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Sunday, July 31, 2022

Five Star Jewish Boxers Fight to Help the Palestine Relief Fund

Five Jewish boxing stars fought at Madison Square Garden on October 21, 1929 on a card that was designed to help raise money for the Palestine Relief Fund. "Slapsie" Maxie Rosenbloom, Jack "Kid" Berg, Al Singer, Yale Okun, and Ruby Goldstein all appeared on the card. Rosenbloom, Berg, and Singer would all became world champions the following year.

The Violence
During the mid-1920s British-controlled Palestine saw peace between Arabs and Jews. An economic recession slowed Jewish immigration to the region. As a result, a nascent Arab nationalist movement shifted focus away from its aversion to Jewish immigration and pivoted towards anti-British sentiment.  The High Commissioner, Lord Plumer, a no-nonsense military man, also helped ease tensions. That tenuous calm frayed in 1928 over a dispute involving the Western Wall.

On September 23, on the eve of Yom Kippur, a screen was brought to the Western Wall to separate male and female Jewish worshippers. The Wall was technically under the control of the Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammed Amin al-Husseini. The next day, he asked British police to remove the screen. As it was Yom Kippur, the Jews refused. The police removed it against Jewish objections as one old woman began hitting a police officer on the head with her umbrella.

In the diasporic Jewish press, the event was viewed as a big insult. Meanwhile, the Mufti stoked the ire of his followers by claiming the Jews' true intentions were to attack and conquer al-Aqsa mosque, a holy site for Muslims. His rationale for having the screen removed was that Jews could visit the Wall as guests but not as worshippers. This ran counter to tradition; Jews and local Arab residents had an informal agreement in place that not only could Jews worship at the Wall, but a screen could be brought. Tensions persisted into the summer of 1929.

At that time, the Mufti ordered construction in the vicinity of the Wall. This angered many Jews. On August 14, 6,000 Jewish youths marched around the Old City in protest. The next day, a violent protest was led by Haganah and Betar, militant Jewish groups. The Arab-Muslim protest on August 16 turned ugly as well.

A rumor began to spread within Arab Muslim communities in Palestine of an impending Jewish attack on al-Aqsa on August 23. When the date arrived, an angry mob formed and soon headed to the nearby Jewish communities of Meah She'arim and Yemin Moshe. Residents of the latter fought back, but 17 Jews were killed in Jerusalem on that day.

The violence spread to Hebron. Sixty-four Jews were killed on August 24 although the death toll could have been worse had some Arabs not courageously hid their Jewish neighbors. After some skirmishes in Haifa and Jaffa, 45 Jews were killed in Safad on August 29. Jews killed some Arabs too, but most Arab casualties came at the hands of the British, who violently putdown the riot.

In the end, 133 Jews were killed and 339 wounded; 116 Arabs were killed and 232 wounded. Phillip Mattar calls it "up to then the worst violence between Jews and Arabs in Palestine in modern times." Alex Winder asserts it "marked a turning point in Arab-Jewish relations in the country." In the aftermath of the bloodshed, Theodore Herzl's grand vision of Jewish-Arab cooperation in the Holy Land, laid out in his 1886 book Der Judenstaadt, disappeared.

An Idea to Help

Attitudes among Diasporic Jews of the Palestine cause quickly changed. Abba Eban explains, "Before that time, the response of wealthy Jews to the Zionist appeal had been grudging." Several well-to-do American Jews soon worked to rectify that perception.

Samuel Rosoff, Dr. William Sirovich, David A. Brown, and Walter Weinstein came together to form the Palestine Relief Fund with the goal of helping Jews in British Palestine. One idea was to stage a charity event of boxing matches featuring well-regarded Jewish pugilists in showcase bouts. Two prominent non-Jews, Mayor Jimmy Walker and James A. Farley, Chairman of NYSAC, were brought on board.

The boxing event would be held on October 21, 1929 at the third incarnation of Madison Square Garden in New York. Some of the leaders of the event would later reconvene to help elect Franklin D. Roosevelt the 32nd President of the United States. Rosoff, the initial chairman of the Palestine Relief Fund, was known as "Subway Sam" because he had built a significant percentage of New York's subway system. He obtained contracts through his connections to Tammany Hall, the Democratic Party machine in the city.

Sirovich would serve in the U.S. Congress beginning in 1927. Representing parts of Manhattan, he was a Democrat. Brown, who would eventually become the chairman of the Palestine Relief Fund, was a new transplant to New York in 1929. A noted fund-raiser for various causes, the Scottish-born Brown had founded the General Necessities Corporation with his brothers in Detroit. Upon relocating to New York, Brown established the Brooklyn National Bank and Trust and the Broadway National Company.

Weinstein was later named to the Executive Finance Committee of the Democratic Party by Roosevelt. After his first presidential nomination, the committee's goal was to raise the unconscionable sum of $1.5 million for the general election against President Herbert Hoover. After his tenure heading the New York State Athletic Commission, Farley would become FDR's presidential campaign manager and later appointed postmaster general.

The Fighters
At first, the organizers of the October 21 event hoped they would sell out the Garden. By the 18th, the event was sure to bring in over $100,000. Including popular Jewish boxers on the New York card proved to be a key to success.

Between Maxie Rosenbloom, Jack "Kid" Berg, Al Singer, Yale Okun, and Ruby Goldstein, Singer was unquestionably the headliner of the show. Slated for the main event, the "Bronx Beauty" stood at 5'5" and would be known as a "short king" in today's lexicon. The lightweight had battled Tony Canzoneri to a draw the previous December and lost a split decision to the undefeated Cuban sensation, Kid Chocolate, two months earlier. Handsome, charismatic, and billed as the next Benny Leonard, Singer was a big draw.

In March of '29, Rosenbloom had developed a reputation as a "trial horse," but by October he was "Harlem's candidate for light heavyweight honors." A light-punching fighter with loads of skill, he had beaten Ted "Kid" Lewis the year before. Extremely active, the October 21 bout would be Rosenbloom's 21st of 1929 including a win over Jimmy Slattery in Philadelphia just one week earlier.

The lone non-New Yorker of the bunch, Berg wasn't even from the Tristate area. He had been born in London, England and first came States-side for a fight in May of 1928 at the age of 18. At the outset, Berg fought in the Midwest. His first fight in New York came against Bruce Flowers on May 10, 1929 in a thrilling duel and the "Whitechapel Windmill" quickly became a fan favorite among Jewish New Yorkers.

"No fighter ever came to this city to earn such plaudits as were those for Berg after he had fought those first three minutes," cooed a reporter for the New York Amsterdam. After beating Flowers, Berg went on to win seven more bouts in various New York boroughs in the six months leading up to October 21. In July, he decisioned junior welterweight world champion Mushy Callahan in a non-title over-the-weight bout at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn.

Light heavyweight Yale Okun, a six-year pro, lost a decision to Leo Lomski in May of '29. After knocking out Dick Daniels twice, he bested future heavyweight champion Jim Braddock in August by decision. Known at the time as "an all-'round performer," the Los Angeles Times claimed, "He is ring smart. He can sock. He sidesteps like a master. His gloves carve furrows in the opposition like a hay knife." In defeating Braddock, who many experts felt the natural successor to Tommy Loughran as light heavyweight champ, Okun seemed to have finally overcome a "sparring-partner complex." Both Okun and Rosenbloom were considered top contenders to replace Loughran, who had recently vacated the title to move up to heavyweight.

Ruby Goldstein, nicknamed "The Jewel of the Ghetto," had already experienced a rapid rise and dramatic fall during his brief career. On June 15, 1927, Goldstein held a five and half pound advantage when Sid Terris knocked him out in the first round. In November of '28, Jack Farrell of The Washington Post reported on a new law in New York banning one-sided bouts. "The ruling was aimed particularly at the fighters of the type of Kid Chocolate and Ruby Goldstein."

By the summer of '29, Goldstein's career had stalled and pundits referred to him as a "former lightweight contender." He hadn't made the lightweight limit in three years and hadn't fought anyone of note since the Terris disaster. On August 12, Goldstein knocked out Cuddy DeMarco in the fourth round in the midst of revitalizing his career. He scored two more knockouts before October 21 to increase his KO streak to six.
Al Singer
courtesy of Cyber Boxing Zone

The Night of Fights
A total of 16,431 fans watched the night's five fights at Madison Square Garden. The crowd featured quite a few local politicians, each evidentially angling to create a connection in the voters' minds between themselves and the night's cause.

Maxie Rosenbloom took on Joe Sekyra, a blonde-haired 22 year old from Dayton, Ohio. Sekyra vacillated between light heavyweight and heavyweight and had beaten Okun and Braddock, fought no-decision bouts against Loughran and Young Stribling, and lost a decision to Max Schmeling in January at the Garden.

Sekyra aggressively came out of the gate and maintained pressure throughout the bout. The two fighters covered every inch of the ring as Rosenbloom boxed and Sekyra attacked. Maxie proved too slick. One newspaper described Rosenbloom's style as "free-swinging, freak tactics." He often slapped Sekyra to keep Joe off balance, but Rosenbloom closed his hands as well. In the fifth, he opened up a bad cut over Sekyra's right eye. Though Sekyra never stopped trying to catch Rosenbloom, who must've seemed like a greased-up rabbit to Joe from Ohio, Rosenbloom won by decision.

Yale Okun faced Matt Adgie, a 23 year old from Philadelphia. Nicknamed "The Iceman," Adgie held a majority decision win over an elderly Battling Levinsky in 1927.  Okun had already beaten Adgie twice. In their third matchup, Okun served up a one-sided beating. Adgie was defensive from the get-go, so it eventually became the night's most monotonous affair because, though Okun landed regularly, a decision victory for Yale was inevitable.

Ruby Goldstein's opponent was veteran Joe Reno. Born in Italy, the rugged 26 year old was based in Trenton, New Jersey. Reno fought many quality fighters including several losses to Lew Tendler. Goldstein started the fight quickly, landing with both hands and changing levels. Ruby opened the third round with left hooks to the body followed by another up top. A right followed and smashed into Reno's jaw. Reno rose at the count of nine. Another flush Goldstein right forced referee Arthur Donovan to jump in and stop the fight. The crowd screamed with delight.

In the co-main, Jack "Kid" Berg faced Bruce Flowers for the third time. Flowers, a 24 year old black man from New Rochelle, New York, had lost eight of his last nine fights beginning with two defeats to Berg in May. All were against tough competition. In his lone win, Flowers upset Ray Miller in August.

The bout was as exciting as the first two Berg-Flowers affairs. It was a typical Berg performance. Ray Arcel, his legendary trainer, described the Whitechapel Windmill's style, "He never stopped moving his arms- I mean, he never held or anything- he was perpetual motion. Punch to the body, then bang bang to the head and back to the body and keep going." James P. Dawson of the New York Times thought he heard some boos when Berg was announced the winner, but The Baltimore Sun asserted Berg won convincingly "by whipping Bruce Flowers."

The crowd unquestionably backed Al Singer over Davey Abad in the main event. Abad, a few days shy of his 22nd birthday, was from Panama and based in Cleveland, Ohio. He had turned pro at the age of 14 in late 1921 and battled many quality lightweights including Benny Bass. He proved an awkward and tricky customer against Singer.

Frustrated by Abad's craftiness, Singer missed wildly on occasion. In the seventh round, Abad managed to get inside and landed effectively to the body before coming up to the Bronx Beauty's head. In the ninth, Singer's right finally connected cleanly, and Abad toppled to the canvas. He rose at the count of eight and quickly retreated to the ropes. Once there, he leaned back and fired wildly, which slowed Singer's attack enough to save Abad. It wasn't his most impressive performance by any means, but Singer won nine of the ten rounds.

After the fight, Abad was arrested at the behest of Cleveland's chief of police for violating his parole terms.

The Aftermath
The cheapest ticket that night came in at $2.10 while the most expensive one was $26.25. The event brought in a total of $101,173, a profit of about $75,000 for the fund. The fund accepted additional donations connected to the boxing event; The Forward, a popular Jewish newspaper, led the pack by donating $2,600. The fund ultimately raised $2,019,017 (nearly $35 million in 2022 dollars), not including the money from the Garden card, when it was closed on November 2.

On October 25, a committee chaired by Sir Walter Shaw began investigating the August riots. Finished in December and released in March of 1930, the Shaw Report assigned blame to Arab rioters for the majority of violence in August of '29. The report noted that the violence was in reaction to Arab fears of Jewish immigration and found that Jewish immigration to British Palestine should thus be limited. For many Jews, it felt like the Shaw Commission had blamed the victims.

Three days before the Shaw Commission began its investigation, members of Maxie Rosenbloom's team and those representing Yale Okun walked into NYSAC's offices and declared their interest in claiming the vacant light heavyweight world title. After beating Braddock on November 15 and losing a majority decision to Slattery ten days later, Rosenbloom faced Okun on December 9 at the Garden. Rosenbloom won a twelve-round decision and then beat Lomski as part of an eight-fight win streak. On June 25, 1930 Rosenbloom beat Slattery by split decision to win the undisputed light heavyweight world championship. He held the crown until 1934. Rosenbloom was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1993. 

On October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed causing a worldwide depression. Many who had come together just eight days earlier at the Garden lost everything.

Al Singer was one of the few to find more success in the immediate aftermath of the crash. On July 17, 1930 Singer stopped champion Sammy Mandell in the first round to win the lightweight world championship. But four short months later, Tony Canzoneri knocked out Singer in the first to take his title.

On February 18, 1930, Jack "Kid" Berg, having traveled back to England, took Mushy Callahan's 140 pound world championship. Berg held the title until April 24, 1931 when Canzoneri stopped him in the fourth round with both the lightweight and junior welterweight championships on the line. Berg was elected to the IBHOF in 1994.

Ruby Goldstein fought Jimmy McLarnin on December 13 in the Garden. Goldstein's career momentum fizzled in the second when McLarnin KOed him. Goldstein fought until 1937, but never again faced a true contender. In 1942, Goldstein embarked on a new career as a boxing referee. Over the next two decades, he was one of the best. In 1994, for his work as a referee, he became the third of the five Jewish boxers who fought on October 21, 1929 to enter the Hall of Fame.

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