The joke goes that the shortest book in history is on the subject of Jews in sports. Historians claim, however, that the first modern day sports hero was actually a Jew. A Portuguese Jew no less!
Daniel Mendoza grew up going to London’s Bevis Marks Synagogue. He attended the community’s Sha’are Tikva school, and celebrated his Bar Mitzvah in 1778. Just two year later, after working various odd jobs, Mendoza discovered that his professional talents better suited him to become a boxer (pugilist). His matches were legendary and the press often called him Mendoza the Jew, or The Light of Israel. Daniel Mendoza was a national sensation. He even opened up his own boxing school. Mendoza is also credited with writing the first book on the art of boxing. In fact, many of the techniques that he developed are still used in the sport today.
As sensational as Mendoza was in his time, the image of the fighting Jew is nothing new. Our Patriarch Jacob is said to have wrestled with an angel, and won! The Torah describes a nightlong battle wherein Jacob was wounded but ultimately prevailed. Indeed, the angel renames Jacob. He gives him the name Israel ‘ki sarita im Elohim ve’im anashim vatuhal,’ ‘for you have struggled with G-d and with man and have prevailed (Genesis 32:29).’ In other words, the very name Israel (sar el) connotes struggle and perseverance.
The struggle with the angel represents a quality often associated with Jews, that of perseverance against all odds. As a minority group, that struggle typically manifested in techniques of survival, either in seeking a means of sustenance, or in fighting for rights (theirs and others). In modern day Israel, that struggle is once again a physical one, as Israel fights to defend her right to self-determination.
It is important to note that patriarch Israel also remained Jacob, whom the Torah called ‘a simple man, a tent dweller (Genesis 25:27).’ Our sages explained that to mean that he was studious, that he was relentless in his pursuit of spiritual knowledge. Whether on the battlefield or in the Bet Hamidrash, Jacob/Israel did not give up. Similarly, Daniel Mendoza’s own grandfather, Aaron, was an expert ritual slaughterer who even published an illustrated book on the subject (‘Dinim de Sehita y Bedica,’ a translation into Spanish from an earlier Portuguese publication).
Daniel Mendoza himself though, wasn’t the most religious of Jews. His academy was kept open on Shabbat. Still, his boxing success bought great pride to English Jews, and it helped to raise their esteem among other Britons. Most importantly, his physical perseverance reflected a trait celebrated by Jews. Ultimately, in 1836 he was laid to rest amongst his people in the Spanish and Portuguese Novo cemetery on Mile End Road. Indeed, whether in the study hall, in the market, or in the ring, the Jewish nation always finds a way to fight on. It is our namesake, Israel.
Schechter, Ronald and Clarke, Liz. “Mendoza the Jew: Boxing, Manliness, and Nationalism.” 2014, New York: Oxford University Press