Elegy for a Fighter


By Paul Buhle

Published January 27, 2006, issue of January 27, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Barney Ross

By Douglas Century

Nextbook (Schocken), 205 pages, $19.95.

* * *

If attitudes toward Jewish boxers do not offer an all-encompassing symbol of continuing change in the social and cultural tastes of American Jewry, they probably come close. One of the many revealing anecdotes in this marvelously insightful study of the immigrant generation’s fistic champions is that Barney Ross kept his adopted profession from his mother for as long as possible. So, Douglas Century said, did nearly every other Jewish boxer who left a memoir — a behavior so starkly different from, say, boxing’s Italian Americans or African Americans that one could almost forget another crucial detail: For very large numbers of Jewish men (especially blue-collar workers from the 1910s to the ’50s), boxing was practically the only game in town. Long embarrassing to the literati, as well, boxing is now back, and it’s big.

“Barney Ross” is an intense biography. In barely 200 pages, Century has condensed all the essential information about tough kid Beryl Rasofsky, a Kohen (rabbinical royalty) who, in other eras, would have be destined for the Talmud. Instead, he was brought with his family of a dairyman (and part-time teacher ) from Brest-Litovsk to Manhattan’s Lower East Side and then to Chicago. In a scene made cinematically famous by director Robert Rossen and screenwriter Abraham Polonsky in the 1948 film “Body and Soul,” his father was shot down in his little store by gangsters, leaving behind a desperate family as in his real life. His eldest son soon begins hanging around a West Side gym, where Al Capone’s contacts were legion; stranger by far, the young fellow acquired there a lifelong friend: the future Jack Ruby. The turning point of the boy’s story was perhaps better dramatized in “Body and Soul” than in real life. The boxer’s mother, played by future blacklistee Anne Revere, playing told him that it would be better to get a gun and shoot himself than to become a boxer (Ross’s brother told Century that for their mother, a fighter was “a trumbenik, a Yiddishe bum”). John Garfield, as the son, responded, “You need money to buy a gun!”

In real life, Ross would, of course, become hugely successful. Century goes back to previous generations to trace the rise of the Jewish prizefighter, first in Britain and then in the United States. Always, it seemed, the ethnic angle was a large factor in crowd appeal, with racism, antisemitism and various hateful epithets screaming in advertising and sports coverage for blood revenge. Ross’s success as Lightweight brought big crowds, big purses for the day, contacts with celebrities (not excluding mobsters) and the beginning of a Greek tragedy.

Eventually ranked with Hank Greenberg as the most admired Jewish athlete in America, Ross was ripe for a fall. He drank heavily, hung out in nightclubs, got divorced and, in 1938, took a terrible beating from African American fighter Henry Armstrong. Ross entered the Marines feeling almost certain that he was on a suicide mission, unworthy to return alive. He fought heroically in Guadalcanal. He also became addicted to morphine and sued the star and producer of “Body and Soul,” essentially for cleaning up the Barney Ross story (which was again told, with more pathos but less interest, in 1957’s “Monkey on My Back,” which Ross also hated). He supported the Irgun and reportedly served indirectly as gunrunner in Israel’s War of Independence. Shortly after this, he became a glorified bodyguard for Eddie Fisher. Later on, his name would appear repeatedly in the Warren Commission Report thanks to his connections with Jack Ruby, who was destined to be remembered as a Dallas strip club owner, a mobster and Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassin. The boyhood friends died of cancer within a few years of each other, one in jail and the other a forgotten figure.

Century has made the lingering fascination of the story his own. He first learned of Ross when he was a Yiddish student in a Peretz school in Canada, and he notes at the end of the book that so much has changed since then — the very neighborhoods of Ross’s Chicago boyhood have now literally vanished. But the author’s own memories of “tough Jews,” the uncles of his boyhood, remain with him. Jewish renewals there are and will be, doubtless, in the United States and elsewhere. But to our common loss, probably never that broken-nose, lower-class, self-educated Jewry again.

Paul Buhle is a senior lecturer at Brown University.

Find us on Facebook!
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.