Tuesday, January 17, 2006
By Douglas Century
Schocken. 240 pp. $19.95
Violence was strictly verboten in the family of Reb Yitchak (Itchik) Rasofsky, "a Talmudic scholar and Hebrew teacher in Brest-Litovsk, then a thriving center for Jewish commerce, culture, and scholarship on the border between Belorussia and Poland." It remained verboten after the family moved to the United States -- first New York, then Chicago -- after the pogroms of 1903. As his third son, Dov-Ber, recalled many years later, his father said: "The religious man prizes learning above everything else. Let the atheists be the fighters, the trumbeniks , the murderers -- we are the scholars."
Dov-Ber -- Beryl, as he was called -- remembered those words, but he scarcely lived up to them. In Chicago, he was strictly "a street tough -- a trumbenik " -- and by the time he was 15, he had found his way to a professional fight club on the South Side. He was raw but supremely gifted. Soon he changed his name to Barney Ross, and by the time he was in his twenties, he was "celebrated . . . as the world's lightweight, junior-welterweight, and welterweight champion."
He was one of the greatest boxers this country has known. He was "inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1956 (and into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990)." He was a celebrity of the first rank during the 1930s, when he fought a long series of bouts, many of them thrilling almost beyond description. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, he immediately volunteered for the Marines -- he was 33 -- and fought with immense courage at Guadalcanal, for which he was awarded a Silver Star "for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action." He was severely wounded and suffered grievously. He turned to morphine for relief, became addicted, then kicked the habit and made "a personal crusade to educate the public about the reality of drug addiction." He also was "outspoken about the plight of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe and used his celebrity to champion the creation of a Jewish state." He died in 1967, of cancer, at the age of 57.
Now he seems to be almost completely forgotten outside the ever-smaller and less conspicuous world of professional boxing, so it is good to have Douglas Century's brief but informative biography. "Barney Ross" is the third volume in the "Jewish Encounters" series, a "collaboration between Schocken and Nextbook, a project devoted to the promotion of Jewish literature, culture, and ideas." It may strike some as odd that the biography of this street fighter follows hard upon studies of King David and Maimonides -- with Moses, Spinoza and others of comparable stature soon to follow -- but it isn't really odd at all. Not merely was Ross one of the prominent American Jews of his day, but he was the most prominent Jewish boxer in the 1920s and '30s, when "an estimated one-third of all professional boxers in the United States were Jewish."
That does seem odd, but the explanation is simple and logical. For most of its history in the country, boxing has been a way for strong, ambitious young men to fight their way out of the ghetto:
"By the end of the nineteenth century, the United States had supplanted the British Isles as the leading center for boxing. Fighters from impoverished Irish neighborhoods, such as heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan, were dominant for a generation. Then, with the mass migration of some 2 million East European Jews to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the teeming ghettos of the Lower East Side and Maxwell Street spawned a . . . golden era of Jewish prizefighting."
Among the most celebrated Jewish boxers were "Chrysanthemum" Joe Choynski, Louis "the Fighting Dentist" Wallach, Barney Lebrowitz (better known as "Battling Levinsky"), "Slapsie Maxie" Rosenbloom, Abe Attell, Newsboy Brown and, of course, the great lightweight Benny Leonard. What is especially interesting about this golden era of Jewish prizefighting is its brevity. As Century writes, "The generation of Jewish boxers disappeared so precipitously after Barney Ross's reign that, by the time my mother and father were seniors in . . . high schools in 1947 and 1948, there were scarcely any Jewish professional fighters of note in the United States." The explanation, according to "sports historian" George Eisen, is: "Jews have always viewed sports participation as a means for achieving something else -- gaining social status or scholarships to universities, or going into business -- not an end in itself."
That wasn't the case for Barney Ross. As a youth, he had witnessed the murder of his father on the street outside the little store he ran and thereafter was consumed by rage. "The bitterness and hatred inside me made me a much tougher fighter," he said. "Every opponent in a street fight seemed to remind me of Pa's murderers and so I seemed to find extra strength in fighting them, or kicking them in the groin and making them scream in agony." He took that rage into the ring, combined with a fierce desire to make enough money to support his mother and reunite his family, which had been scattered after his father's death.
Probably the same rage had something to do with the extreme heroism he exhibited at Guadalcanal, where he single-handedly fought off far superior Japanese forces and saved the lives of two fellow Marines. In the engagement, he fired more than 350 rounds of ammunition and, when that was exhausted, threw more then 20 hand grenades. He was wounded in the side, arm, leg and ankle, and he waited in a foxhole for 13 hours before reinforcements arrived. Years later, he told his brother George, "You have no idea how I talked to Pa throughout that night."
He returned to the States in February 1943: "By early March 1943, his beaming, gap-toothed smile was once again on the front pages of newspapers across the nation. He was at a new apex of his fame, the accolades for Corporal Barney Ross (USMC) eclipsing even the glow of his lightweight and welterweight championship glory. His face was on Ringside bubblegum cards; he even had a Barney Ross candy bar." It all vanished, though, into the drain created by his two consuming addictions: drugs and gambling. John Garfield contracted to make a movie of his life, then pulled out when the drug addiction became public knowledge; instead he fictionalized Ross's story in "Body and Soul," a "film noir classic" that gave Ross a certain immortality.
He was a troubled man, but a good one. True, he broke his father's stricture against fighting, but there is a long warrior tradition in the Jewish faith, as Israel reminds us almost daily, and Ross was an honorable warrior. He fought hard but fair, was respected by all his opponents -- most notable among them Tony Canzoneri, Jimmy McLarnin and Henry Armstrong -- and respected them in kind. On the battlefield, he was genuinely heroic, and after his bravery he was modest, trying to deflect credit to others. He was intelligent, and he was true to his faith. All in all, a winning combination.