Search of the Jewish Athletic Role Model to Build
Character in Jewish Youth
"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
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
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
Rabbi Halperin, in his
travels in America as "The Rasslin' Rabbi," compiled an enviable
record in competition. Research via
the e-group "wrestling legends";
<http://groups.yahoo.com/group/wrestlinglegends> 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
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
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 ...in 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; <http://www.sefer-torah.com>.
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