isaac berger
Isaac Berger presses 220 pounds at the U.S. Olympic trials in California, 1956. Photo by AP
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Weightlifter Ike Berger says he didn't know he could have won a medal for Israel

If not for an avoidable misunderstanding, Israel would have gotten its first Olympic medal over 50 years ago.

That's at least what Isaac "Ike" Berger believes. The son of a Haredi rabbi and once pound-for-pound the strongest man on earth left Israel with his family during the War of Independence. A few years later, he won weightlifting gold for Team USA at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne without realizing he was still a citizen of the Jewish State.

"If I knew that I still had Israeli citizenship, I would have lifted for Israel. But I didn't know," Berger, 73, told Haaretz recently in Jerusalem.

Somebody had told him he'd eventually lose his Israeli citizenship, he said. "I would have lifted for Israel and I would have given them a medal," he kept repeating throughout the interview. Instead, Israel had to wait until 1992 for its first medal, when judoka Yael Arad won silver in Barcelona.

Just a few days ago, at the check-in at Ben-Gurion Airport, Berger learned of his status the hard way. "When I came to the airport last week, the guy detained me for 20 minutes," says Berger, who was born in 1936 in Jerusalem's Mea She'arim quarter. "He said: 'Do you know you're an Israeli citizen? You should have gone to the Israeli consulate in New York instead of entering with your American passport.' I said: 'No, nobody told me that.'"

Berger says he might still be wearing long side curls and "have 10 or 15 kids" if his family hadn't left Israel when he was 12, mere months after the country's founding, to escape hunger and war. But the family did leave, and he says he cut his side curls on the boat to New York.

Berger, who today works as a personal trainer in Manhattan, was certainly talented enough to have delivered for Israel. He has under his belt three Olympic medals, two world championships and 23 world records, the last of which was broken only three years ago. "His 1964 Olympic record of 336 pounds in the clean and jerk, at a body weight of 130 pounds, made him the pound-for-pound strongest man in the world, a record that stood for nine years," according to the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, to which he was inducted in 1980.

In 1957, Berger pressed 258 pounds in the featherweight competition at the Maccabiah and became the first person to break a world record in the state of Israel.

"I pressed double body weight, which was unheard of at the time," Berger says, recalling his triumph at the Maccabiah. "Ben-Gurion was sitting in front of me. For me it was an honor for Ben-Gurion to sit and watch me." Israel's first prime minister later walked over to Berger to shake his hand, Berger adds, and told him in Hebrew: "How would you like to stay in Israel?"

"My mother, who was with me, said: 'How much are you going to pay him?'" Berger laughs.

But Berger says he understood Ben-Gurion's remark as a compliment and not as a serious offer to compete for the Jewish state. While he was proud to compete for the U.S., he never forgot where he came from. "Isaac's heart was always geared to Jerusalem," says his older brother Meir, a rabbi of an Orthodox congregation in New Jersey. "The reason he didn't come is not because he didn't want to. It was very difficult for him, being a champion and getting so much recognition in America."

When U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson asked Berger once, after breaking another world record, how he got so strong, Berger reportedly answered: "From the black bread I ate in Jerusalem."

There wasn't much of it when he grew up.

"We had to stay in line to get bread," Berger recalls about the days and weeks after the War of Independence broke out. "We lived in shelters, 25 families. While the bombs were falling, who's going to go out and get the food, the bread?"

Because little Yitzchok, as he was called then, was known to be a fast runner and unafraid of anything, his mother sent him to save his family. "She said: 'We got to sacrifice someone, I sacrifice Yitzchok,'" he remembers. "I was looking forward to it, to go out there. I thought it was exciting."

He says that every day he stood in line, and people were getting killed there. "Bombs were falling all over. I used to see people with no legs, with no arms," Berger recalls. One day he caught shrapnel in his back, but the adrenaline just kept him running, according to his brother.

As a teenager in New York, Berger used to enjoy walking around on his hands - unaware he was treating his upper body to perfect weightlifting exercises - but it was not until 1952 before he became interested in athletics. "I was walking around in Brooklyn, you know, I was trying to see what's going on," he says. "And then I see a gym. There was a guy outside flexing his muscles; that somehow attracted me. I went upstairs and spoke to the guys and said I want muscles, too."

Berger started training, paying a dollar a week. In 1955, he won his first national featherweight championship, a title he would take six more times.

Meanwhile, his parents did not think too highly of their son's blossoming career. His mother wasn't even happy when he started bringing trophies home, he recalls. "I'm lifting weights, mom," he used to explain, but she would just respond: "Oy vey, a bum, he's a bum!"

"She didn't know what the word weightlifting meant. That's how Jewish mothers are, they always want you to become a doctor or a lawyer," he says with a smile.