Given the turbulence on the front pages in the past seven days, you can be forgiven if you missed the following item on the sports pages this weekend: Yuri Foreman quietly and successfully resumed his boxing career with a victory over the mellifluously named Lenwood Dozier on the undercard at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, easily winning an eight-round unanimous decision.
What drew my attention to this story is the fact that during his two years of absence from the ring, Foreman studied for and received ordination as an Orthodox rabbi. Apart from the obvious jokes about the meaning of semicha, the story provides more than comedy relief, although these days that is welcome.
Surely you all know the old joke that says that the shortest book in the world is “Great Jewish Sports Heroes.” But in the aftermath of the emancipation of the Jews of Europe, when the debates began about their sociopolitical status, it was the ostensibly feeble physical constitution of the Jew, allegedly the product of generations of inbreeding, which was the principal charge laid against the case for full citizenship. If you’re too feckless, too indolent, too weak to defend your country, why should you be given the rights enjoyed by everyone else? (Well, by property-holding men, at least.)
But given the greater degree of freedom open to Jews in the United States, it was frequently possible to prove one’s athletic prowess, to humiliate the racists on the playing field. Readers of this newspaper don’t need to be reminded of the prominence of Hank Greenberg, Sid Luckman or Nat Holman, names that became talismanic reminders to Jewish-Americans of a distant warrior past. In the first decades of the 20th century, boxing was dominated by Jewish fighters, and until the 1950s basketball was considered a “Jewish game.”
In America, sports has always been a primary vehicle for acculturation, and recent immigrants found it a fairly painless way to fit in. At the same time, the traditional emphasis on learning created a counter-pressure for young Jewish-American men (for better or worse, sports was almost exclusively the province of men). Hitting a ball with a stick — from this you’ll make a living?
Consequently, the Jewish athlete was perceived as an anomaly, embraced and adulated as an avatar of Americanness, but not exactly a role model.
That was a few decades ago, before the Six-Day War transformed the world’s idea of who Jews were, bringing it more into line with the Zionists’ self-definition. You no longer needed Sandy Koufax to defend your honor if you could count on men with guns. At the same time, the strictures on Jews in America were eroding, with quota systems in medical and law schools being erased by law and organizing.
It is, perhaps, a mark of a minority’s degree of comfort in its adopted home when the children can choose their profession without larger historical pressures coming into play. In the past 20 years or so, there have been more Jewish major-league baseball players than I can recall at any other point in my lifetime, and the scattering of Jewish athletes in other American sports has become larger as well. They draw some attention, mainly in Jewish media, but otherwise are accepted for being, well, unexceptional.
The socioeconomic forces of poverty and marginalization that tend to produce boxers don’t come into play for the vast majority of Jewish-Americans. But the return of Jews to the sport — specifically recent arrivals from the former Soviet Union like Rabbi Foreman — shouldn’t come as that big a surprise in the 21st century.
David Harazduk, the author of the Jewish Boxing Blog (http://jewishboxing.blogspot.com), offers two more Jewish fighters worth keeping an eye on. “As you know, boxing is all politics,” he cautions, “but Cletus Seldin has the toughness and power in his overhand right to become a top contender. He has a TV-friendly style that should help his career. Dustin Fleischer [who has been profiled in these pages] is just starting his career, but he has quick hands and good power as well.”
Seldin also sports a felicitous nickname, “the Hebrew Hammer.”
Foreman doesn’t seem to have a sobriquet, but I’m sure he will answer to “rabbi.”
George Robinson’s column appears the second week of the month.