Exercises in changing identities

By David Dee, February 8, 2013

In September 1914, Boxing, a weekly newspaper dedicated to the sport in Britain, published a full-page article entitled, "The Hefty Hebrew". The essay recounted at length the Jewish contribution to the fistic art, documenting the achievements of British Jewish bare-knuckle fighters such as Daniel Mendoza during the late 18th century up to the contemporary period - a time when "Kid" Lewis (future World Welterweight champion) was coming to prominence. The article argued that this history undermined the "old legend that however the Hebrew may shine in finance he can never, never has and never will display any real powers as a warrior".

It is quite clear that Jewish involvement in British sport changed the perception of the community held by the wider population. In the case of Mendoza - the so-called "Star of Israel" - his success helped to challenge notions of Jewish cowardice prominent at the time. It was said that physical and verbal attacks on Jews declined considerably during his career. Significantly, however, his participation in the sport, along with other Jews of British background such as Sam Elias and Barney Aaron, also had broader implications in terms of what it demonstrated about these Jews' identities. As the historian Todd Endelman has noted, the involvement of these Jewish pugilists in British prize-fighting demonstrated the increasing "acculturation" of lower sections of British Jewry into gentile, working-class society.

Sport is closely linked throughout the modern history of the community to changing expressions of Jewishness. The history of Jewish involvement in the British sporting world - a story that has long been hidden - shows us that sport exerted a powerful impact on the way Jews were viewed by wider society. Significantly though, it also shows how sport affected the way many Jews formed and expressed their own identities.

Take, for instance, the period from the late 19th century through to 1914, when Britain saw the arrival of up to 150,000 migrant Jews fleeing persecution and economic hardship in Russia and Eastern Europe. The established Jewish community generally viewed this wave of migration with alarm, fearing the effect that so many "alien" Jews would have on broader feelings toward the Jewish minority. As anti-alien agitation by groups such as the British Brothers' League grew, communal leaders turned to sport to help change the identities of the migrant population and lessen anti-Jewish feeling.

The so-called "Anglicisation" campaign that they mounted from the early 1890s was originally designed to help impart "British" characteristics such as the speaking of English, hygiene, manners and patriotism to the migrant Jews through a variety of philanthropic schemes. Over time, the focus moved to the children of the migrants, as they were seen to be more "malleable" than the older generation, who allegedly "clung stubbornly" to old-world habits and attitudes. A network of youth clubs and organisations was founded and funded by the Jewish establishment, the main aim being to create "good Jews and good Englishmen". Within the youth movements, which were managed on a day-to-day basis by middle-class, often public-schooled "native" Jews, sport came to a position of prominence.

Attendance at sporting events on the Sabbath was an indicator of growing secularity and assimilation

Sport was used to try and impart "Britishness" in two ways. It was seen as an important tool in "ironing out" the so-called "ghetto bend" among Jewish boys and girls of Eastern European origin. Life in the shtetl or the crowded and dirty by-ways of urban Britain had apparently created stunted and weak physiques among the youngest in the migrant community. Facilitating sports such as football, cricket, boxing, hockey and gymnastics would help to make these Jews feel and, crucially, appear more healthy and strong. Sport would prepare them physically to become able and confident citizens of Britain and her Empire. As was said in 1900, by offering the "sunshine of manly sports and pastimes" in the youth clubs and in Jewish Lads' Brigade branches, young "foreign" Jews were being "physically equipped for life" in Britain.

Sport was also used to try and create new mentalities. An interest in sport was - indeed still is - seen to be a particularly British characteristic, while playing sport in the "right" way (with fairness, good spirit, sportsmanship and deference to the umpire) was also believed to imbue useful character traits seemingly missing in the foreign children. Physical recreations such as football and cricket were therefore strictly supervised by club workers, with unsportsmanlike behaviour admonished and seen to be indicative of an "alien" mentality. Boys and girls were encouraged to play sport to strengthen and "Anglicise" their minds as well as their bodies. On a visit to the West Central Jewish Working Lads' Club, Chief Rabbi Hermann Adler remarked that physical recreation was helping many Jews to "become manly men, manly in shape and form as well as actions".

Clearly, social control and self-preservation, alongside paternalism, was prominent in the minds of the Jewish establishment and youth club patrons when it came to the Anglicisation campaign. Despite this, the sporting programme did change perceptions of younger Jews by wider society. As one social survey of the East End remarked in 1901, sport was being used effectively by Jewish youth clubs to aid the "physical improvement" of young Jews and hasten their "transformation" from aliens to "Englishmen and women of the Mosaic persuasion". The club members themselves also believed that the movement's sporting programme helped prepare them psychologically for life in Britain. Sport, as noted by one West Central club member, was "training for citizenship" and a key factor in making many Jews feel a part of both the Jewish and British community.

In contrast to the controlled efforts to change expressions of Jewishness before 1914, sport influenced Jewish ethnicity more fluidly between the wars and in the early post-Second World War era. During this period, many Jews of migrant heritage were becoming markedly assimilated and integrated and moving away physically, socially, spiritually and culturally from their parents and elders. Many took up jobs and residence outside of immigrant neighbourhoods, mixed with and sometimes married non-Jews and showed little or no interest in Jewish traditions. The community, in many ways, was fracturing along generational lines with many young Jews hailing from the migrant community being "socialised" (a term used by David Cesarani) into the mainstream and leaving behind many aspects of their immigrant culture and identity.

Sport played a key role in this. Whereas in the pre-1914 era many young Jews found their leisure and sporting experiences dictated by Jewish youth clubs, as they reached adulthood they increasingly frequented the establishments and groups favoured by their non-Jewish peers. Here, away from the gaze of familial and communal elders, they had the freedom to break away and form new, largely integrated and secularised identities.

This can be seen by looking at the effect that sport had on Jewish religious identity, especially Sabbath observance, during the 1920s and 1930s. During this time Jewish youth groups began openly flouting Sabbath traditions by organising sport on Saturdays. Some, such as the Grove House Jewish Lads' Club in Manchester, entered football teams in local leagues and even began to charge spectators an admission fee - further desecration of the Jewish holy day, which drew local and communal condemnation. Likewise, Jews began frequenting the terraces of sporting teams in considerable numbers at this time. The interwar years witnessed the birth of a strong Jewish connection to professional football teams such as Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City, Leeds United and Arsenal. Not every Jew playing or watching sport on the Sabbath was religiously apostate. For those that did, however, indulging their sporting passions on Saturday was clearly part of a move away from a more committed religious outlook and an indicator of growing secularity and assimilation.

From the 1920s to the 1940s, thousands of second- and third-generation migrant Jews became involved in the Young Communist League and the British Workers' Sports Federation, both subsidiaries of the Communist Party. While many were deeply committed Marxist Jews, there were also many who were only "mildly interested" (a term used by one Jewish YCL leader) in anything but sport and leisure. Jews were drawn to YCL and BWSF branches in Cheetham in Manchester and Stepney in London because they offered the chance to play and socialise with like-minded Jews and non-Jews and gave an "escape" route (as argued by historian Bill Williams) from the immigrant milieu. Rambles, camps, bike rides, boxing teams and table-tennis tournaments could, as one Mancunian Jewish YCL member noted, help them to "break out of this Jewish thing" and get away from the pressures and expectations of their elders.

If anyone symbolised this growing group of largely integrated Jews of migrant background then it was the succession of "Hefty Hebrews" who took up professional boxing. From the pre-First World War era (with "Kid" Lewis), through the 1920s and '30s (which witnessed the international success of light welterweight "Kid" Berg and lightweight Harry Mizler) to the 1940s and '50s (Lew Lazar), Jews were a prominent and successful part of the British boxing scene. They also became well known as trainers (Jack Goodwin), managers (Harry Levene) and promoters (Jack Solomons), while Jewish-run and owned halls like Wonderland and Premierland attracted thousands of Jewish fight fans from the East End.

On the one hand, involvement in boxing was a significant move away from the lifestyle and traditions of both immigrant and established Jews. Boxers like "Kid" Berg were criticised by their parents for taking up a "disreputable" and "un-Jewish" profession and were condemned by communal leaders for tarnishing the reputation of the community. Significantly, however, many of these Jewish fighters found that participation in the sport changed the way they expressed their identities. Although sensitive to familial and communal criticism, they often ignored it nonetheless. And many adopted Anglicised names ("Kid" Lewis was born Gershon Mendeloff) or mixed in non-Jewish circles. Several, such as Berg and Mizler, boxed in shorts emblazoned with Union Jacks and Stars of David, again demonstrating their dual identities as both Jews and Britons.

During recent decades, the nature of Jewish involvement in British sport has changed considerably. There is less elite involvement and success, while direct participation in "working-class" sports like football and boxing has moved into the background of Jewish life. It is still possible to discern a link between Jewishness in modern times and sporting interests. Recreational involvement in tennis, squash, badminton and golf (all, incidentally, affected by antisemitism during the 20th century), together with participation in the business and administration of British sport, points toward a markedly more affluent, socially mobile and suburban identity being formed. Sustained interest in football spectating - an increasingly expensive undertaking - generally supports this idea. Continuing participation in sport and recreation within groups like Maccabi GB also suggests the formation of identities linked to Zionism.

Evidently, whether you examine the period of Daniel Mendoza or David Bernstein, it is impossible to view Jewish participation in sport and the changing nature of British-Jewish identity as isolated from one another. Whether it was playing sport, watching it, managing sportsmen or working behind the scenes, sporting pastimes closely affected what it meant to be Jewish within modern Britain. In many ways, sport meant, and indeed means, much more than simple leisure or play. It has long influenced the way many Jews within Britain have formed, viewed and expressed their identities.

David Dee is lecturer in modern history at De Montfort University and author of 'Sport and British Jewry: Integration, Ethnicity and Antisemitism, 1890-1970' (Manchester University Press). He will be speaking at Jewish Book Week alongside Anthony Clavane on March 3

Last updated: 10:45am, February 8 2013