Max Baer and the Star of David

By – February 23, 2016

Prize-win­ning author Jay Neuge­boren has craft­ed a fas­ci­nat­ing nov­el that reimag­ines the life of Max Baer, a cham­pi­on box­er of the 1930s. Baer rose to fame at the height of the Great Depres­sion and is best known for defeat­ing Ger­man box­er Max Schmel­ing in 1933 while wear­ing a Star of David on his shorts in hon­or of his Jew­ish grand­fa­ther. In the nov­el, Neuge­boren stays true to Baer’s excitable and flashy but gen­tle per­son­al­i­ty, which he describes from the per­spec­tive of Horace Lit­tle­john, the fic­tion­al nar­ra­tor. Horace and his sis­ter, Joleen, are enig­mat­ic char­ac­ters who present them­selves pub­licly as hus­band and wife; both have pecu­liar sex­u­al rela­tion­ships with Baer, which are devel­oped over the course of the novel.

Neugeboren’s lan­guage skill­ful­ly describes the sharp con­trasts with­in the per­son­al­i­ties of his major char­ac­ters. For instance, Baer is remark­ably open and pub­lic about mat­ters rang­ing from his sex­u­al affairs to his finances, all of which Horace col­or­ful­ly details. How­ev­er, he is quite secre­tive regard­ing his rela­tion­ships with the Lit­tle­johns, which Horace like­wise only men­tions oblique­ly and in snip­pets. Read­ers will also notice that some scenes are far more believ­able than oth­ers: Baer’s emo­tion­al state after leav­ing one oppo­nent dead and anoth­er fatal­ly injured (both inci­dents that actu­al­ly occurred) is described poignant­ly and real­is­ti­cal­ly, but the irreg­u­lar rela­tion­ships between the three pri­ma­ry char­ac­ters are less believ­able, giv­en the com­bi­na­tion of adul­tery, bisex­u­al­i­ty, and incest.

Neugeboren’s Max Baer expe­ri­ences his Jew­ish­ness pri­mar­i­ly through a sense of com­mu­ni­ty. When Baer sets out to defeat Schmel­ing, he dis­cuss­es his desire to prove that the Jew­ish peo­ple can take care of them­selves, and empha­sizes the impor­tance of Schmeling’s defeat as a blow to the Nazi image. Of course, Baer’s view of him­self as a defend­er of the Jew­ish peo­ple is inter­wo­ven with his more per­son­al desire for the press and atten­tion that the Star of David attracts. In this way, Neuge­boren attempts to unrav­el the his­tor­i­cal ques­tion of Baer and his Jew­ish­ness. While some his­to­ri­ans believe that Baer’s Jew­ish star was more a mar­ket­ing ploy than a demon­stra­tion of a sin­cere attach­ment to his her­itage, Neuge­boren por­trays Baer as at least par­tial­ly iden­ti­fy­ing with Jew­ish­ness. Regard­less, Baer cer­tain­ly was very pop­u­lar among Jews in his hey­day, as he was strong and capa­ble — the oppo­site of the Jew­ish stereo­type dur­ing that peri­od of vulnerability.

Neugeboren’s lat­est nov­el will cap­ti­vate read­ers through its lan­guage and the char­ac­ters’ com­pli­cat­ed rela­tion­ships. Some read­ers might feel frus­trat­ed by the oblique­ness of the writ­ing or per­turbed by the issues of incest and adul­tery. Oth­ers will be fas­ci­nat­ed by Neugeboren’s por­tray­al of Max Baer as a fal­li­ble but larg­er-than-life individual.

Edyt Dick­stein is a grad­u­ate of the Joseph Kush­n­er Hebrew Acad­e­my in Liv­ingston, NJ and is study­ing at Har­vard University.