Veteran Sports Writer, Author of New Book on Boxing History: ‘My Dad Said Judaism Is a Religion, Not an Alibi’
Renowned veteran sports writer Jerry Izenberg — author of the new book Once There Were Giants: The Golden Age of Heavyweight Boxing — was taught at an early age that being Jewish is not always easy.
“I was eight and I was walking down the street,” the 86-year-old native of Newark, New Jersey recounted for The Algemeiner. “It’s a broken sidewalk, written on it in chalk is, ‘All Jews are kites.’ I knew I couldn’t fly, so I went to my father and asked, ‘What is this all about?’ And he said, ‘It’s about the fact that this guy is a moron.’ The word is ‘kike.’ That word and ‘sheeny’ and ‘Jew bastard,’ I don’t ever want to hear that somebody said that about you. If somebody says that to your face, this is what you do. You smile so he relaxes, then you hit him with the best right hand you can throw, and if you don’t finish with a left hook, don’t come home.”
“Nobody was allowed to use being Jewish as a crutch in my house,” Izenberg continued. “My dad said Judaism is a religion, not an alibi.”
Izenberg’s late father Harry — who immigrated to the US as a child with his family from Eastern Europe and served in the American military in World War I — played baseball in the minor leagues, where he was often the only Jew.
“My father was a rare guy,” Izenberg said. “His religion, Judaism, I’ll put it this way, was more cultural than ritualistic. He told me, ‘You know, I played baseball a long time. And I learned something. Even if you don’t want to be a Jew, they’re never going to let you be anything else. So you gotta go and learn what being a Jew is all about.”
Izenberg was bar mitzvahed by the late Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s and famously went on to become a leader in the Civil Rights movement in the US.
Izenberg said Prinz and his father were close to each other. “My dad admired Dr. Prinz so much and Dr. Prinz admired him so much, and I think circumcision was the only Jewish bond they had,” he joked.
“At my bar mitzvah,” Izenberg went on to say, “Rabbi Prinz told me, ‘Jerry Izenberg, I want you to be an observant Jew. I want you to be a respectful Jew. I want you to be the kind of Jew who learns compassion for people.’ And then suddenly, out of character, he said, ‘If anyone gives you crap about being a Jew, I want you to be a fighting Jew.’”
Izenberg went on to become a sports writer for The Newark Star-Ledger, a career that has kept him busy for nearly the past seven decades. He is one of only two journalists to have covered all 51 Super Bowls and this year he will attend his 51st Kentucky Derby.
The prolific writer’s 13th and latest book is about boxing history. While covering the sport, Izenberg befriended numerous legendary boxers, including Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, among others.
“These are the guys who made this book,” Izenberg said. “This book was written from memory. Boxing has always been special for me, because I don’t write about numbers or stats or crap like that, I write about people. Boxing always afforded the best opportunity, because look at the ring, there are three people, a referee and two fighters. You might want to talk about the two guys in the corner. There is a trainer and the cutman and a trainer and a cutman in the other corner. It’s a limited field. Therefore, you can really focus on the backstories of the people, who they are and what they are doing.”
Asked who the most famous Jewish athlete he has interacted with was, Izenberg replied, “Sandy Koufax, but I knew them all.”
Izenberg also made sure to mention the late Jewish boxing trainer Ray Arcel.
“He was the greatest trainer of fighters in the history of boxing,” Izenberg said. “And he was like a surrogate father to me. When he would give me a look, when he disapproved of something, it was like I had just angered a Talmudic scholar who was trying to interpret the same passage 20 times in a row for a stupid student.”
Last year, Izenberg was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame — one of numerous halls of fame of which he is a member.
“If I don’t get fired, I’m going to keep working, that’s what I do,” he said. “As far as the job goes, I’ll do it as long as I can travel. I’ll keep plugging. And the books, I’m not going to stop. I just sent my first novel out, it’s about black baseball. I knew all those guys, great players who were not allowed to play in the major leagues.”
“My thought is, the more I write, the less I risk Alzheimer’s,” Izenberg quipped. “I think the phrase ‘use it or lose it’ applies to the mind.”