Moving biography of the 1930s boxer who fought his way out of a Jewish ghetto in Chicago to become a World Champion and a genuine World War II hero.
If there is still a queue of writers mining the Depression Era for racehorses or prizefighters with inspirational stories that will resonate with today’s readers, Century (Street Kingdom, 1999) has beaten them to the punch with one Dov Ber “Beryl” Rasofsky (1909–57). Growing up on Chicago’s Maxwell Street, Beryl’s consummate boxing skills and toughness displayed under the ethnically cleansed moniker of Barney Ross made him one of the last heirs to a largely untold tradition of formidable Jewish pugilists. The author effectively weaves the Depression’s neighborhood milieu into Ross’s saga: Irish and Italian immigrants, for instance, boisterously revere their brethren who find glory in the prize ring, but Jews, under the watch of an orthodoxy steeped in nonviolence, remain discreetly conflicted. Nonetheless, when Ross emerged from the Golden Gloves championships to turn pro, promoters knew how to push buttons to hype the fights. The atmosphere in a series of epic championship bouts Ross had in the mid-’30s with Italian-American Tony Canzoneri (lightweight) and Canadian Irishman Jimmy McLarnin (welterweight) was often electric with tribal antipathy, Century observes; while orchestras played his opponents into the ring with tarantellas and jigs (respectively), Ross entered to the strains of My Yiddische Mamme. Booze and cigarettes were among the habits haunting Ross into fame and fortune, but along with the typical indulgent, parasitic entourage, it was compulsive gambling that nailed him. Almost as a purge, he enlisted in the Marines and won a Silver Star for action on Guadalcanal. His last fight, which he eventually won, was against the morphine addiction acquired as a result of treatment for war wounds; he died of cancer at 57.
A strikingly researched work that’s rich with perspective on Jews in America.