Jewish Life

“Yiddish Fight Club” on exhibit at the Yiddish Book Center

AMHERST, Mass. – The visiting exhibit Yiddish Fight Club, open at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts now through Sept. 30, examines an often-overlooked side of Jewish culture: the bare-knuckled, rough-and-tumble world of the Jewish boxers and wrestlers of the early 20th century. Included among the larger-than-life figures are: Martin “Blimp” Levy, a Boston native and one-time sideshow “fat man” who proved a nimble wrestler despite weighing as much as 700 pounds; and wrestler Rafael Halperin, who was born to a religious family in Vienna and had to get permission from his rabbi to pursue bodybuilding. He went on to become Mr. Israel 1949 and enjoyed an international wrestling career — never competing on Shabbos — before eventually becoming a rabbi.

The exhibit also looks at the colorful Yiddish fighting terms that curator Eddy Portnoy discovered in a 1926 linguistic study published by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, where he works as a senior researcher.

“They’d sent linguists to the streets of Warsaw and Vilna to collect fighting terms from Yiddish-speaking street gangs,” Portnoy explains. The resulting study included words such as shmir, “an open-handed smack to the face,” and barne, “a closed-fisted hit on the head with the knuckle of the middle finger raised” (a noogie, to English speakers).

Although many are no longer remembered, in the 1920s and ’30s, Portnoy notes, a third of professional boxers were Jewish. “These were popular sports among the working class,” he says. “A lot of kids were fighting in their neighborhoods anyway, so why not direct that energy into making a little bit of money if you can? These boxers, in their heyday, were local heroes.”

Portnoy will speak about Yiddish Fight Club at a free gallery talk at the Yiddish Book Center, 1021 West St., Amherst, Mass., on Sunday, June 19, at 2 p.m. For more information visit The Center is open Sunday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, visit

Torah Portion – Vaera Exodus 6:2- 9:35
TU B’AV – A Celebration of Love!
Torah Portion – Mishpatim

Leave Your Reply