In the Diaspora: Pro wrestling

Blame the Jews or thank them? Time will tell

To be a Jew is to be blamed. It is to be blamed for being both a rapacious capitalist and a dogmatic Communist. It is to be blamed for being both the skinny, near-sighted weakling and the checkpoint bully. It is to be blamed for being the bloodsucking parasite of society and the cabalistic puppeteer controlling it. All of which brings us to today's question. Should we be blamed for pro wrestling, too? Is that, too, our fault? Must we stand before God and the gentiles and answer for the Steel Cage Match, the Iron Claw, Hulk Hogan, the Maltese Hangman and other such past and present elements of this mongrel mixture of sport, entertainment, video game and cartoon? Or, just to be a little more transgressive about it, should our role in pro wrestling be a source of pride, something like the Jewish role in Hollywood that Neal Gabler chronicled in his book An Empire of Their Own, or the Jewish role in comic books that Michael Chabon rendered as fiction in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Simcha Weinstein as theology in Up! Up! And Oy Vey! Now comes Irvin Muchnick, an accomplished sports journalist and certifiable Yid, with his anthology Wrestling Babylon (ECW Press). While the book is neither nostalgic nor celebratory - the collection deals soberly with such topics as steroid abuse, domestic violence, homophobia, and financial scandal in pro wrestling - it implicitly makes one wonder if pro wrestlers form yet another subset of shtarkers, of tough Jews. THE THOUGHT partly arises as a matter of yichus. Irvin Muchnick is the nephew of Sam Muchnick, whom the book portrays as the most important wrestling promoter in the United States from the 1950s through the 1970s. An immigrant from the Ukraine, Sam Muchnick presided out of St. Louis over the National Wrestling Alliance, a confederation of regional wrestling associations. The elder Muchnick had a sure enough sense of populist taste to proceed with a heavyweight-championship match the night of John F. Kennedy's assassination - after having a Catholic monsignor intone a memorial prayer for the crowd of 7,200. (This scene in Wrestling Babylon reminded me of going with my father and siblings to see a lightweight sex comedy, Under The Yum-Yum Tree, in a movie theater packed to capacity on the same night.) Sam Muchnick was also savvy enough about politics to use his Congressional connections to win a loophole under federal law for his wrestling cartel to operate free from anti-trust laws. IF THERE'S a moral in Wrestling Babylon, or at least an implied narrative line, then it involves the transition from the picaresque demimonde of Sam Muchnick's time to the corporate juggernaut that is Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Federation, which Irvin Muchnick implicitly holds responsible for rampant abuse of steroids (as well as recreational drugs) by contemporary wrestlers. Wrestling Babylon closes, in fact, with a lengthy list of wrestlers who died in their 20s and 30s. Still, from the early decades of the sport or the art or whatever exactly it is, pro wrestling has attracted a steady, if not sizable number of Jews to the ring. Abe Coleman, once known as the 'Hebrew Hercules,' died last year at the age of 101. In the 1990s, Bill Goldberg competed under his surname alone as he became champion of World Championship Wrestling, a rival to the WWF. Irvin Muchnick's assiduous research even turned up a Canadian, Bob Adesky, who fashioned himself the 'Jewish Wonder Boy,' and New Zealand's Abe Jacobs, the self-proclaimed 'world Jewish champion.' FOR THESE men to wear their Jewishness so flagrantly was part of pro wrestling's tradition of ethnically-identified characters, or caricatures. A wrestling card, especially in Sam Muchnick's era, functioned like the pop-culture equivalent of what used to be called in New York politics a 'balanced ticket' - an Irishman, an Italian, a Jew, maybe a black or Puerto Rican, each appealing to his own constituency. It's not unreasonable, though, to also believe that wrestlers like Coleman and Goldberg served for their Jewish fans as a rejoinder to the stereotype of Jew as sissy. Irvin Muchnick sprinkles his book with references to Jacques Barzun, Edward Gibbon and Archimedes. When he talks in an interview about the Jewish aspects of the wrestling aesthetic, he goes both highbrow and low. 'This ain't Masterpiece Theater,' he avers, 'much less the epitome of the Greco-Roman athletic tradition.' But he continues in a rather serious vein: 'I suppose you could say that wrestling's sense of camp stretches all the way back to the Wise Men of Chelm. There's also something lawyerly, even Talmudic, about the way wrestling turns the conventional algorithm of sports on its head. The escapist appeal of legit athletic competition is premised in objectivity, in the notion that there are well-defined rules yielding a winner and a loser. But wrestling deliberately loops its storylines with chicanery and ambiguity: the pinfall slyly leveraged with a foot on the ropes, the stipulations of the Steel Cage Match breached by a third party, the referee alternately useless or corrupt.' Well, that sounds sufficiently postmodern for intellectual street-cred. The academy takes comics seriously these days, a half-century after they were viewed as the assassin of youth. So perhaps in the case of pro wrestling the Jews can take some share of credit along with the customary blame. The writer is a professor of journalism at Columbia University.