This Day in Jewish History, 1890

1890: Rabbi's Son, First Jew to Play Top British Soccer, Is Born

Louis Bookman climbed to sports stardom even though his family was mortified to have – shudder – an athlete in the family.

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November 6, 1890, is the birthdate of Louis Bookman, a Lithuanian-born rabbi’s son who became the first Jew to play in British soccer’s top professional league, early in the 20th century. He also made quite a name for himself playing cricket later in life – and did all of that in the face of both parents and a wife who found it humiliating to have an athlete in the family.

Bookman was born Louis Buchalter, in Zagare, in today’s Lithuania, one of nine children of Mathias and Jane Buchalter. In 1895, the family boarded a ship with the intention of immigrating to New York. According to family lore, however, they misunderstood an announcement when their ship stopped for provisions in Cork, Ireland, and it is there they alighted.

The family soon settled in Dublin, where Mathias became a cantor in the city’s Lennox Street Synagogue.

Enter 'Abraham'

As a teenager, he played soccer for the local Jewish team, Adelaide, which in 1908 won the All-Ireland Under-18s Cup. Two years later, in spite of his parents’ objections, Louis went pro, joining the Belfast Celtic club.

Within a year, he had crossed the Irish Sea, to join Bradford City, the then-reigning Football Association champions. This made Bookman, whose new teammates immediately dubbed him “Abraham,” the first Jew to play in Britain’s top-tier league.

Bookman played three seasons for Bradford City, mostly sitting on the bench, which didn’t prevent people from attributing the team’s tumble in fortunes to the arrival of this swarthy, slight Semite, to whom they attributed a mystical negative power. Nonetheless, he stayed with the Yorkshire team for three seasons, but was happy to move on from there to West Bromwich Albion. He remained there only a year, returning to Ireland when World War I broke out.

The year 1914  also marked Bookman’s first international tournament – with the Irish national squad, which he helped win the British Home Championship.

Not only Bookman’s parents did not approve of his profession: According to his daughter, Joyce Levy, her mother, the former Rebecca Sirota, refused to marry Louis until he gave up professional sports.

“She came from Manchester and all her family were all very learned and musical and, let’s be honest with it, a bit snobbish,” she told Irish sportswriter Eoin O’Callaghan this year. They married when Louis was 40; Joyce was born the following year.

Obsessed with his Judaism

Bookman played soccer through 1925, most notably during three seasons (1919-1922) with Luton Town, in southeast England, during which he appeared in 101 matches and scored eight goals.

According to his daughter, people often called Bookman “Eye-Tie,” assuming he was Italian because of his dark complexion. In fact, notes Anthony Clavane, author of a book about Jewish soccer players in the U.K., many fans had a peculiar preoccupation with Bookman's heritage. He refers to a contemporary newspaper cartoon in which a reporter is seen asking the footballer, “Does your brother play, Mr. Bookman?” “Well, he is able,” responds Bookman’s character. “Did you say his name is Abel?” “No! I say he can play the game.”

When he left the sport, Bookman returned to Dublin, where he worked both as a railway-man and as a jeweler. He was however a wretched businessman, evidently: when her father repaired watches and customers would ask for the bill, “he’d say ‘Ah sure, it doesn’t matter!’ So he never made any money and that was another nail in his coffin as far as my mother was concerned,” Levy told O’Callaghan.

He also began playing cricket, including for the Irish national team -- “the first Jew to be picked for the Gentlemen of Ireland,” according to his daughter -- with which he appeared 14 times through 1930.

Louis Bookman died on June 10, 1943, at age 52. Joyce Levy recalled that after his death, her mother banned all talk of sports in the house. Yet, years later, the daughter discovered that her mother had saved many scrapbooks’ worth of press clippings about Louis, which she has held onto. “I’m not that madly interested,” said Joyce. “I just have them to show the quality of the man.”