People of the Ring: New York Exhibition Celebrates Jewish Boxers and Wrestlers

'Yiddish Fight Club' brings to life the Jewish fighters from the mid-20th century, most of them East European immigrants, and their colorful language.

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Rafael Halperin during his wrestling days. He later became a rabbi.
Rafael Halperin during his wrestling days. He later became a rabbi.Credit: YouTube

A new exhibition in New York features the Jewish boxers and wrestlers, almost all of them immigrants from Eastern Europe, who delighted their American co-religionists in the 1950s and 1960s, the New York Times reports.

The exhibition, “Yiddish Fight Club,” opened Thursday evening at the Yivo Institute of Jewish Research at the Center for Jewish History on West 16th Street in Manhattan.

It features virtually forgotten Jewish fighters such as Rafael Halperin, a wrestler, boxers Benny Leonard, Barney Ross and a Chicagoan, Kingfish Levinsky, who lost bouts to famed heavyweights like Primo Carnera and Max Baer.

Born in Vienna, Halperin (1924-2011) was the son of an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who moved the family to Israel out of fear of growing Nazism. The younger Halperin proved as adept at physical feats as with Talmudic riddles and took up weight lifting.

After a wrestling career in America, which was notable for his refusal to fight on the Sabbath, Halperin became an entrepreneur in Israel, opening a successful optical chain that is still in existence. He later became an ultra-Orthodox rabbi

Barney Ross (1909-1967), born Dov-Ber Rasofsky to immigrant parents, started out as a Talmudic scholar but became disillusioned with religious observance after his father was murdered in a grocery store robbery.

He became a small-time gangster, rumored to work for Al Capone, then trained as a boxer and went on to win titles in lightweight, light-welterweight and welterweight divisions during the 1930s.

There are also some more fantastical figures in the exhibition, like the wrestler Martin Levy (1906-1961), known as Blimp, who immobilized his opponents with a bulk of 600 to 700 pounds, though he was surprisingly nimble.

Weighing 200 pounds by his bar mitzvah, he worked as a circus “Fat Man” at Coney Island, where he was discovered in the 1930s by the wrestling promoter Jack Pfefer.

The exhibit also includes two professional fighters who were popular among the Jews of Poland — Shepsl Rotholtz (1913-1982) and Zelig Pashov (born in 1905 but whose date of death is unknown.)

Not only the fighters are featured in the exhibition. It also gives space to some of their more unconventional tactics, such as unterkletzl (a strong knee in the rear end), barne (a closed-fist knuckle punch in the crown known in English as a noogie), bintl finger (a “bundle of fingers” punch in the mouth) and a bentsh (literally “a blessing” but describing a blow on the head with a piece of wood).

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