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The Ring Masters

A New Book Details an Overlooked Era When Jewish Boxers Were Contenders

March 01, 1998|ROBERT CASSIDY | NEWSDAY

DING!

The bell rang out and the room fell silent. The sound that once signaled these men to come out fighting suddenly trapped them in the not-so-neutral corner of the past.

If there is one ritual in boxing that can bring tough guys to tears, it is the honorary 10-count--the ringing of the bell 10 times for deceased fighters. As the ex-pugs, their families and friends stood with their heads bowed, Dr. Charlie Gellman, a former middleweight, solemnly rang the bell.

Ding . . . The mind races back to Benny Leonard and Barney Ross . . . Ding . . . The names keep coming back, there was Ruby Goldstein, who had the Star of David on his trunks . . . Ding . . . Sid Terris, Lew Tendler, Al "Bummy" Davis . . . Ding . . . Maxie Shapiro, Yale Okun, Joey Varoff . . . Ding . . . The fight venues come back into focus . . . Ding . . . places like the Coney Island Velodrome, Sunnyside Garden and Ebbets Field . . . Ding . . . Abe Reibman, Izzy Schwartz, Oscar Goldman . . . Ding . . . Abe Attell, Curley Nichols, "Slapsie" Maxie Rosenbloom.

Ding! When the count ended, the room came alive with flat-nosed men lofting playful jabs at old friends and foes. This event was not a time of mourning, but a recent book party to celebrate the release of Allen Bodner's "When Boxing Was a Jewish Sport" (Praeger Trade, $24.95). Gellman was one of several former fighters bobbing and weaving his way through the crowd at Manhattan's Kingsway Gym. All of them Jews.

They represent an era that has long gone unnoticed, when Jews were as good or better than the Irish, Italian and African American fighters vying for world titles. When ethnic rivalries drove boxing, with promoters often hyping matches between a Jew and an Italian or an Irishman against an African American. And yet, to the boxers, the gym was a sanctuary void of ethnic hatred and stereotypes.

And while the young Jewish fighters excelled, they often competed behind their parents' backs.

"About 99% of the time, parents disapproved of boxing," said Vic Zimet, a former amateur boxer and trainer. "That's why the Jewish boxers took on different nomenclatures. They changed their names, they even changed their ethnic connotation. Some became Irish or Italian.

"But the fighters who had more ability were usually compelled by their management to retain their Jewish names because it was an attraction for Jewish fans."

*

The book by Bodner, whose father, Leo, fought as an amateur and later managed boxers, chronicles the rise and fall of Jewish boxing. The era began roughly with the ascent of lightweight champion Benny Leonard in 1917 and ended with the retirement of middleweight contender Herbie Kronowitz in 1951. Since then, there has been only a handful of successful Jewish fighters. The Jewish presence in boxing today is in the form of promoters and managers, Bodner points out.

"Most people don't remember that boxing was a Jewish sport," said Marty Glickman, the one-time voice of the Jets and Knicks who was master of ceremonies at the party. "Men like Benny Leonard and Barney Ross dominated the sport. It's important to have this recorded. This book is long overdue."

He said that despite ethnic rivalries, a boxer's race, color or religion hadn't mattered in the ring. "You developed your reputation as an athlete. Winning or losing didn't depend on your religion or race. It depended on your ability."

As a world-class runner before he became an announcer, Glickman knows firsthand about discrimination. He wasn't allowed to run in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin because he is Jewish.

The book began as a master's thesis at Hunter College, where Bodner had earned a law degree.

"I went back to Hunter for a degree in Jewish history," Bodner said. "That's how all this came about. It won an award for the best thesis, and one of my teachers told me I should try and get it published."

His father, now 90, was an important source. But Bodner also interviewed other fighters, men who were from Brooklyn or the Lower East Side. Those who attended the party were Kronowitz, Gellman, Allie Stolz, "Schoolboy" Bernie Friedkin, Zimet and Sammy Farber, who boxed in the first New York City Golden Gloves in 1927.

"This gathering brings back such fond memories, and sad ones too, because some of these guys are no longer with us," said Gellman. "The only friends I had were the fighters. These fellows never looked into your pocket. They never asked, 'How much stock do you have?' None of that mattered."

Family members of the deceased fighters in the book also attended.

"There is a certain special pride that this group represented to themselves and to their descendants," said Fred Rosenberg, a nephew of lightweight Lew Tendler.

*

Even in the '30s and '40s, when most of these men fought, education was a primary concern in Jewish culture. Bodner, who writes that Jewish career pursuits were more "cerebral than physical," examines the social circumstances that drove these young men to boxing.

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