to return to this story,” says Yanovsky, whose dedication to telling the story of Luxemburg and his gym mirrors the devotion he has for his boxers.
The story of Luxemburg’s crime is especially notable in view of the fact that today, many Palestinians train at the gym. In the movie, Luxemburg is particularly close to Get, an Arab student.
During a period of high tension in Jerusalem, Luxemburg would drive students from Jebl Mukaber to the club, Yanovsky said.
“He would say what happens outside is outside. The boxing club is an alternative.
He gives so much energy and strength to anyone who is willing and works. One day an older haredi [ultra-Orthodox] man came, and he was welcome. Anyone who comes here can be part of this club.”
Luxemburg nurtures his boxers in every way he can, including feeding them.
“It’s impossible to speak to him two days before a competition,” says Yanovsky. “He goes into the kitchen, while he cooks he is pressured. Once he called me in the morning to come film him cooking. He said, ‘After the shoot, I will faint or you will.’” Although the film has been screened all over Israel and at festivals around the world, including, mostly recently, the Estonia World Film Festival, the most important showing for the director was when Luxemburg watched the film for the first time.
“I showed him the finished version on a computer with headphones... I was afraid of what he would say, but when he saw it, he hugged me. It was one of the happiest days of my life.”