The figures are striking, even when they’re not. With stocky bodies, some swarthy, some pale, their thick muscles flexed, the fighters strut and glare and pose with their gloves. Their hair is greased back, their eyes focused on their opponent, the viewer. And, on many, embroidered right below the thick waistbands of their dark trunks are Stars of David.
In the near corner, ladies and gentleman, are Ruby “The Jewel of the Ghetto” Goldstein, Al Davis, Barney Ross and Charlie Gellman. And in the far corner: Sid “The Ghost of the Ghetto” Terris, Leach Cross and Benny May. They are a handful of the more than 20,000 professional Jewish boxers who stirred the imaginations of tenement-dwellers in the first half of the 20th century — and who now occupy the imagination of a Brooklyn artist named Charles Miller.
In the four years that he has been painting Jewish boxers, Miller’s work has achieved a kind of cult status in the entertainment industry. Harvey Weinstein, the co-chairman of Miramax, commissioned a portrait of Terris as a gift for Joe Roth, the former Disney studio chief. Many fans of his work are boardroom types, Miller explained, because they see themselves as “pugilists of the deal.”
Miller has set up a Web site (www.jewishboxers.com), which he hopes to turn into a clearinghouse for information on Jewish boxers. He is also working on a book about Jewish boxing — a collection of essays, interviews, short stories and nonfiction pieces, including a section from Philip Roth’s memoir of his father, “Patrimony: A True Story.”
And two weeks ago, he was coyly outed in New York magazine as the boyfriend of the magazine’s regular sex columnist, novelist Amy Sohn. The two met through a mutual friend, who told Sohn about Miller’s artwork. “She bought a painting and got the artist with it,” said Miller.
A thin, tall redhead, Miller, 40, is a clear contrast to the short, dark men that he paints. In a recent interview at his Brooklyn Heights apartment, he explained to the Forward how a lanky kid from Boston got himself involved with a bunch of pugilists.
“These guys were tough, brave, fit,” said Miller. “They had chutzpah, and a real stylistic intelligence.”
Miller was first introduced to the Jewish fighters in 1998. After receiving his master’s degree in architecture from Harvard University, Miller moved to an apartment only blocks away from Brooklyn’s Gleason’s Gym, home to a number of championship boxers. He started taking lessons, and supported himself as a photographer for the entertainment industry. Then, an old friend and entertainment contact, Josh Rosenthal, an executive at Sony Music, gave Miller a copy of Allen Bodner’s “When Boxing Was a Jewish Sport.” Soon after, Miller read “The Jewish Boxers Hall of Fame” by historian Ken Blady, and he was hooked. Rosenthal suggested that Miller, a painter, work on a portrait of one of the Jewish boxers.
“I always knew there were Jewish fighters,” Miller explained. “But I never knew it was a Jewish sport.”
It was. During the first half of the 20th century, in the dense Jewish communities on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and Brooklyn’s Brownsville and East New York, Jews dominated professional and amateur boxing. For boxers who fought three or four times a week, earning as much as $60 a fight, the sport became a relatively lucrative career for a young kid from the ghetto. So synonymous did Jews become with boxing that the sweet science became one of the rare professions — in sharp contrast to Hollywood and business — in which non-Jews changed their names to sound Jewish.
On the other hand, some of his Jewish subjects fought under different names so they could fight more than one fight a night or because they didn’t want their mothers finding out how they were making all that money. “It would’ve been a shanda,” said Miller. “It was worse than being a gangster.”
Not to Miller. In fact, he is against the romanticizing of violence, especially of Jewish gangsters who he says preyed on the poor Jews of their neighborhoods. In contrast, Miller sees the Jewish fighters as struggling members of the underclass, blue-collar anti-heroes striving to support themselves, and often their families.
For many, boxing was one of only a few roads to financial stability. In fact, the Golden Age of Jewish Boxing faded almost as soon as other professional opportunities opened up. “Once the G.I. Bill passed, it was all over,” explained Miller. “Why get your brains smashed in when you could go to college?”
Still, Miller cited what he called the “redemptive” aspect of boxing, a sport that he believes gives purpose, discipline and focus to kids who lack the education, family life and community that often foster these qualities.
Miller himself grew up in a series of inner cities and tough schools. Always scrawny, he often found himself the target of class bullies. His parents divorced when he was young, and his mother eventually re-married a Jewish man, who first introduced him to Jewish culture. His interest in Jewish life remained steady until that day in 1998 when he discovered the Jewish heroes who would inspire his art.
“There’s an intellectual requirement [to boxing], but there are an enormous physical and emotional requirements also,” said Miller, who said the David-versus-Goliath theme of the Jewish fighters resonated with him. “They fought very intelligently. They were smart fighters.”