“Blows To The Head,” by Binnie Klein, is the sprightly story of how a middle-aged Jewish woman became a boxer. She is a psychotherapist who is married to a man younger than she. They have no children. He is an aspiring actor and their marriage is going through “a dry spell.”
Klein came to boxing as a consequence of an accident in which she fell, breaking her ankle and her foot. The lengthy treatment that ensued included physical therapy and boxing. When her therapist indicated that she needed a “real boxing coach,” she eventually hooked up with John Spehar, a former boxer, who was written up in an AARP newsletter as someone who trained women boxers. He gave her a workout and decided that she possessed what is required to become a true boxer. The saga of their relationship and her progress as a boxer fills pages of this sometimes hilarious, sometimes serious book.
Along the way, we are treated to a history of Jewish prize fighters, mostly through Binnie’s imaginary encounters with them. She recounts her “discussions” with Daniel Mendoza, Benny Leonard and Barney Ross. Mendoza, “the Star of Israel,” was “boxing’s first Jewish superstar.” Few “people know that the Father of Pugilism was Jewish.” Benny Leonard, “The Ghetto Wizard,” served in the American army during World War I and then made a “small fortune” as a fighter, all of which he lost in the Depression. He was described as “the nearest thing to a perfect fighter boxing has ever seen.” Barney Ross, “Beryl the Terrible,” was the world champion in the lightweight, junior welterweight and welterweight divisions. Often ranked with Hank Greenberg as “the most admired Jewish athlete in America,” Ross enlisted in the army after Pearl Harbor and won a Silver Star for heroism at Guadalcanal. Unfortunately, his injuries led to morphine addiction, downplayed in the movie, “Body and Soul,” in which John Garfield was cast as Barney Ross but highlighted in a second film, “Monkey on My Back.”
The context for this discussion of Jewish fighters is Klein’s brief account of her family’s immigration to the United States and the anti-Semitism they encountered. Her father, an unsuccessful traveling salesman, “was addicted to the racetrack and knew some shady characters.” This leads to a listing of Jewish gangsters as further evidence that there were “tough Jews.”
All this information and more are wittily put forward, lending an amusing and informative air of authenticity to the presentation. Throughout, there are thorough descriptions of Klein’s progress as a boxer, highlighted by her reaching the point where she actually sparred with her coach. Interspersed with these sketches are stories about Klein’s childhood and her lack of Jewish observance. Although Friday night meant “roast chicken and challah,” she did not attend Hebrew school, had no bat mitzva, and her family did not belong to a synagogue.
Klein offers a light-hearted, self-deprecating, and entertaining romp through her unusual experiences as a boxer, using them to connect with her current activities, her past, and her Jewish identification.
(Morton I. Teicher is the founding dean, Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University and dean emeritus, School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)