In Search of the Jewish Athletic Role Model to Build

                      Character in Jewish Youth


 By, Moshe Burt

 "Who's Next?", bellows Bill Goldberg, a former Pro Football player, soon after the huge Super-Heavyweight wrestler demolished yet another hapless opponent.   It is said that he holds the distinction of possessing the longest consecutive unbeaten string in Pro-Wrestling annals -- 176 matches. 

In real life, Bill Goldberg is articulate, intelligent and self-assured.   Although not religiously observant, he indicates in his book, "I'm Next", that he is a strongly identified Jew.   He seems to be a supreme role model in a profession not commonly given to building strong personal character traits.   "Goldberg" has reached a pinnacle of prominence in the Sport/Entertainment field of Pro Wrestling.    

But Bill Goldberg is not the first Jewish athlete to reach a position of prominence in professional wrestling.  In the era of the late 1940s, After World War II, the Holocaust and with the advent Israel's statehood, through1950's, one name stood out in Israel's athletics as synonymous with building character, physical strength and stamina in Jewish young people.     A young, brilliant Yeshiva Bochur made a large impact on the emerging Israeli sports scene.  

 Being both a brilliant student of Torah and a talented diamond-cutter, he became interested in sports and bodybuilding.  He set out to excel in these areas.  He became both a great athlete as a bodybuilder/weightlifter/ wrestler/ Karate Master and a great role model for Israeli youth.  He was a highly recognized ambassador for Israeli Sports for decades.  He succeeded in winning the bodybuilding title of "Mr. Israel", in becoming "Israel's Undefeated Wrestling Champion" and in becoming a master of Karate.   He achieved all of this while reaching great prominence as a Torah scholar, succeeding in business, becoming a Rabbi and writing s'forim (books).  His name is Rafael Halperin. 

 Rabbi Halperin was born into a religious family from Vienna, Austria in 1924.   He and his family made Aliyah to Israel in 1933 and settled on Moshav Zichron Meir in B'nai Brak in 1934.  At age 13, he attended Yeshiva Tiferet Israel in Haifa.   At age 15, he transferred to the Chevron Yeshiva in Jerusalem.   Rafael Halperin excelled in his Torah learning.

 In Rabbi Halperin's autobiography, " Arenas of My Life," (recently republished in a larger, more expansive form) he wrote that before deciding to travel to Europe, United States, South Africa and the Far East to pursue his athletic career,  he consulted his Rebbi, the Chazon Ish, of blessed memory, a great Rabbinic leader of his generation.   Rabbi Halperin wrote that his goal was to work to earn enough money to return to Israel to open a chain of athletic facilities in Israel.   

In the sefer, Rabbi Halperin relates that the Chazon Ish, of blessed memory, knew how deep both his (Halperin's) learning and connection with Yiddishkiet (Jewish roots, spirituality and tradition) were and that he would maintain that connection wherever he was.  The  Tzaddik took his student's hand and blessed him for success in his endeavors.

 Hy Turkin wrote in the New York Daily News in 1953,  "The dark-eyed, handsome athlete would like to train enough Israeli athletes for the Blue-and-White to make a fine showing in future Olympics. But, even more important, he wants to give his countrymen the benefit of his body-building knowledge so that they may better face the arduous years still ahead."

 Rabbi Halperin, in his travels in America as "The Rasslin' Rabbi," compiled an enviable record in competition.  Research via the e-group "wrestling legends"; <> yielded several items including a "New York Mirror" article written in late 1953 or early 1954 by columnist Dan Parker which indicated that Halperin compiled a consecutive unbeaten string of some 159 matches. (Parker writes that Halperin won "32 of them in less than a minute and, of course, all on the level,")   The individual on the e-group who provided the Parker article is a long-time wrestling fan.  He states "to my knowledge, he (Halperin) never lost while in the States, unless it was by some ...(disqualification, or the like). And I don't even recall that happening.  I can think of no other professional wrestler, in the North American version of the game, dating back some 125 years, who can make that claim."

 Rabbi Halperin arrived in the United States at age 29 carrying two high profile athletic titles of the Jewish State.  Accordingly, Rabbi Halperin was privileged to meet some of America's biggest sports and show business personalities of the era as well as a number of mayors and other American political and electronic media personalities.

During his tour of the United States as a wrestler between 1953 through 1955, Halperin faced criticism, boycotts and threats from the promoters and syndicates of the time because he wouldn't "work a match" (prolong a match in order to entertain the fans).  The promoters felt that they had a rebel in their camp who wouldn't take orders.  However, Rabbi Halperin, in his autobiography, states that he came to America to wrestle representing the State of Israel and the Jewish people and could not fake or be phony. 

 The member of the e-group "wrestling legends" provides additional quotes from columnist Dan Parker of the "New York Mirror" who wrote, "Rafael has never raised his hand to get satisfaction against opponents who use foul tactics. If they bite, scratch or gouge his eyes, he forgives them in the Biblical manner with a "Peace be with you." Of late, he had run into an increasing amount of rough stuff and he thinks it was deliberate."

 Parker quotes Rafael, "Maybe they hate me because I won't put on a show," he said.  "Maybe they're afraid to give me a chance because I'm different." 

Thus, Rabbi Halperin suffered from some of the same problems with role-playing, scripting, story-lines and getting main event billing and championship shots which Bill Goldberg feels victimized by today.

 One story which illustrates the difficulties which Rafael Halperin faced in getting main event matches in American wrestling is that of his efforts to meet Antonino Rocca in the "squared circle."   

Halperin had hoped to gain a title shot against either then-NWA champ Lou Thesz or against Rocca.  Parker, in the same New York Mirror article continues, "Once the promoter booked a match for him with Antonino  Rocca in Trenton, but Antonino... didn't show up."

 "Rocca, fined $200 for this run-out, was matched again with Rafael.  This time he developed nostalgia just before the date and flew back to that dear old Argentina.  Just to show that his heart was in the right place where promises are concerned, the promoter lost no time in promising Halpern a third match, and the date was set for last Tuesday night...  This time the Buenos Aires Bunion Boy was calloused about the whole business <on both feet>.  He didn't even bother to invent an excuse for cancelling."

 "Disillusioned ..., Halpern is now going back to Israel to conduct health schools he owns in Tel-Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem.  There he expects to develop wrestling and boxing talent..."

 Rafael finally did get his match with Rocca.   It took place at Laurel Gardens in Newark, New Jersey, on Saturday night, March 27, 1955 before some 15,000 fans.    The match went back and forth until Halperin began working on Rocca's leg.   Apparently, Halperin employed a spinning leg-lock manuever which caused Rocca much pain.  Halperin attempted to pin Rocca and got two-counts twice but couldn't get the three-count.  After the second attempted pin, the match ended in a draw. 

Halpern continued wrestling sporadically in the United States and Canada through the late 1950s and early 1960's.   Another member of the e-group "wrestling legends" writes that he "saw Raphael Halperin Toronto, Ontario Canada around 1961 in a match against Dick "The Bulldog" Brower.  Brower won the match but Halperin gave The Bulldog a good going over."  And from memories of watching "Bulldog Brower" on TV years ago, it's obvious that the use of some "foreign object" from Brower's tights did in Rafael.

 But the "Rasslin' Rabbi" was not only an athlete, he was multi-faceted.   He maintained his Torah learning throughout his life and athletic career.   He learned in such diverse places as Brooklyn, New York, South Africa, etc., as well as in Israel.  He served in the IDF, fighting in the War for Statehood, founded a chain of gymnasiums and managed a hotel.  He wrote books such a weight loss guide, an encyclopedia and various religious works.  Rabbi Halperin worked on behalf of Russian Jewry and worked with the IDF in constructing the fording bridges across the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War.   He is sought after for consultations by politicians and educators.  A chain of Optical Centers throughout Israel also bears the name "Halperin."   

In recent news (March, 2003, it is reported that Rabbi Halperin is heading a group forming a new daily religious newspaper based in the northern outskirts of B'nei Brak.

 As a new Oleh, who has read much about Israel and about the prowess of the IDF, I view history as bearing witness to the important contribution of Rabbi Halperin.

 Through all of his travels and accomplishments, it seems that Rabbi Halperin has remained true to the confidence expressed in him by his Rebbe and all of his undertakings were a sanctification of G'd's name.  In these days, in this generation, Jewish youth here in Israel and Stateside need a strong positive athletic role model, one who stands on Torah principle and doesn't equivocate, to carry the torch of the legacy established by Rabbi Rafael Halperin.



Moshe Burt
has lived in Israel for just over 3 1/2 years and writes commentary and reviews on news from Israel.   He is the founder of The Sefer Torah Recycling Network;   <>.












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