A late 20th century image of a pop culture Jewish man may conjure for many a nebbish Woody Allen figure—but this archetype dramatically changed over the past century. One hundred years ago, in the early 1900s, the bookish neurotic dweeb wasn’t yet a Jewish stereotype. A wave of impoverished Jewish immigrants from the “old country” meant many Jewish men were pushed into hard labor employment requiring little to no education, but a lot of brawn.
Distinguished legal historian and author Paul Finkelman visited Pepperdine University last week for two lectures entitled “When Jews Were Tough Guys.” Finkelman, the president of Gratz College in Pennsylvania, is also an expert on American Jewish history. He spoke of Jewish culture’s influence in America.
“What’s fascinating is when one thinks about American Jewish culture, one does not normally think of tough guys,” Finkelman said. “We think about college professors, doctors, lawyers [and] Albert Einstein. Jewish culture is famous for being of learning.”
But that wasn’t always the case. Finkelman delved into history, pointing out that two million Jews emigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine, Russia, Hungary and Poland between 1890 and 1925. They were the poorest immigrant group at the time because in their home countries Jews were not allowed to own land. Because of their poverty, Jewish immigrants were crowded into dense neighborhood ghettos. The most densely populated area in the world in 1910 was the lower east side of Manhattan—90 percent Jewish.
“Out of these neighborhoods in New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and Detroit, you get two generations of tough guys,” Finkelman noted. As immigrants, he added, “Arguably they made the United States what it is today because it is this gigantic group that alters our culture in phenomenal ways and leads to a vibrancy that will later show its true colors during WWII as the children of these immigrants serve in our armies.”
Between 1912 and 1940, Jewish boxers held every world championship except flyweight. The most successful boxer at the time was Max Baer, an Iowan who held the heavyweight title from 1934 to 1935. His famous victory over Hitler favorite German boxer Max Schmeling in 1933 came at a time of heightening Jewish persecution by Nazis. Baer wore a Star of David on his shorts in a demonstration of pride for the Jewish people.
Of course, there were other boxers who chose to change their names to distance themselves from their religious backgrounds, such as Slapsie Maxie—born Max Rosenbloom.
“Most Jewish boxers at the time had no other economic options to speak of,” Finkelman recounted. “They believed getting punched in the face was a good way to make a living. Dangerous sports tend to attract people who have no economic status. Nobody becomes a boxer if they have another option. Historically, there are almost no boxers who are the sons of boxing champions.”
Basketball was another sport dominated by Jews a century ago, Finkelman explained.
“As we know, basketball players are people who work very, very hard,” he said. “You don’t get to be a professional basketball player simply by being tall.” As an urban sport, basketball courts were available in Jewish neighborhoods. One legendary team that won the NCAA championship in 1949 was City College of New York, which had a Jewish coach, three Jewish starters and two black starters. The 1949-50 team was said to be composed of “kids from the sidewalks of New York.” That team beat the notoriously racist and anti-Semitic Kentucky—the worst defeat in its history.
Finkelman also noted great Jewish baseball players including Sandy Koufax, whom he called “the greatest pitcher who ever lived.”
Although not a sport, Jews were heavily involved in gangs, too. From the 1910s to 1950s, the second largest group of organized crime were Jews.
“Why? If you come from a poor neighborhood, crime is a way to make a living,” Finkelman explained. “Some of them you’ve heard of. Bugsy Seigel was a hitman. Mickey Cohen controlled the mob in Los Angeles. A significant number of players in Las Vegas were Jewish criminals. Meyer Lansky is considered to be the great accountant of the mafia. He was also getting hits on people. Crime became an area where tough Jews gravitated because it was a place they could succeed. There were no barriers other than their own survival.”