Memories Of A Rabbinic Wrestler

Memories Of A Rabbinic Wrestler

I had not known that Rafael Halpern passed away until reading Steve Lipman’s remembrance of him, “A Rabbi Who Wrestled With More Than Theology” (Sept. 9).

In the early 1950s, Halpern came to America to wrestle professionally and was introduced as “Mr. Israel” to an audience in the era of black-and-white TV. He lived as a boarder at 59 South 10th St., in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, a four-story brownstone owned by my grandmother, Freida Resnikoff. Our family lived on the ground floor. I was a young boy, not very muscular, very much in awe of this Jewish hero, and he was very kind and friendly to me and to my cousins, many of whom lived nearby.

As he worked his way to the upper echelons of professional wrestling, which meant that he was earning bigger purses, he had to make certain decisions. One of those decisions dealt with Sabbath observance. Our family was Orthodox. He was scheduled to fight Antonina Rocca, the biggest name in professional wrestling at the time, in a match in Madison Square Garden, certain to be a sell-out. It was scheduled for Motzei Shabbat, just after Shabbat.

Halpern dutifully waited until my father made Havdalah that Saturday night before he took his bag, raced down the stairs from his third-floor room to rush to the Garden. He told me beforehand that he arranged to have it the last on the card that night so he would not violate the Sabbath. And he told me it would end in a draw, which it did.

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