Monday, February 27, 2006

Barney Ross: The Saga Of The Tough Jew


This is reprinted from easily one of the best leftist blogs Unrepentant Marxist. Louis Proyect's story is similar to mine. My Jewish father grew up in a Mexican community in St.Paul, MN and joined a Mexican street gang in the 1930s. He also had a similar military background as Louis's father. Both Louis and I, received our political education from the Socialist Workers Party.

If you visit Unrepentant Marxist, see his hilarious David Horowitz post.

In the mid-1950s, my family lived in an apartment above the Kentucky Club, a nightclub catering to NY Jews who stayed at bungalow colonies and small hotels during the summer. Most of the acts were veterans of the Jewish stage like Molly Picon or Moishe Oysher but the biggest draw was the Jewelbox Revue, a group of men who performed in drag. One day I came home to find one of the performers in our living-room, where my mom was sewing some sequins on his costume as a favor. She nonchalantly introduced this charming Black man as "Miss Peggy", as he preferred to be called.

The Kentucky Club had hired famed ex-boxing champion Barney Ross as a "greeter" one summer, which one I can't exactly remember. But I do have vivid memories of spending time with him on the street corner in the evenings as he took a break from his duties. Resplendent in a tuxedo and puffing on a cigarette beneath a streetlamp, he cut a dashing figure. He was always happy to chat with me, as were many of the people at the Kentucky Club who treated me like their mascot.

Since that time, I have learned few details about Ross's life, other than the obvious fact that he was a Jewish boxer and that he had kicked a morphine addiction developed as a way of suppressing the pain of wounds suffered at Guadalcanal. His struggle was dramatized in the 1957 biopic "Monkey on My Back."

When I learned that a new biography of Ross by Douglas Century had been published, I would have bought it even if it were nothing but a standard sports biography. I was really curious about who Barney Ross was and how he compared to the image of him that lingered with me all these years.

"Barney Ross" is the third volume in a joint project of Schocken and Nextbook publishers called "Jewish Encounters" that seeks to promote Jewish literature, culture, and ideas. Although a biography of Barney Ross might be the last thing to expect in the same series of already released studies of King David and Maimonides (Moses, Spinoza and others to follow), Century does achieve a kind of monumentality. Century connects Ross not only to legendary figures that preceded him, like Daniel Mendoza the British Jew who was the champion of the London Prize Ring in 1792, but to a host of important cultural and political figures such as Saul Bellow, who came out of the same hardscrabble Chicago streets. Additionally, Century draws out all the interesting political and social implications of Barney Ross's amazing tendency to cross paths with controversial Jewish personalities from Irgunist Peter Bergson to Jack Ruby.

Beyond the interest that is sustained in Barney Ross as an individual, Century also addresses a phenomenon that is the subject of two earlier works by other writers, namely the "tough Jew." In considering Barney Ross and the Jewish boxer in general as an example of this phenomenon, Century contributes to a debate on the "Jewish Question" that will remain unresolved until contradictions between Jews and their ostensible antagonists are resolved on a higher level.

Dov Ber Raskofsky, who would assume the name Barney Ross after launching a career as a boxer, was born to Itchik and Sarah Rasofsky on the Lower East Side on December 23, 1909. Although his father had taught Hebrew back in Brest-Litovsk, he made a living as a small grocer. This was a trade he would continue once he arrived in the USA, following his departure in the aftermath of state-sanctioned pogroms in 1903.

Within two years of his birth, Ross and his family would depart for Chicago to take over a grocery store in the Maxwell Street ghetto, also the home of bandleader Benny Goodman, future Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, actor Paul Muni and William Paley, who would one day run CBS.

Maxwell Street was a poverty-stricken rat's nest that was a breeding ground for pneumonia, TB and diphtheria. It also bred many Jewish criminals, who, like the Jewish boxers of the time, were considered "tough Jews." This included Jacob Guzik, who was Al Capone's financial adviser and Samuel "Nails" Morton, who provided protection to Jewish businessmen against marauding gangs from other ethnic groups. In 1917 Morton was arrested for nearly beating to death several members of a Polish gang.

Barney Ross began running with young Jewish hoodlums at an early age and soon gained a reputation for being an effective street fighter despite his small size--his nickname was "Runt."

In 1923, Itchik Rasofsky was shot and killed by robbers in his store. Shortly afterwards, Barney Ross dropped out of high school and started hustling on the street. His younger two brothers and sister were put into an orphanage. Two years later, at the age of fifteen, he began hanging out at Kid Cross's gym where Jackie Fields (born Jacob Finkelstein) trained. Fields would win the gold medal at the Paris Olympic in 1924 before turning pro. In this period, it is estimated that 30 percent of all professional fighters were Jewish. Despite the deep prejudice against sports in general and especially fighting in the Jewish community, many men became boxers for the same reasons that Irish, Italian and Blacks would: to escape poverty. But other nationalities would not have to overcome the psychological hurdle created by a millennium of Jewish traditions. Century writes:

The Hungarian-born historian and sociologist George Eisen, who boxed as a young man in Budapest, has written of the "imperative to acknowledge that in the hierarchy of Jewish religious values, feats of physical prowess were invariably relegated to the 'secular' and the 'mundane.' There has always been a strong aversion in Jewish culture and tradition toward violent or blood sports that often were the hallmarks of neighboring tribes, societies and cultures." The antipathetic attitude toward sport goes back at least as far as the conquest of Judea by Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C.E., when Jews were first exposed to the sports of boxing and wrestling. One of the more overt signs of Hellenization was the establishment in 174 B.C.E. of a gymnasium in Jerusalem where athletes engaged in sporting activities in the nude. According to the First Book of Maccabees, some Jewish participants even underwent medical procedures to conceal the fact that they were circumcised. The fact that all Greek games were dedicated to cults deemed idolatrous to Jews--gifts and sacrifices were made to the god Heracles in particular--exacerbated the sense that, for the observant Jew, sport was inextricably linked to the threat of a foreign, pagan culture.

Ross began training at Kid Cross's gym himself and also began to fight in Golden Glove tournaments, where he beat all opponents with ease. After turning pro, he fought a series of classic battles in the light and welterweight divisions against Tony Canzoneri and Jimmy McLarnin. Ross prevailed over these and lesser opponents until 1938 when he was defeated by Henry Armstrong, an African-American.

Fighting as a professional allowed Ross to get his siblings out of the orphanage and to buy a home for his mother. But in an all too familiar pattern, the rest of the money was pissed away on the kind of wastrel life-style that other champion boxers, including Mike Tyson, succumb to. Ross was the quintessential party guy who could be seen at popular nightspots every night of the week buying drinks for the house. Most of the money, however, went to feed what can only be called a gambling addiction. Ross was a permanent feature at the racetrack where he had an uncanny ability to bet on losing horses. His friend Al Jolson, also a big racing fan, once told him not to sit near him: "Stay away from me--I don't want to catch your poison." After beating Bobby Pacho on March 27, 1934, Ross blew his entire purse in a single day of betting.

Ross made no effort to hide the fact that he was an observant Jew but was uncomfortable with how the promoters turned every bout into a kind of ethnic rivalry. Along with Detroit Tiger baseball player Hank Greenberg, Ross was now the most famous Jewish athlete in the country. In the bout with Armstrong, sportswriters tried to exploit the fact that Ross's father's killers were Black and turn it into a race war. The articles angered Ross who had one of the writers booted out of his training camp at Grossinger's hotel in the Catskills, not far from my village.

For his part, Armstrong once commented "You can't Jim Crow a left hook." Long before Mohammed Ali, Armstrong was also writing poems. "In Contemplation of May 26" (the night of the fight) contained these lines:

Two fighters of oppressed races fighting each other
just like that
It doesn't seem exactly sensible or right
We're not mad at each other; we're just fighting for
the things we need
It comes right back, the same old thing--to live, man
must fight

After losing to Armstrong in a completely one-sided bout, Ross retired. He couldn't adjust to life outside the ring, however. He continued to piss money away on the horses and on nightlife but no longer had money coming in from fighting. His show business connections and fighting past made it easy for him to audition for a role as lead in Clifford Odets's "Golden Boy," a leftist play about a Jewish youth who has to choose between a career in boxing or playing the violin. He soon realized that even if this part was not far from his own life experience, delivering lines on the stage was more difficult than warding off Henry Armstrong's blows.

At the age of 33, Barney Ross inexplicably enlisted in the Marines. He needed special permission to join since he was far over the age limit, as well as being out of shape. Douglas Century believes this was motivated as much by Ross's lack of direction than by a gung-ho desire to fight. He ended up on Guadalcanal and in the midst of some of the fiercest fighting in the Pacific. On November 19, 1942, Ross was involved in a bloody battle that convinced him--according to an Esquire article he wrote later on--that "fighting wasn't a game." Century recounts the action that would lead to Ross being a decorated war hero and ultimately to morphine addiction:

He calculated the range of a Japanese machine-gunner. He didn't dare rise, so, lying flat on his belly, he lobbed three grenades in fast succession. The machine-gun fire halted. He crawled over to the trench in which Heavy Atkins and Freeman lay bleeding. He unhooked the grenades from their belts. As he crawled forward again, a mortar shell burst and shrapnel tore into his side, arm, and leg. In the darkness, he did his best to dress his own shrapnel wounds.

The low-hanging leaves began to patter with a hard rain. He gathered the rainwater and did his best to give Monak, Atkins, and Freeman a few drops to drink. The Japanese infantrymen were setting up at closer range, no more than thirty yards away. One of the infantrymen was struck again. A slug tore through Barney's left ankle and, screaming, he had to cut his boot away with his knife.

The pain was so intense that he felt himself losing consciousness. Delirious, feverish, shaking--he didn't yet realize he was suffering from the malaria that would plague him for years to come--he was convinced that if he blacked out he'd never awaken. He had twenty-two grenades--in some versions of the firefight it is twenty-one--and threw all except one, which he planned to hold in reserve should the Japanese soldiers storm into the foxhole, ready to die like Eliezar, baring his blade under the lead war elephant in 1 Maccabees.

Barney lay in the foxhole for some thirteen hours--a cruel "lifetime," he would later call it--watching over the wounded Marines and infantrymen. "I never expected to get out. I was crying, and praying, and shooting, and throwing grenades, and half the time, I guess, I was out of my head." Throughout the night he had comforted himself by repeating the Sh'ma Yisroel--"Hear O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One." He prayed for himself, the wounded Marines and infantrymen, and "anybody else who was ready to die." In his delirium he saw the visage of a living dead man, bearded, in soiled apron, surrounded by paper sacks in the nameless grocery on Jefferson Street. "You have no idea how I talked to Pa throughout that night," Barney later told his brother George.

Ross would be treated with morphine in a military hospital. His misery was compounded by recurring bouts of malaria. Later he wrote in a memoir that "The morphine lifted me out of the snake pit and let me climb into the clouds." After returning to civilian life, he discovered that he could not do without it. He began to spend whatever money he had left after the gambling fiascos of years past on drugs. He later recalled, "I spent $250,000 on drugs in four years. Some of it was for buying silence. I paid through the nose." When he wasn't prowling around for his next fix, he was being feted at banquets as a war hero. In November 1944, he met with FDR for a Rose Garden ceremony. The President cited him for "his great personal courage and sincere devotion to his comrades."

Despite the battle he was fighting to kick the habit, Ross was still able to become active in something called the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, which was led by Peter Bergson (née Hillel Kook). The committee sponsored a pageant titled "We Shall Never Die" at Madison Square Garden on March 9, 1943 that would go on to tour the country. The culmination was an all-star "Show of Shows" once again at the Garden that featured Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante, Paul Robeson, the Count Basie Orchestra and others. Ross bought tickets for 150 servicemen.

Despite his tireless work or perhaps because of it, Bergson became 'persona non grata' in official Jewish circles, if not considered a fascist. Since Bergson was affiliated with Jabotinsky's Irgun, this charge was not so far-fetched. According to George Raskofsky, Ross's younger brother who supplied valuable information to Douglas Century before his own death, Ross was involved in running guns to the Irgun. One time he discovered a cache of machine guns in his brother's closet and was told to look the other way.

Since rightwing Zionism of the sort associated with Jabotinsky has such a well-deserved bad reputation on the left, it might come as a surprise to discover that Peter Bergson comes off fairly well in chapter 24 of Lenni Brenner's "Zionism in the Age of Dictators". Unlike the Jewish establishment, Bergson was not afraid to rock the boat. Brenner quotes the December 12, 1942 issue of the Militant newspaper to explain why so little was done to resist the Holocaust:

"Truth to tell, these organisations, like the Joint Distribution Board and the Jewish Congress, and the Jewish Labor Committee, feared to make themselves heard because they were afraid of arousing a wave of anti-Semitism here as a result. They feared for their own hides too much to fight for the lives of millions abroad."

Yesterday I received the following from Lenni Brenner in reply to my query as to his view of Bergson's legacy:

Only one Zionist group understood that rescue had to be their priority during the Holocaust. Irgunist Peter Bergson realized that the US announcement of the gassing meant that they had to push Roosevelt to act. Ben Hecht, author and script-writer of Front Page, the classic 30s newspaper-man book and film, wrote a pageant, We Shall Never Die, bringing it into a full Madison Square Garden, March 9, 1943, and toured it to California.

Kurt Weill orchestrated the musical accompaniment. Edward G. Robinson and other film stars worked on it. A Trotskyist journalist complained that it was too pious and memorial. Indeed recordings of it sound ponderous to later ears. But that was the state of show biz political consciousness at the time. They did the best they could think of.

"The WZO forces were forced to organize a Garden event, to head off their rivals. Instead of uniting with Bergson, they pressured auditoriums in Pittsburg and other cities, who refused to rent to the pageant. Purblind hostility culminated in Nahum Goldmann of the World Jewish Congress, the international equivalent of Wise's AJCongress, going to Washington to demand action - against Bergson, not Hitler.

The WZO element did nothing to pressure Roosevelt to loosen rules restricting 30s German-Jewish immigration, and were incapable of self-starting in the time of castastrophe. The Irgunists, as terrorists, understood, at least for a time, that they had to act, in this case, to mobilize public opinion, or Roosevelt would do nothing.

In his later years, Bergson broke with Zionism, becoming a major voice in the chorus of its Israeli critics, and a vital source of information on America during the Holocaust. Goldmann never broke with Zionism, but his remorse for his role in that era is recorded in a later document.

(Brenner's observations were made in connection with a State Department memo about Bergson and his rivals.)

Throughout his life, Barney Ross would not allow public opinion to dictate who would be his friend or ally. If Peter Bergson was doing the right thing to agitate for the survival of European Jewry, he didn't care whether or not Bergson was on the a-list of prestigious Jewish organizations.

He felt the same way about Jack Ruby, a life-long friend he met during his hustling days on Maxwell Street. Ruby, of course, would eventually move down to Dallas and open up a strip club. Shortly after the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald, Ruby entered Dallas Police Headquarters and shot Oswald to death. Ruby's mob connections have always suggested to some that the original plot against JFK was orchestrated by the Mafia rather than the CIA, let alone Soviet or Cuban spy agencies.

Ross was a character witness at Ruby's trial in what amounted to a lost cause. Another character witness, Hyman Rubinstein, Ruby's Warsaw-born older brother, testified that Jack had "hung around Barney Ross all his life. He liked Barney Ross. Everybody liked Barney Ross."



* * * * *


When Ross was undergoing detoxification at Lexington Hospital (more of a prison), he was crushed to discover that Hollywood had cancelled plans to make a movie based on his life. While it was one thing to make a rags-to-riches tale about a Jewish boxer who then becomes a war hero, drug addiction was still a taboo to depict on the silver screen. They did go on to make a movie based loosely on his life called "Body and Soul." There were so many obvious connections to the Barney Ross story that the studios were forced to cough up $60,000 to the boxer for what amount copyright infringements.

Since this was a film written, directed and starring a number of figures who would eventually be blacklisted in the 1950s and since it is regarded as a 'noir' classic, I watched it shortly after finishing Douglas Century's biography for comparison's sake.

The film was written by Abraham Polonsky, who was one of the Hollywood Ten and one of the industry's finest writers. In teaming up with director Robert Rossen, it was clear that two of the major talents on the left were joining forces. In his biography of Polonsky titled "A Very Dangerous Citizen," Paul Buhle describes Rossen's impressive past:

Rossen came with considerable personal as well as artistic baggage, the grandson of a rabbi and the nephew of a Hebrew poet, this sometime amateur boxer was raised on New York's Lower East Side. He began his theatrical career there, writing and directing a number of uccessful political plays in the thirties (including, in 1932, "Steel," produced by the Daily Worker as a fund-raiser) before coming to Hollywood. Rossen's script-writing high points included They Won't Forget (1937), a courtroom drama about a false accusation of murder in he South, with Lana Turner in her first dramatic role; Blues in the Night (1940), a musicians' saga with an extraordinarily strong and independent-minded woman played by Priscilla Lane; Sea Wolf {1941), arguably he best Jack London adaptation ever done, with Garfield as the proletarian, Ida Lupino as the hardened girl, and Edward G. Robinson as the totalitarian ship's captain (now noticeably fascist); Out of the Fog (1941), a proletarian saga from an Irwin Shaw play with Garfield as a hoodlum who nearly destroys the lives of a Brooklyn family (including Ida Lupino as the daughter, Garfield's sometime girlfriend trying to break away from her slum life) before fate gives them a second chance; Edge of Darkness (1943), a classic antifascist film marking Norwegian resistance against Nazi occupation; A Walk in the Sun (1946), perhaps the most realistic major war film to that time; and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), a taut postwar drama with Barbara Stanwyck as a factory owner hiding an old secret, Van Heflin as the childhood pal who comes back to wreck her, and Kirk Douglas, in his starring debut, as Stanwyck's weakling partner-in-crime.

John Garfield was born to play the role of boxer Charlie Davis. Like Rossen, Garfield (née Jacob Garfinkel) was a denizen of the Lower East Side who was an amateur boxer in youth and an early convert to the radical movement (although he would deny membership in the CPUSA when the witch-hunt was in full blast.) Like Ross, the character Charlie Davis is a Jew whose grocer father is killed in a stickup. Also, like Ross, he begins to piss away all his money once he becomes champion. Unlike Ross (but more like Jake LaMotta), Charlie Davis is tempted to take a dive in order to pay off debts and comply with the demands of Roberts, his crooked promoter. (Roberts is played by Lloyd Gough, who would be blacklisted. He eventually returned to work in the 1960s and played the role of a blacklisted writer in "The Front.")

Although "Body and Soul" incorporates many plot elements that at this point seem shopworn now (keep in mind that this film was one of the first to depict the rotten cash nexus that underlay professional boxing), Polonsky's writing will always remain fresh. In one memorable scene, the promoter offers a handout to Ben Chaplin, Charlie Davis's cornerman.

Chaplin is a Black boxer (played by blacklistee Canada Lee) who Davis had wrested the championship from and nearly killed in the process. Roberts had set up a bout between the two men despite knowing that Chaplin had a blood clot that might lead to a fatality in the ring. Not long after Chaplin is on the skids, Davis invites him to go to work in his corner.

When Chaplin declines Roberts's handout, the promoter throws the bills on the gym floor. After Roberts leaves, Davis picks up the bills and hands them to Chaplin with these words: "Go ahead and take it. It's only money. It doesn't think. It has no memory. It's not people." In these few words, Polonsky says more than a thousand leaflets. No wonder the redbaiters were anxious to throw such people out of work.

In 1952, columnist Ed Sullivan, who would go on to host the famous TV variety show that premiered Elvis and the Beatles and who started out writing for NY's socialist daily "Leader," identified "Body and Soul" as a threat to the burgeoning television industry. It set "the pattern that the Commies and their sympathizers in TV networks, agencies, and theatrical unions would like to fasten on the medium."

Charlie Davis's mom is played by Ann Revere, who would also be blacklisted. In a minor but crucial role, blacklistee Shimen Ruskin plays Shimen the grocer who drops in on Charlie and his mom shortly before the climactic fight of the movie, in which Charlie has agreed to take a dive. Shimen tells Charlie that he is so proud to see a Jew defending his title when it is such a dark time for his brethren in Europe. After Shimen leaves, Charlie complains that he isn't fighting for anybody any more and is only interested in a big payoff, even if that means taking a dive. Once the thirteenth round arrives, Charlie has a change of heart, fights like a lion and defends his title successfully. The film ends with the clear message that it is possible to withstand the cash nexus.

Despite the efforts of people Ronald Radosh (Red Star Over Hollywood: The Film Colony's Long Romance With The Left), there is little evidence of any sort of monolithism at work in the production of this film despite the fact that the principals were Communists. Rossen favored a tragic entry with Roberts having Charlie rubbed out as punishment for not taking a dive. Polonsky insisted on a happy ending. There were filmed versions of each ending, but Polonsky's was used. Buhle describes the artistic and political differences between the two:

The prospect of this Hollywood happy ending left director Rossen dissatisfied. He wanted Charley to be killed in revenge for betraying the boxing mob, and his version called for a final shot of Charley lying in an alley with his head in a garbage can. Both endings were shot. But in the collaborative atmosphere of Enterprise, where nearly all of the film workers on both sides of the camera were leftist comrades or sympathizers, the writer's view could prevail over the director's, at least if he had the artistic respect of both the producer and the star. Polonsky got his way.

Polonsky's insistence on using the closing scene of Body and Soul as he had written it, despite its superficially happy ending, was emphatically political. Charley's recognition of the need for a sense of decency in human affairs begins with the unmistakable suggestion that the boxing business had lynched Ben. Narratively and politically, Polonsky's need for a defiant ending with a shout of hope derives in part from the social context of Charley's awakening at the moment of Ben's "lynching" as expressed metaphorically in the swinging body bag.

With Rossen's ending, the only meaning in Charley's awakening is personal: Charley glimpses his likely future as a discarded fighter who dies penniless in the ring. His awakening is the American individualist's realization that it is time, in the lingo of another genre, to strap on his guns and clean up the gang that has taken over the boxing business. For Charley to die in a hail of bullets is entirely logical from that view. But that would be mere naturalism, little more than an inverted happy ending suited to the weary wisdom of the postwar audience, a knowing noir grimace.

*************************


When my father was a young man, people used to tell him that he looked like John Garfield. As I began looking deeper and deeper into Barney Ross, the movie based loosely on his life starring John Garfield, the more their images and lives began to blur with my father's.


Like Barney Ross and John Garfield, my father was the son of Yiddish speaking parents who came out of poverty. My father drove a truck in the late 1930s and joined the army for the same reasons that many men and women join today. It was a step up.

My father was also involved in combat during the Battle of the Bulge and received a Bronze Star for carrying an officer to safety while under attack by Nazi fire. He was also a heavy gambler, mostly poker, who was forced by my mother to quit. In their rocky 25 years of marriage, I sometimes wonder if he would have been better off if he had stayed in the army where he seemed right at home.

I was born when my father was off in Belgium dodging German bullets. When he returned, I was nearly six months old. Like many fathers whose children are born when they were overseas in the service, he never really bonded with me. As I grew older into a combination of Woody Allen and Stephen Dedalus, he grew even more remote. As a "tough Jew," he had trouble relating to somebody so different and perhaps effete.

In his Afterword, Douglas Century reflects on the "tough Jews" in his own family:

From 1940 through the late 1960s, my mother's family was in the restaurant business. They owned a popular twenty-four-hour delicatessen called S&L--for my grandfather, Willie (Velvel) Smith, and my uncle, Abe Levy--located on Kedzie and Lawrence avenues in Albany Park. By the time I was old enough to visit Chicago, the family had sold the "store" and all that remained were a few black-and-white photographs, receipts for corned beef sandwiches and 10-cent chocolate phosphates, and Uncle Abe's stories of obsessive gamblers, cops on the take, and young draftees bound for combat in Europe and the Pacific.

They were the characters from Barney Ross's world, and my uncle--born one year after Barney, in 1910, on Manhattan's Lower East Side--could summon them like smoke-shrouded genies in his den in West Rogers Park. He told me about Jewish gangland characters who had dressed in police uniforms--procured by a certain Captain Shapiro at the Albany Park precinct--in order to go pick up a visiting Nazi official who was coming to Chicago to address the Bund; the Jewish police "escort" met the Nazi at the train station, drove him to a secluded street, beat him half-dead with pipes and baseball bats and sent him back to Germany. He told me about one pathetic gambler who won a small fortune with the bookies across the street from the restaurant, wooed and wed the sexiest woman in Albany Park, and promptly lost everything--his gleaming car, furnished apartment, and glamorous wife--when his lucky streak deserted him.

By the mid-seventies, when I was a boy, my uncle was out of the restaurant business and had returned to his original career--for which he'd been trained in the 1920s in Staten Island--as a pharmacist. His den was filled with mementos from his stint as a pharmacist in the United States Army during the second world war, his staff sergeant's stripes, Asiatic-Pacific campaign ribbon with four bronze campaign stars denoting service in New Guinea, Leyte, Luzon, and Hollandia, and the Philippine Liberation Ribbon. There were photos of Abe and his buddies posed in the jungle of Corregidor, my uncle holding a bazooka and a friend hanging from the barrel of the largest artillery gun I'd ever seen.

To Century's credit, he does not take the conventional approach to answering the question of where all the "tough Jews" have gone. Obviously, there are no professional boxers today, except for a smattering of Russian immigrants who differed very little from their gentile counterparts in the former Soviet Union. Nor are there are Jewish gangsters, although there are a whole slew of crooks from Jack Abramoff to the neoconservatives who broke international law in the course of invading Iraq.

This, of course, leads to an examination of the role of Israel in creating a new "tough Jew" archetype based on figures such as Moshe Dayan or Ariel Sharon. Israeli paratroopers are certainly as brutal as any Chicago gangster, although the turf they are protecting has less to do with protecting meek shopkeepers than it does in building a sub-empire in Arab homelands.

There are two books with "tough Jew" in the title. Paul Breines's "Tough Jews: Political Fantasies and the Moral Dilemma of American Jewery" appeared in 1990 and Rich Cohen's "Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams" appeared 8 years later.

In a review of Breines's book that appeared in the Washington Post on September 23, Edward W. Said wrote:

In this remarkably interesting and suggestive essay in cultural analysis, Paul Breines shows how after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War the image of the Jew in American popular culture as a gentle, meek and even saintly figure changed dramatically. The new image to emerge was that of a tough and lethal fighter, one prepared to do battle with hostile non-Jews -- Arabs usually -- who are equated with Nazism and anti-Semitism. Breines connects this change directly with the politics of Israel and Zionism, arguing subtly that the new image was addressed paradoxically to non-Jews who had rejected anti-Semitism; the tough Jew image foreclosed the options culturally available to outsiders who were now to be confronted almost exclusively with the Jew as a savage macho fighter. This figure's origins in the 20th century were to be found in people like Vladimir Jabotinsky, patriarch of the Revisionist Zionism that has lately brought Menachem Begin and Itzhak Shamir to unchallenged prominence in contemporary Israel.

Breines claims that the change in image derives from a change in attitudes to the body, once conceived of as weak and unimportant, now transformed by history and fantasy into an all-encompassing and threatening muscularity. The irony, says Breines, is that the tough Jew now peopling the novels of Leon Uris, Ken Follett, Howard Hunt, John Fredman, Marge Piercy and others (not an impressive roster of talents) is connected exclusively to Israeli tough guys: in a compact chapter, "From Massada to Mossad," he presents an alternative historical record of Jews as warriors, gangster and the like. "In reality," he says, "Jewish Americans did not need Zionism and Palestine to demonstrate Jewish toughness in the period before 1948." Jews were historically tough and gentle, depending on the circumstances.

Cohen's book is more narrowly focused. He is exclusively interested in Jewish gangsters like Bennie "Bugsy" Siegel, Meyer Lansky and Dutch Schultz. In a July 8, 1998 Washington Post review, Jonathan Groner writes:

But Cohen wants to tell us about the Jewish gangsters, not the Jewish intellectuals or the Jewish businessmen, and is he ever proud of those gangs. To him, the criminals -- notorious national figures like Arnold Rothstein, Meyer Lansky and Louis Lepke, as well as countless anonymous street-corner thugs -- were role models of a sort, symbols of the notion that the People of the Book can be doers, not just thinkers. Never mind what kind of actions they took: They were men of action, to be admired, at least for that.

"As bad as the gangsters were, as far outside the law as they lived, they thought they were, in some way, more in touch with Jewish experience than uptown Jews like the Schiffs," Cohen writes presumptuously. Or: "The fact that they were gangsters, that they operated beyond the law, past what is acceptable, gave them a kind of legitimacy, the instant credibility of the outsider."

As difficult as it would have been for someone like me to have made a career as a boxer or a professional hit-man, there is still a way to maintain some kind of connection with the best traditions of the "tough Jew." As a long-time radical, I too know what it means to feel outside the law. During World War Two, the leaders of the Socialist Workers Party were sent to prison for violations of the Smith Act. At Sandstone Prison, party leader James P. Cannon would get into conversations with other prisoners who were mystified why these men were in prison. If you were going to end up behind bars they argued, you might as well do something that at least has a payoff worth the risk--like robbing a bank. Cannon's response went along the lines that the socialists weren't interested in a bank or two. They wanted the whole thing! I always chuckle when I think about that response. Deep in my heart, I believe that being a revolutionary in the USA makes you the biggest criminal that ever lived. Bigger than Robin Hood even. That's the kind of toughness that this Jew at least wants to embrace.









RENEGADE EYE

10 comments:

DesertPeace said...

This was a brilliant post Prenegade... thanks for sharing it with us.

roman said...

Very interesting piece, indeed. It certainly brings the past back to life and makes connections between many famous and infamous people.

Joe the Working Schlub said...

You didn't author this did you? I haven't read anything that good since college. :)

Alice B. said...

Hey renegade,

great post indeed.

just wanted to let you know since you visit frequently that the haitian carnival will be shown live from Haiti at www.sakapfet.com starting at 6pm Eastern Tuesday nite. It's on now too.
.
Hope all's well

Renegade Eye said...

Thank you Alice.

It was written by Louis Proyect at Unrepentant Marxist. I hope many of my readers, will post at his blog.

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

You can't beat a tough Jew...

Scottage said...

Great post, Renegade, really well done. I hope you submit it to the carnival.

ProfessorGQ said...

loooooooooooooooooooooooooong post, but I didn't know about this topic...great read

ella said...

Hey: this is my response to your comment on my page...thanks for stopping by :)

This actually is about the conduct of people while they are drunk, not the reasons they drink. It is a different argument then that of "why are people alcoholics" and "is there an addictive gene." It is about whether conduct (violent acts etc) while drunk, is caused by the drinking, or if people associate drinking with certain behavior to start, and then act that way when drinking (or in my opinion use drinking as an excuse for violent behavior)

Unsane said...

Quite an interesting piece. When I did my boxing dissertation I referred to a very important article called Max Schmeling on the Canvass, which discussed the racial situation of boxing at the time of Weimar. Curiously, it was noted by some commentator of the time -- presumably not Bertolt Brecht, but perhaps another associate of his -- that the jews who went in for boxing did not appear to have the degenerate physical features attributable to jews in general.

Weimar: An interesting time with an interesting preoccupation with the sport of boxing.