The ProsenPeople

Israel’s Extraordinary Population Growth Is No Cause for Celebration

Monday, May 16, 2016 | Permalink

Founding directory of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense Alon Tal’s latest book, The Land Is Full, addresses the problems of overpopulation in Israel. He is guest blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

There was a time when expanding the number of Israeli citizens was a critical national challenge. With less than a million people, a sparsely populated Third Jewish Commonwealth was vulnerable: economically, diplomatically and militarily. As we consider the Israel’s future today, however, it needs to be clear that those days are long over. The paramount domestic policy objective for a country with over eight million citizens in 2016 involves demographic stabilization.

Today, Israel is among the most crowded nations in the world, and it continues to experience demographic growth that is unrivaled in the West. Based on present trends, Israel’s population is expected to double within the next thirty years and reach 15 million people. At that point, Israel will be the most crowded developed country in the world. But the projected factory farm densities will not make life better. Meteoric increases in population size have profound implications on the quality of life in Israel, affecting all segments of society and our collective future.

Environmentally, the phenomena are self-evident. Israeli leaders promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions “per capita” at the UN Paris summit, knowing full well that a 2% annual growth in population means that overall emissions are going to increase for the foreseeable future; the Dead Sea retreats into oblivion, deprived of its natural Jordan River waters which are tapped to provide water to Israel’s agriculture—even though Israeli farmers at best can only provide 45% of this expanded populace’s calories; the steady collapse of the country’s biodiversity 0151 the magnificent array of animals and plants—will continue as open spaces and habitat give way to the 60,000 housing units required every year to meet the growing demand. This tragedy may be the most irreversible part of Israel’s present ecological disaster.

The social dynamics are much the same. Gridlock on Israel’s roads is becoming unbearable, but the Ministry of Transportation sees no relief in sight. It predicts that within the next decade as the fleet expands, Israelis will spend an additional 50 minutes per day in their cars sitting in traffic jams. The courts are backlogged as cases wait longer and longer for judges to become available. Israel has the most crowded kindergartens in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and among the most crowded schools. We simply cannot expand infrastructure fast enough. The hospitals are the most crowded in the OECD as well. The housing crisis will never be solved solely by increasing supply; without stabilizing demand, most young Israelis will never be able to realize the dream of owning their own home.

Worst of all, because the high birth rates are largely found among Israel’s poorest population groups, the disgraceful gaps in income in the country continue to grow worse. Equality of opportunity, a central tenet of Israeli solidarity, becomes lip service when one of every three children lives below the poverty line. Indeed, a report this year confirms that Israel’s income gaps may be the worst in the developed world. But invariably, poverty is found among families with five or more children, where resources and parental attention will never be sufficient to allow these children to compete.

The population crisis is the result of public policies which provide powerful economic incentives to have children, especially for families with low incomes. It is the result of policies that create obstacles to abortion and contraception and do not insist on empowering women and granting them equal rights and “reproductive autonomy.” We can change these policies. Indeed we must.

That’s why I wrote The Land is Full: Addressing Overpopulation in Israel. As an Israeli environmentalist, I realized the futility of spending growth all my time and energy on symptoms. Anyone concerned about ensuring a healthy, environmentally strong and equitable third Jewish Commonwealth should consider Israel’s demographic dynamics. We must all ask hard questions if we care about Israel’s future: How many people do we want to live in our “New Jersey-sized” Jewish state? How can we ensure that all Israeli women, including Arabs and Haredis, be given a chance to realize their potential academically and join Israel’s workforce? How can we change Israel’s cultural fixation on having large families? Can Jewish tradition support a new view about sustainable population size? There are answers to all of these questions. But first we need to understand that our generation’s challenge is to create a society which focuses on quality of life rather than quantity of lives.

Ben Gurion University professor Alon Tal was founding director of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, Israel’s preeminent ecological advocacy organization, and the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, a Middle Eastern academic program. A member of the JNF-KKL board for over a decade, from 2010 to 2013 he chaired Israel’s Green Party.

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New Reviews May 13, 2016

Friday, May 13, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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Interview: Michelle Adelman

Thursday, May 12, 2016 | Permalink

with Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone

Michelle Adelman's debut novel introduces a heroine whose failings, grief, and disability have become the background music of her life, but who nonetheless grows stronger because of her scars. Jewish Book Council chatted with the author about this unusual novel, Piece of Mind, its portrayal of the family dynamics in dealing with disability, and how Judaism emerged as a source of comfort to its protagonist, Lucy.

Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone: Your background is in nonfiction and journalism. How did you become interested in writing fiction? And how did you use those skills when you wrote this novel?

Michelle Adelman: I started working in magazines, but after a couple of years I discovered that I wanted to write more creatively. I did an MFA in fiction and started to write short stories and then realized I wanted to write a novel.

The first elements of Piece of Mind came from my sister, who inspired Lucy. They were rooted in my observations, almost in an essayistic way. But I had to do a lot of research because as a family we never really talked about her traumatic brain injury. I enjoyed the research process, but also that I wasn't constricted to facts.

NLG: Did anything else help clarify how you wanted to tell this story?

MA: I started writing the book in third person. But when I switched to first person, a lot of my inadvertent judgement went away. It wasn't a conscious shift, but it granted the reader more empathy.

NLG: Lucy's condition is wrought by tragedy and accident. Why did you want to use more of the same to move the plot forward?

MA: I think I needed something to propel Lucy into the unfamiliar.

NLG: So it had to be something sudden.

MA: Yes, an accident was the only way I could conceive of it happening. It was the only way to push her past what she thinks she can do. And, it helped up the drama.

NLG: Can you tell me about Lucy's relationship to her father? It's loving but it's definitely not healthy.

MA: I wanted the love and care to be there—the good intentions were important. But I also wanted to convey that almost delusional quality they're both living in. They've coexisted in the same way for so long that they've become codependent.

NLG: They don't seem totally happy, but they also don't seem like they want to change.

MA: Exactly. It's unclear if either of them knows there's an issue.

NLG: Why is Lucy's mom out of the picture, too? It's almost too much! Lucy's father keeps her alive, and loves her, but isn't totally practical. I felt more sad about Lucy's longing for her mother than I did about her father's death.

MA: I always had the mother out of the picture, because I think it's harder for fathers and daughters to relate and wanted to explore that dynamic. The importance of a mother figure grew as I was writing. Lucy is seeking that maternal relationship.

NLG: Why is Lucy so opposed to the idea of being “disabled”?

MA: It's part of the way she's lived with her dad for so long, to be conditioned to think that her greatest goal is to be “normal.” But her development in the book is to understand that no one is normal or perfect, and that it would be much better for her if she took the world on her own terms. That refusal is a fundamental piece of her character.

NLG: Something that I love about Lucy is her inability to function gracefully. By refusing or being unable to do basic tasks, she throws the farce of our habits into high relief. It's like she can't help but ask, “what's the point of doing it this way?”

MA: She's almost like a time traveler or someone from another planet!

NLG: The Judaism in Piece of Mind seems to come up more strongly after tragedy strikes and Lucy needs comforting.

MA: I realized that when these characters are dealing with tragedy and accidents, they would turn to religion to help explain what's happening. It made sense that Lucy would go back to her Jewishness to explain the bigger world around her. Her father's belief system plays a role in who he is and how he abided by tradition. It grounds their whole family.

Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone is a dance artist, choreographer, curator, writer and editor living in NYC. Read her dance criticism at The Dance Enthusiast and peep her curation @thebunkerpresents.

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The Advantages of Old-Fashioned Reporting

Wednesday, May 11, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Andrew Nagorski divulged the advantage of spreading the word about your research. With the release of his sixth book, The Nazi Hunters, this week, Andrew is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


Any good reporter knows all about eureka moments during interviews. Those are the moments when you’re told something that you never thought to ask, when some critical piece of information, color, or anecdote is revealed in a casual aside—or once the formal part of an interview is over.

I certainly learned all about such moments when I was a foreign correspondent for Newsweek. But it often took me a while to absorb what I had just learned. Sometimes, it wasn’t until I walked out the door that I realized how valuable the revelation was. At other times, it wasn’t until I started writing my story.

In my subsequent reporting for books like The Nazi Hunters, I kept the lesson I learned early as a reporter in mind: as much as you need to be well prepared for your interviews, make sure you leave room for spontaneity, even what seem like tangents. People often reveal the most interesting aspects of their lives or thoughts when they are relaxed and not simply responding to prepared questions.

The other part of that lesson: in most cases, eureka moments only happen when you interview people in person. The odds of getting a truly revealing interview go up dramatically in a face-to-face meeting. In teaching writing classes to students who have grown up in the digital age, I’ve found that this often comes as a real surprise: their usual first instinct is to conduct interviews via email, which I tell them should be only a last resort.

The problem with email is similar to the one foreign correspondents encounter when political leaders request their questions in advance: they get back scripted answers, even if they are in the form of a conversation. With email, there is little chance of serendipity, an inadvertent slip or simply a personal story that is not part of the planned exchange. There is almost no chance to test the personal chemistry between you and the person you are interviewing. You cannot read the other person’s body language, or even describe how they talk and look.

The digital world does offer in-between options. If you cannot see someone in person, a Skype interview can be the next best thing. And there is always the straightforward phone interview. Interesting digressions are possible in both those situations. If you can’t get the person to talk one of those ways, then—and only then—use email. It can be useful for getting basic information and the person’s point of view, but always remember you’re probably missing a lot— unless you have met at least once in person on an earlier occasion. In that case, you’re much more likely to be able to read the signals you can’t see during a phone call or in emails.

One of the people I interviewed for The Nazi Hunters was Rafi Eitan, the Mossad agent who was in charge of the commando unit that kidnapped Adolf Eichmann near his home in Buenos Aires in 1960. This was in early 2014, when he was 87. In his Tel Aviv home, he talked freely about that legendary, once top-secret operation. I was struck by how short he was, even allowing for the fact that he probably had grown smaller with age.

Wasn’t he nervous about confronting Eichmann? He showed me his huge hands. They got that way from years of climbing ropes in his youth, he noted. Even if something were to go wrong, he didn’t need a gun. “The easy way to kill someone with your hands is to break his neck,” he added. He revealed that he and a colleague had decided to do just that if they were to be caught by the Argentine police rather than give Eichmann another chance to escape justice, despite the orders they received to keep their captive alive

I never would have found that out if I had conducted an email interview with him, or even if I had talked to him by phone or Skype. I had to go to Israel to make this happen. The digital recorders I use in such interviews are very helpful, but no digital technology can serve as a substitute for old-fashioned reporting. When it comes to the how of interviews, I’m old school all the way.

Andrew Nagorski served as Newsweek’s bureau chief in Hong Kong, Moscow, Rome, Bonn, Warsaw, and Berlin. He is available for book events and speaking engagements through Jewish Book Council’s JBC Network author touring program.

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Book Cover of the Week: Here I Am

Tuesday, May 10, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

It's been over a decade since Jonathan Safran Foer's last novel—Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close—was published. But as fans of Foer's fiction may or may not have already heard, the hiatus ends this September, with the release of Here I Am!

Following a family in crisis over a three-week span in Washington, DC, Here I Am promises a welcome return for readers who loved Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Everything Is Illuminated. Mark your calendars for "Jonathan Safran Foer's most searching, hard-hitting, and grandly entertaining novel yet" to hit up your local book store, and look for more from the author in the months to come here at Jewish Book Council!

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Spreading the Word

Monday, May 09, 2016 | Permalink

Andrew Nagorski is the author of Hitlerland and The Nazi Hunters, released this week. Andrew is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


As a journalist, I had a deeply ingrained instinct not to share too much information with colleagues from rival publications. We socialized often, chattering away in bars and restaurants and on the occasional stakeouts, discussing the obvious news developments, but almost all of us remained guarded about whatever we were reporting at the moment that was in the least bit original. You never wanted someone else to pick up on your idea and run with it—certainly not before you had the chance to get it into print first.

When I began writing books, I found that this protective instinct died hard. I was reluctant to reveal too much about my projects, especially early in the game. But gradually I realized that I needed to change my ways. By the time I embarked on my research for The Nazi Hunters, my sixth book, I was broadcasting to almost everyone I met what I was doing, right from the beginning.

I had learned a key lesson: the more people know about what you’re doing, the more likely it is that you will receive tips about sources and leads you were unlikely to discover on your own. And the more sources and leads you have, the better your book will be.

In the case of The Nazi Hunters, the payoff of this approach came early, when I was just beginning to organize my research. Joyce Barnathan and Steve Strasser, two former Newsweek colleagues, came to our house for dinner. When I mentioned my new project, they immediately replied that I should meet their friend Herman Obermayer. As a young Jewish G.I. at the end of the war, he had worked with the U.S. Army hangman who would later dispatch the condemned top Nazis at Nuremberg. That interview and subsequent research proved crucial to the first chapter of my book, which tells the story of those hangings—and the hangman—in detail.

Similarly, when Michael Hoth, an American friend from Berlin, stopped in to see us in New York and I told him what I was working on, he offered to introduce me to Peter Sichel, who headed the first CIA outpost in the German capital after the war. Sichel came from a German Jewish family that sent him to Britain in 1935 when he was twelve years old, later moving to the United States and serving in the OSS during the war. He offered a startlingly honest assessment about how his operation quickly lost interest in “fighting the last war,” as he put it, focusing on the new rivalry with the Soviet Union instead of chasing Nazis. This explained why the Nazi hunters were soon reduced to a relatively small band of men and women who were dedicated to a cause that had gone out of fashion.

Aside from a strong opener, any good book needs to demonstrate the pivotal moments in its story. When I was writing The Greatest Battle, about the epic push by Hitler’s armies to seize Moscow in 1941, I was increasingly convinced that Stalin’s decision not to abandon the Soviet capital when it looked like its defenses were collapsing was just that kind of moment. Through a much younger relative in the United States, I learned about Pavel Saprykin, who was approaching his hundredth birthday in 2005 and still living in Moscow. Saprykin had been a railway worker assigned to the special train that was prepared for the Soviet leader’s evacuation. As he recalled in our interview, he saw Stalin walk up to the train on October 18, 1941, pace the platform, but then not board it. Instead, he left the station. So there it was: the pivotal moment fully illustrated.

There’s also the need to have a strong ending to any story. When I was researching Americans in Germany for my book Hitlerland, Ina Navazelskis, a former journalistic colleague who now works at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, alerted me to the letters of Philip Talbot, who visited Germany in 1938. Talbot was still alive at that point, and he, in turn, urged me to contact his friend Angus Thuermer, who had been a young AP reporter in Berlin then. When I visited Thuermer in Middleburg, Virginia, he shared his recollections and photos, particularly of his internment with other American journalists and diplomats after Germany declared war on the United States, which became the final chapter of my book.

Of course there is always a danger that someone will hear about your project and seek to beat you to it. But these days, I’m more than willing to take that risk. A book is not like a newspaper story: it can’t be produced overnight. If someone is working on a similar subject, you can’t stop them, anyway. And each book is different, even if there may be overlap. I’m convinced that what makes a book worth reading is the richness of the narrative and cast of characters. And I know that in the case of my books so far, I would have had much weaker stories to tell if it were not for all the valuable tips I received when I spread word about what I was doing far and wide.

Andrew Nagorski served as Newsweek’s bureau chief in Hong Kong, Moscow, Rome, Bonn, Warsaw, and Berlin. He is available for book events and speaking engagements through Jewish Book Council’s JBC Network author touring program.

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New Reviews May 5, 2016

Friday, May 06, 2016 | Permalink

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Benny Leonard: The Golden Standard for a Golden Age

Thursday, May 05, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Mike Silver introduced readers to boxing’s forgotten Jewish champions of the early twentieth century featured in Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing: A Photographic History. Mike is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

“Benny Leonard moved with the grace of a ballet dancer and wore an air of arrogance that belonged to royalty.” – Dan Parker

While researching the boxing careers and lives of the 166 champions and contenders featured in Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing: A Photographic History, I constantly found myself moved by the commitment and courage displayed by these men as they struggled to master their unusual craft and succeed in such an unforgiving sport.

What I found remarkable was that a people with no athletic tradition to speak of, and who were perceived as lacking the qualities to succeed in such a violent and brutal sport, were able to produce hundreds of outstanding boxers, including nearly a dozen of whom rank among the greatest who ever lived. But if I had to choose just one of these boxers on whom to focus, it would be the peerless Benny Leonard, lightweight champion (135 pound weight limit) from 1917 to 1925.

Benny Leonard is universally acknowledged to be among the ten greatest boxers of all time. As a young 120-pound amateur growing up on the Lower East Side of New York, he was thin and lacking in strength. Out of necessity he developed a speedy and elusive style in his early days as a boxer. As he matured and his frame filled out, Leonard developed a powerful punch to go along with his superb boxing skills. But no matter how strong he became, Leonard always considered his brain the most important weapon in his formidable arsenal.

Leonard was the first Jewish sports superstar of the mass media age, and one of the first Jewish American pop culture icons. He was written about and photographed more than any other Jewish entertainer or artist of his day, and his wholesome appeal went beyond the sport of boxing: he cultivated the image of a good Jewish mama’s boy who happened to be very good at punching people for a living. It was Leonard’s boast that no opponent could muss his hair in a fight. When Leo Johnson, the country’s outstanding black contender, attempted to unnerve Leonard by mussing his “patent-leather locks” during a clinch, the miffed champion flattened him in less than two minutes of the first round. (It was only the second time in over 150 bouts that Johnson had been stopped).

Leonard constantly strove for perfection. In his all-consuming desire to understand and master the art of boxing, he set about to deconstruct and analyze virtually every aspect of the sport. He also possessed a warrior’s spirit and was not averse, when the situation called for it, to throw caution to the wind and mix it up—but his nimble brain was always working overtime, seeking out the weaknesses in his opponent’s style. When asked by the famous trainer Ray Arcel why as a world champion he studied four-round preliminary fighters sparring in the gym, Leonard replied, “You can never tell when one of those kids might do something by accident that I can use.” To sharpen his alertness he would sometimes spar with two boxers at the same time; he studied human anatomy and was always careful never to waste a punch. The day after a fight he’d be back in the gym, talking over tactical mistakes.

Leonard was well-spoken: he once challenged philosopher Bertrand Russell to a debate as to the merits of boxing. He also took his responsibility as a representative of the Jewish people seriously, often boxing exhibitions to benefit both Jewish and Catholic charities.

Benny Leonard retired as undefeated champion in January 1925, at the age of 28. His face bore few scars despite his 191 professional fights—a testament to his brilliant defensive skills. A few days later an editor for the Hearst Newspapers wrote a column claiming that Benny’s reputation as champion and his numerous charitable contributions “has done more to evoke the respect of the non-Jew for the Jew than all the brilliant Jewish writers combined.”

For the next four years Benny enjoyed the fruits of celebrity and wealth, appearing in vaudeville and a Hollywood serial and investing in various business ventures using a portion of the nearly one million dollars he earned in the ring. Unfortunately, it all came to an end with the stock market crash in 1929 and the beginning of the Great Depression: Leonard’s fortune was wiped out and he was forced to make an ill-fated comeback in 1931 at the age of 35.

Of course there is more to this story, but the important part of the great fighter’s legacy had already been written a decade earlier. Benny Leonard will always remain the gold standard for every boxer striving to achieve perfection in the toughest of all sports.

Mike Silver’s work as appeared in The New York Times, Ring magazine, Boxing Monthly, and elsewhere. He has served as an historical consultant for 19 documentaries and curator for the 2004 exhibit "Sting Like a Maccabee: The Golden Age of the American Jewish Boxer" at the National Museum of American Jewish History.

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The Creative Process and the Jewish Arts

Wednesday, May 04, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Nora Gold shared her discovery of Jewish music and its influence on her latest novel, The Dead Man. Nora is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the creative process, because my new novel, The Dead Man, is about a composer of Jewish sacred music who is unable to compose. The creative process is a complicated and mysterious thing, not only to my protagonist Eve, but in general. There is a mountain of literature about the creative process, including tens of thousands of interviews with artists (writers, musicians, dancers, and visual artists) about what is enabling for them in their acts of artistic creation. Yet there is much about this process that remains elusive.

What is far less elusive, though, is our understanding of what impedes, damages, or stunts the creative process. An artist’s work is profoundly affected not only by their inner life, but also by the social context in which they live—including the classism, sexism, racism, and heterosexism inherent in this place. So social reality plays a significant role in the creative process.

I encountered this fact forcefully about a decade ago when the publishing industry was already deeply in crisis due to the advent of digital technology, and when consequently it was becoming much harder for authors to find publishers for their work. Several writers of my acquaintance, after years of failed efforts to find a publisher for their work, had become discouraged, depressed, and unproductive. A few of them had even decided to “take a break from writing” and do other things for a while.

Obviously there are internal factors, not just external ones, at play in these decisions. There are intrapsychic variables that influence an artist’s capacity to engage in creative work. But what I heard from these writers really drove home for me how powerfully one’s cultural and artistic environment can affect an individual’s creative process.

I realized back then that, although all writers were being affected by the crisis in the publishing industry, Jewish writers seemed to be taking a particularly hard hit. Much Jewish-themed fiction was (and still is) considered “niche” literature, which means it has a relatively small market and is therefore less desirable to publishers, and a lot of very good Jewish fiction was not finding a publishing home. So in 2010, I started the free online literary journal JewishFiction.net. Now, six years later, we have published 280 first-rate works of fiction that had never previously published in English, with readers in 140 countries. We’ve published some of the most well-known Jewish writers living today, but our primary goal is, and has always been, to create a space for publishing and showcasing new Jewish writing that otherwise might be lost.

For those who care about fostering Jewish creativity, any individual can play a genuinely helpful role in enabling Jewish creativity. Many people, though, don’t seem to know or believe that they can have a real impact on Jewish artists. Perhaps this is because of the widespread and romanticized myths and misconceptions about artists and their creative process as a mystical, otherworldly experience untouched by the real world, a matter of sitting around and waiting for inspiration to strike, like a bolt of lightning. In reality, however, none of this is true.

When it comes to creating a fertile context for Jewish creativity, even a few small acts on the part of an individual can make a significant difference to local Jewish artists and to the cultural life of a community. Invite a Jewish artist to your home to come speak about her work with a group of your friends. Buy Jewish books and music recordings. Go see Jewish plays, concerts, and dance performances. Visit Jewish art exhibits. And if you like something you’ve read, seen or heard, shout it out as loudly as you can to everyone you know, via phone, email, and social media.

You really can make a difference to the lives and creative outcomes of today’s Jewish artists. Which means, in essence, that you can help shape the cultural future of our people.

Nora Gold is the author of The Dead Man, Fields of Exile, and Marrow and Other Stories. She is the editor of the online journal JewishFiction.net and the Writer-in-Residence at the Centre for Women's Studies of OISE/University of Toronto.

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In the Clearing Stands a (Jewish) Boxer

Tuesday, May 03, 2016 | Permalink

Mike Silver is a boxing historian whose second book, Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing: A Photographic History, comes out this week. Mike is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

In writing my second book, Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing: A Photographic History, I had the opportunity to combine two of my passions: boxing and Judaism. A strange combination, you say? Well, not really.

It would surprise most people to learn that more Jewish athletes have competed as boxers (estimates are in the low thousands) than all other professional sports combined. In fact, during the first half of the twentieth century, golden age for the sport, Jewish boxers, promoters, trainers, gym owners, magazine publishers, and equipment manufacturers were all major players. In the same way they helped to create and develop the entertainment and garment industries, Jews in the boxing world—both in and outside of the ring—set standards for the sport as an art, science, and business.

Up until the midcentury, boxing was a major spectator sport, rivaling baseball in popularity. Jewish champions such as Benny Leonard, Al Singer Jackie “Kid” Berg, and Barney Ross were elevated to hero status in poor urban communities. They were looked up to and admired by a generation of immigrants, and their children and were a source of inspiration, pride, and hope to a population struggling to break free of poverty and enter the mainstream. It is one of the most unique and colorful chapters of the Jewish immigrant experience in America.

Between 1901 and 1939, just under thirty Jewish boxers were recognized as world champions, and over 160 were ranked among the top ten title challengers in their respective weight divisions. By 1928 Jewish boxers comprised the largest ethnic group among title contenders in the ten weight divisions. In fact, the most famous Jewish person in America during the 1920s was the peerless lightweight champion of the world, Benny Leonard. One would think this history would be widely known, at least among the Jewish people. But the reality, as I found out, is quite different.

Before, during, and after writing my book, I would go around asking people to name a Jewish boxing champion. Most often the response (especially from people under 40) was a blank stare, or sometimes even laughter. When told there were a total of 34 Jewish world champions, the reaction was usually a combination of surprise, curiosity, and confusion—as if there was something just too incongruous in putting the words Jewish and boxing together.

I found it very frustrating that this rich history appeared to be all but forgotten. It was that reaction and lack of knowledge that I hoped my book would change. I realized that the story deserved an epic retelling to fill that gap and reclaim the historical legacy these amazing athletes and personalities deserved. My goal was to accomplish this with a richly illustrated “coffee table” book that would be informative, entertaining and encyclopedic. I wanted to make this remarkable story come alive and be available to a much larger audience by rediscovering a significant aspect of Jewish history—a history that should be a source of pride for the Jewish people, and a source of information for the general public as well—especially those who have accepted Jewish stereotypes.

It was also very important to me to put the stories of the 166 boxers I profile in historical context, which is why I include introductory chapters and sidebars that explain what was happening not just in the boxing world, but amid the greater society in which the sport functioned. As the book took form I realized it was becoming not just a boxing book, but a valuable document focusing on a neglected but significant aspect of Jewish history.

The book took about three years to complete. After finishing my first book, The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science, I thought I would never write another book, because the effort was far more difficult than I had imagined. Nevertheless, I started on my second book soon after, and it turned into a labor of love. Even though I have researched and written about boxing for almost 40 years, I discovered so much that I did not know.

From the beginning I felt my story about the Jewish boxers of the Golden Age was very personal. I owed it to these men, who gave us so much to be proud of, to produce a quality product that would make them proud. Their praise for the book is the most gratifying part of this whole venture.

Mike Silver’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Ring magazine, Boxing Monthly, and elsewhere. He has served as an historical consultant for 19 documentaries and curator for the 2004 exhibit "Sting Like a Maccabee: The Golden Age of the American Jewish Boxer" at the National Museum of American Jewish History.

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