"Blessed by the Lord thy Strength, who teaches thy hands to war and my fingers to fight"

 Psalm 144:1

 

"Ghetto Warriors" The phenomenon of East End Jewish Boxers 

(Co-Producer Ms.Meg Vandermerwe) 

Synopsis 

Stepney, Whitechapel and Bethnal Green - London's Jews have moved far away from the original ghetto. As the East End morphs and changes with new inhabitants and immigrant groups, the ghosts of the past still linger. Amidst the relics of a ghetto of 150,000 Jews, many of their rich stories remain hidden and untold. The cynics of today would scoff at the facts - that brandished out of the grimy alleyways and cobbled streets of the East End were Jewish fighters of such tough muscles and sharp brains, that their top champions remain some of the greatest boxers Britain has ever produced. "Jews and sport? Not for a Yiddishe boy!" However, these boys tore up the rules and produced a phenomenon of their very own. With a Star of David sewn upon their shorts, fists tightly clenched and bobbing the onrushing blows, they punched their way out of desperate poverty - with the children of the ghetto roaring them on.

 

The Film 

The film is a 25 minute documentary. The film is book-ended by poetic and lyrical meditations on the old world of fighting and the phenomenon of East End Jewish boxers. This treatment is a flavour of the film's narrative style. Much of the following text will be used as narration to the film. The look of the film will pivot around a tapestry of visually poetic images of East End fighting arenas, gyms and boxing relics. As well as a tour of principal Jewish boxing sites, there will be the use of exclusive archive footage, dramatic boxing reconstruction with actors and interviews with Jewish boxing personalities, both past and present.

 

Rationale 

Why must the story of Jackie 'Kid' Berg and Ted 'Kid' Lewis be told? Jackie 'Kid' Berg and Ted 'Kid' Lewis are legends amongst the world's sporting community and lauded in the Boxing Hall of fame, but the time has come for their tale to reach a wider audience. On one level theirs in an undeniably fascinating and seminal piece of sporting history - between them, this pair of young jabbing and punching Jews from London's East End racked up almost every major British and American championship belt, pre World War II- an achievement not yet matched. But the significance of their story is ultimately so much greater than just sporting history. Theirs is also a tale of cultural history and nascent identities. As the sons of poor East European immigrants living in the Jewish Ghetto of Whitechapel and Stepney Green before the war, they offer us an original insight into a defining chapter of British Jewish history, that, as the support of the JEECS (Jewish East End Celebration Society) for the project confirms, is being woefully neglected. 

Theirs is also a tale that 'speaks' the seed of contemporary East European Jewish experience in Britain - hardship, prejudice, aspiration and ultimate triumph, but here, all unfolds amongst the blood and sweat of 'the ring'. Theirs is also a tale that 'speaks' against the pervasive stereotype of Jew as passive object in history and victim. Long before Zionist IsraeI, here we have an example of what author Rich Cohen refers to as 'tough Jews' - Jews who literally raised their fists against anti-Semitic prejudice, Jews who didn't know or didn't care that they were supposed to be weak, so weren't. The story of Jackie 'Kid' Berg and Ted 'Kid' Lewis is an important piece of sporting history, Jewish history and British history, and as such it must be told, before all its players have passed on and it is much too late.

 

Film Chapters Ch.1: 

The Poetry of the Ring Two warriors stand swaying across a sharply lit square ring. The wild shrieks of the crowd fade into irrelevance, sterile in comparison to the bloody sweat and pulsing bodies of the two combatants facing one another. The bell rings and the fighters exist, animated by time. They are two gladiators in time, gliding warily around one another on the canvas - the theatre of life. Time, like the possibility of death, is the invisible adversary of which the boxers are keenly aware. When a boxer is 'knocked out' it does not mean, as it's commonly thought, that he has been knocked unconscious. More poetically, it means that he has been knocked out of Time. There are in a sense two dimensions of Time abruptly operant: while the standing boxer is in time the fallen boxer is out of time. Counted out, he is counted 'dead' - in symbolic mimicry of the sport's ancient gladiatorial tradition in which he would very likely be deceased. If boxing is a sport, it is the most tragic of them all. More than any other human activity it consumes the very excellence it displays - its drama is this very consumption. The Jewish boxers of the early part of the 20th Century were supernal players in this most exceptional of dramas. The writer Joyce Carol Oates, in 'On Boxing,' has no difficulty justifying boxing as a sport because she has never thought of it as such. She notes that there is nothing fundamentally playful about it; nothing that seems to belong to daylight, to pleasure. At its moments of greatest intensity it seems to contain so complete and so powerful an image of life - life's beauty, vulnerability, despair, incalculable and often self-destructive courage - that boxing is life and hardly a mere game. During an epic boxing match, we are deeply moved by the body's communion with itself by way of another's intransigent flesh; the body's dialogue with its shadow self - or Death. Shadows linger over boxing, contained in cauldrons of heaving noise and primal energy. One plays sport, one doesn't play boxing.

 

Ch 2: East End Ghosts 

The view glides slowly down the empty streets of Brick Lane. In the early hours of the morning it is deserted and ghostly. But on this cobbled stone 80 years back, amid the sellers readying the marketplace, we might have seen some of the local fighters, warming their contorted muscles, sharpening their bodies and reflexes in the infinite search for perfection. Some made it to glory, but others perished. Nevertheless, in the relentless ritualistic regime of a young boxer, the individual is repeatedly coiled and honed…triggered to spring into attack when summoned by the clanging bells of the boxing halls. We turn and enter a deserted boxing club, only echoes and sounds of the past can be heard… …the clatter of the rope, the dusty floors of the gym - spattered in blood and sweat. Swaying stitched up punch bags creak slowly in the lights and dumb bells clatter to the floor. Young men sweat and pound one another under the eagle eye of a wrinkled faced trainer. Street bookies gather with their runners, passing on gossip and tips, laying bets, handing over cash. Music hall agents come and go, hunting profits, offering bookings. Old boxers with wiry hair linger, recalling past heroism and vanquished foes. They make themselves useful carrying the odd bucket of spittle or damp crimson soaked towel, playing cards, laughing, drinking tea, forever smelling that strangely acrid aroma of sweat and embrocation. A few jerk, still experiencing the old twinge of excitement at the sound of the three-minute bell. 

This might have been the tangible atmosphere of the Judean Social and Athletic club. Founded in 1902 by brothers Dave and Barney Stitcher, it was set up to encourage Jewish participation in sports. The club no longer stands today but it was the engine room for the East End fighters. Here, their hungry eyes looked around for the next pay-day as their bodies were beaten hard. Their revolution was sudden, sharp and quick. These tiny, spindly assassins were sharp of mind and ruthless of finish. By the mid-twenties, the Jew had supplanted even the Irishman as the dominant force in the fistic arenas.

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Ch 3: A Brief History (fused with archive footage and interviews) 

1881 was a very difficult year for the Russian Jews. After the assassination of Czar Alexander II and the enactment of the repressive May Laws, a mass of Jews migrated out of Russia in a seemingly endless flow. In this epoch of Jewish history, England served as a way station for refugees en route to the New World; between 1881 and World War 1, an estimated 120,000 Jews immigrated to England. Of these, some settled in Leeds and Liverpool, but most flocked into the wretched and poverty-stricken Whitechapel district in London's East End. 

This tiny enclave was immortalized by the Anglo-Jewish novelist, Israel Zangwill, in his epic novel 'Children of the Ghetto': 

The Lane was always the great marketplace, and every insalubrious street and alley abutting on it was covered with the overflowings of its commerce and its mud. Wentworth Street and Goulston Street were the chief branches, and in festival times the latter was a pandemonium of caged poultry, clucking and quacking, and cackling and screaming. A babel of sound, audible for several streets around, denoted market day in Petticoat Lane, and the pavements were blocked by serried crowds going both ways at once. 

People lived on top of one another. A German, Catholic social activist named Rudolf Rocker, who lived and worked amongst the Jews of the East End and became editor of the radical Yiddish newspaper 'Der Arbeter Fraint' (The Worker's Friend), compassionately portrayed the abominable conditions the immigrant encountered in his autobiography: 

There were at the time thousands of people who never slept in a bed, who just crept into some filthy hole where the police would not disturb them…they went about in foul rags, through which their skin showed, dirty and lousy, never free from hunger, scavenging their food out of dustbins and refuse heaps. There were squalid courts and alley-ways with dreary, tumble-down hovels, whose stark despair it is impossible to describe. And in these cesspools of poverty children were born and people lived struggling all their lives with poverty and pain, shunned like lepers by all decent members of society. 

With unemployment widespread and the work-stoppages of the Great Depression wreaking havoc on the economic and moral fibre of English society, it was only natural that crime and violence would proliferate among the poor and déclassé elements. Although some Jews eked out a livelihood in carpentry industries, it was the exploitative and tubercular ridden tailoring sweatshop - a human slave market with its 14 to 18 hour work days and near invisible wages - where the Jewish immigrant was most often able to secure a job. Typically, the Jewish worker was willing to sacrifice better wages and improved working conditions so that he could work for a boss who adjusted his hours to respect the Jewish calendar. This attitude pitted him against the native working class who mistakenly believed that the Jews were undermining their struggle for better working conditions. Hence, working class enmity, combined with a historical antipathy of the English people for the Jew, made the latter a favourite target for abusive treatment. 

Characteristically, the transplanted shtetl yid reacted like the traditional nebbish of the Old Country in the face of a violent onslaught. A contemporary Yiddish journalist observed: The ordinary Englishman who lacks finesse shouts at the foreigner for the crime of being born 'German sausage,' or 'bloody Jew' or occasionally 'Why don't you go back to your own country?' and he is normally satisfied to limit himself to these insults. But the same man when drunk, on meeting a frightened Jew on the way, will deal him a blow to the head. Let the same Englishman meet a Lithuanian gentile or an Italian ice cream vendor, a German or a Frenchman who knows how to deal with him, he will retreat singing quietly 'Rule Brittania' and so ends the affair. However, the Anglicised children of the greenhorn, growing up on the mean streets of the London ghetto, refused to perpetuate the role of eternal victim. Literally taking matters into their own hands they practiced a (black) eye for a (black) eye and a (busted) tooth for a (busted) tooth. 

The Judean Club in the East end was a place where an impetuous, temperamental young man might go to release his pent up emotions in physical combat and learn the aleph-beis of self-defence. Success in street brawls might prompt him to try his luck in the ring, with its financial incentives. Failure in the ring might very likely mean a life of toil in the dreaded sweatshop, where poverty competed with obscurity to claim a man's soul. The Jews took to boxing like ducks to water. Two generations of outstanding Jewish gladiators were spawned in this cultural milieu. In the Devonshire, Blackfriar and other fight arenas in London, the Jews sat downstairs while the gentiles perched in the balcony. When Jew fought Christian, the roar of the crowd was split in half. One of the early London ghetto heroes at the turn of the century was Anshel Young Joseph, a powder puff puncher but exceptionally clever boxer who won the British welterweight championship in 1910. 

A few other stellar Jewish performers of the London fight scene were Cockney Cohen, a little scrapper who held his own in four bouts with ex-world bantamweight champion Pedler Palmer; Matt Wells, claimant to the world welterweight title (1914-15); Harry Mason, English (1925-6, 1934) and European (1923-25) lightweight champion; Harry Mizler, English welterweight champion (1934); and Jack Broomfield, British middleweight (1922) and British Empire light-heavyweight champion (1923). But the two greatest Jewish fighters of this period were Ted Kid Lewis and Jackie Kid Berg. These world champions campaigned around the globe, claiming victory after victory. 

 

Ch 4: Fighter Profiles (Archive and Interviews) 

Ted 'Kid' Lewis 'The Aldgate Sphinx' 'The Yiddisher Wonderman' 
Welterweight Champion of the World (1915-16, 1917-19) 

Few British fighters ever managed to prise a world championship on the other side of the pond. The greatest and most triumphant of these was the Yiddisher Wonderman Gershon Mendeloff, better known as Ted 'Kid' Lewis. Lewis fought all over the world but did especially well against his American 'cousins,' beating them at their own game. 

His infamous bone crunching wars with Jack Britton, from whom he wrestled the welterweight title twice, made Lewis the first Briton ever to win the championship laurels in America. Billed as the 'dashing, slashing, smashing, bashing, crashing terror,' Lewis fought in every weight division and feared no two legged mortal. Weighing little more than 150 pounds, he once knocked out a top flight heavyweight in the first round. 

Lewis barely looked like an ordinary fighter - he had the spidery legs of a featherweight and the massive torso of a heavyweight, but he was always in magnificent condition. He had to be: in 1911 he fought 41 times and during a two-week stretch in 1912 he climbed through the ropes no less than 14 times. In his career, Lewis is estimated to have fought around 400 bouts, of which only 250 (with 155 wins) have been documented. 

Absorbing punishment is a biological trait Lewis may have inherited from his persecuted forebears. Solomon Mendeloff, his father, had miraculously survived a pogrom - which decimated his shtetl in Russia. Described by one contemporary writer as a 'relentless destroyer, grey of face and expressionless of eye,' Lewis was a scientific boxer, a brutal infighter and a merciless finisher who 'never conceded anything to sentiment and never expected his opponent to indulge in such weakness.' 

Rachmonis (compassion) and kindness he reserved for outside of the ring, for the hoards of destitutes and young street urchins who roamed the dark, narrow and crooked streets of Whitechapel, whose plight he knew so well; for the multitudes of adoring fans and well-wishers who idolized him like a cult demigod; for relatives, friends, acquaintances or just about any shnorrer anywhere with an outstretched palm and a hard luck story to tell; for all these, he would unconditionally give the shirt off his back and shower them with money and gifts. He once paid for 1000 East End children to visit the seashore for a day. Gershon Mendeloff was extremely popular with the yidn of the London Ghetto. An old cheder mate named Curley Carr recalled: 

He was small, slim and sallow looking. A straight left boxer, he was in his early days, very correct and scientific. But when he came back from the States he was a fighting machine. Terrifying, murderous. You've never seen anything like him…he was an idol in the East End…why, when they knew he was coming they used to line the streets as if the king was coming through.

   
Jackie 'Kid' Berg 'The Whitechapel Windmill' 

Light-Welterweight Champion of the World (1930-31) 

Yidl (Berg) wore tzitzis. He would come into the ring, remove his robe, hang them on the ring post and leave them there. The Jews in the crowd went crazy. It was a tremendous attraction. But the commissioner raised hell. So I said to him: 

'Commissioner, this is his belief. Do you scold Christian kids for crossing themselves and kneeling before a fight?" Ray Arcel, trainer emeritus. 

For Jackie Kid Berg fighting in the streets of the East End was as natural as breathing, he recalls: 

My gang was mainly from my street. Sam Bibbikraut was the leader. Then there was Gussie, Sammy Front, Morrie Greenberg, maybe one or two others, younger brothers. We grew up together. I could lick Sam - I could lick any of them. I was fighting every day, to survive! I had to fight, it was my way, you see - When I was in the street, if anybody hit somebody I knew, I used to shield that person. I never wanted people to take liberties with me. What's right is right, but I never wanted people to take liberties. I always landed the first punch, whatever happened. I'd get in first. If I'm right or wrong, I'm going to hit you, I'm not going to wait until you bang me one. Gangs of gentiles used to sing bad things to us on the streets, often in front of old Jewish people and when we kids used to hear that, well, we didn't like it! Our spirits used to be on fire, we'd burn! We would make a dash for them. We were always fighting. You had to fight! It was part of my nature. 

Incredibly self disciplined, he schooled himself in the traditional standup British style of boxing. On crossing the Atlantic he reverted to the more elemental 'blood and snot' form of brawling and made a big splash with the throngs on the American continent, to the chagrin of the traditionalist British boxing establishment. This perpetual motion, piston-shooting dynamo they called The Whitechapel Windmill, tossed leather non-stop from every possible angle until his ring foe dropped from sheer exhaustion. He was neither boxer nor puncher. There was little science to his methodology - he just bored in and flailed away. But the theoretical underpinning of his tactics was based on the Napoleonic dictum that the best defence is a good offence. The majority of his opponents crumbled under the sheer volume of the attack.

Ray Arcel, his legendary trainer of many world champions, attempted to understand his wild nature: 

"Berg was a tense bundle of nervous energy, impulsive and fanatically superstitious. Training him was one nightmare after another. We could never let him out of our sight. Normally you tuck fighters into bed and switch off the lights and lock the door from the outside for insurance. Now you can relax. But with Berg, lights-out signalled the start of war-games. Would he or wouldn't he break loose? We put extra padlocks on the door, barred the window and stationed somebody in the room to watch him. Somehow he still escaped, off chasing girls."

The only ritual that seemed to calm him, as well as fighting, were his religious superstitions: Marching into a fight, a tallit was hung around his shoulders and a tephillin was strapped around his arms and forehead. The normally riotous fight mob remained silent as he went through the long dramatic ritual of unwinding the leather straps from around his body, kissing them tenderly and placing them in a gold embroidered velvet bag. He handed the bag to me saying, 'Please take care of this, Ray.' Some sceptics sneered: 'He goes through that routine to pull in the cloak and suitors. It's using religion for financial gain. It's sacrilegious.' True, he wasn't what you call a religious Jew. But he was superstitious beyond reason.

When I put the question to him one day, he seemed embarrassed: 'It's comforting to have God on your side no matter what your doing,' he told me soberly. During his peak, there seemed to be the mark of Divine spirit with Berg. He moved to the United States in 1928 and the following year he scored a win over junior welterweight champion Mushy Callahan in a non-title bout. Berg opened the 1930 campaign with a decision over the great Tony Canzoneri and promoters quickly matched him with Callahan again with the title on the line:

" …and then Berg shot a left for the face while driving a right for the body. Callahan plunged at once with a double-handed attack for the mid-section and they were at it like a pair of tiger cats. Fists were flying with the utmost rapidity, with Berg speeding up and lashing out almost faster than the eye could follow. Callahan tried an uppercut, but Berg caught this on his forearms and at once hooked a right to the head and shot a left to the mouth. Again the Englishman speeded up and, swinging or hooking with all the force and speed of which he was capable, drove the American to the ropes. Smashed up against these the American had to lean on his man and was reproved by the referee. "

The end came a few seconds before the start of the eleventh round: 

"The referee was leaning over the ropes with his back to the ring. A towel appeared like a comet in Callahan's corner. There was a gasp of surprise; then cheers and yells that shook the smoke-laden air. Callahan had retired. His once broken nose had been broken again. His left eye was closed. Misery - dazed misery - was reflected on his badly used face." Boxing Magazine, Feb 26th 1930. 

Berg returned to the United States and made six successful title defences. He also scored a 10-round decision over Kid Chocolate in a non-title fight. Chocolate, who later won the world featherweight and junior lightweight titles, was unbeaten in 160 amateur and pro fights before meeting Berg. By the
year's end, Berg was considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.

Berg's professional record: 192 bouts - won 157 (57 by KO), drew 9, lost 26.



Ch 5: Conclusions

Overlooking the entire East End panorama today, the narration will conclude:

There are many reasons, historical and cultural that blended to produce the phenomena of the Jewish fighter. Maybe one of the most interesting levels of analysis is the psycho-spiritual.
In the late 19th century, the Jew, ripped out of the East European shetl and Pale of Settlement was again marked as a wanderer. Exiled and alienated in a strange land, hungry and poor, this dislocation seemed to ignite a deep thread of energy within many young Jewish boys. Exploding with ferocity in the ring, harnessed by rules and honed through the routine of training, the Jewish boxer was no longer the effeminate edelkayt of the Talmudic Rabbinic Jew - seen as weak and submissive to suffering. Similar to the new muscle Jew of modern Zionist ideology, the Jewish boxer was a bolt of lightening to the masculine Jewish psyche. Combining speed of thought and speed of hand, with the learned improvisation of combat fused into every facet of their perceptual system, the Jewish boxer were a paradigm that stand alone in the annals of Jewish cultural history.
We began the journey with the analysis of the boxer within the parameters of time. The same can be said of the Jew. The rituals of Jewish practice crystallise and sanctify time, through the Sabbath and holy festivals. Furthermore, from a macro perspective, the Jew is constantly evolving in historical time - adapting and shifting to their local environment but still maintaining the fundamentals of identity, practice and community. Thus, maybe the boxer and the Jew are one and the same; constantly fighting for survival and ducking and weaving through Time, attempting to dodge the traps and pitfalls that time sets up for us. Rounds come and rounds go but the key is to stay alive, to hear the bell for the next round. The boxer and the Jew hold onto the dream…maybe redemption will come, they whisper to themselves…or maybe just another battle, on another day.
For all that can be said is only time will tell.
As time flows forward we hope that these little warriors, bursting with the drama and struggle of life, will hopefully remain in our memories for eternity.