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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 March, 2005, 11:07 GMT
Hitting the high notes
By Chris Summers
BBC News

One of Britain's greatest boxers is the subject of the first pugilistic opera. The Whitechapel Whirlwind is based on the life of Jack 'Kid' Berg, in an era marked by great Jewish fighters.

The icons of boxing which are most powerful in the public mind today are probably Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis, or Muhammad Ali. For the British, the images of Frank Bruno and, still, Henry Cooper are hard to avoid.

But there was a time, before World War II, when many of the world's best and most famous boxers were Jewish.

There was Abe Attell, known as The Little Hebrew, from San Francisco, who was the world featherweight champion, Rueven "Ruby" Goldstein from New York, Battling Levinsky, Maxie Rosenbloom and the peerless Benny Leonard.

In Britain there was Jack 'Kid' Berg, Ted 'Kid' Lewis, Harry Mizler - all from London, Joe Samuels from Liverpool and many others.

JACK 'KID' BERG
Jack 'Kid' Berg, as painted by Charles Miller
Born Judah Bergman 28 June 1909 in Whitechapel
Made his professional debut aged just 15
Knocked out American Mushy Callahan to win world title in 1930
Fought 192 bouts (possibly more), between 1924 and 1945
Moved back to Britain and died in 1991, aged 82
The reason was simple. In those days the Jewish community in the east end of London was largely impoverished and one of the best ways out was boxing.

"If you didn't fight, you didn't eat," said Morton Lewis, whose father Kid Lewis was world welterweight champion.

Lewis was followed by others such as Berg and Mizler.

Mizler's nephew, Tony, said: "They were the Beckhams of their time. They had the trappings of wealth and they were real working-class heroes."

Of all the Jewish boxers none was finer than Berg, who reigned as light-welterweight champion of the world between 1930 and 1931.

Tough upbringing

Berg - real name Judah Bergman - was born in London's East End but became a huge star in the United States and combined a heady mix of good looks, controlled brutality and showbiz charisma.

Now his cousin Howard Fredrics has penned an opera called The Whitechapel Whirlwind.

Mr Fredrics, a senior lecturer in creative music technology at Kingston University, has used old tapes of Berg talking in his distinctive transatlantic accent to work out how the fighter's singing voice would have sounded.

He has donated several of these specially restored audio interviews to the British Library.

The opera singers playing Kid Chocolate and Kid Berg
Andrew O'Connor (right) plays Kid Berg and Sani Muliaumaseali'i plays Kid Chocolate
The opera starts at the turn of the century when the Bergman family arrives in London's teeming East End from eastern Europe.

It covers his tough upbringing in Whitechapel, where he was born in 1909, and his glorious career in the ring, when he defeated all the big names of the time, including Tony Canzoneri, Kid Chocolate, Mushy Callahan and Mizler.

Another scene depicts the infamous Battle of Cable Street in 1936 when hundreds of East End residents came out on to the streets of Stepney to prevent a march by Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts.

Ironically Mosley employed Lewis - real name Gershon Mendeloff - for a time in the early 1930s as his bodyguard. One apocryphal story suggests Lewis eventually wised up to Mosley's anti-Semitism and beat him up in his office.

Mr Fredrics was naturally drawn to Berg's story: "When I learned about my cousin's life it just seemed such an incredible story and it seemed to naturally lend itself to opera.

Ted 'Kid' Lewis
Ted 'Kid' Lewis, aka The Aldgate Sphinx, painted by Charles Miller
"It's funny and heartbreaking and dramatic and it deals with issues of celebrity, and how to hold on to it."

He has taken some artistic licence with it - for example, a scene in which Kid Chocolate is shot dead in a Havana nightclub. But overall he has stuck to the facts of Berg's extraordinary life.

Berg had an affair with Mae West and was friends with another East End legend, gangster Jack Spot, who was also Jewish and born in the same Whitechapel street.

In the ring Berg was awesome and his "whirlwind" nickname referred to his non-stop punching style. In one famous anecdote, his opponent was replaced by an identical twin and he beat them both.

Brotherly icon

His sister, Marie Stephany, remembers him as a modest and gentle man who looked after her.

She says: "It was only later that I grew up and realised what an icon he was, not just to the Jewish community, but to the whole of Britain."

Mr Fredrics hopes it will be picked up by the English National Opera, after its preview performance on Tuesday. Before the curtain rises, the Jewish East End Celebration Society is conducting seminars on Jewish boxers.

But amid the nostalgia for the sepia-tinted stars, one question keeps popping up: "Where are the great Jewish boxers of today?"

Morton Lewis says: "Nowadays most young Jews can earn more money with their brains. In the old days [they wanted] any kind of work to earn some money and boxing was the easiest way to make it."

A special preview of excerpts of The Whitechapel Whirlwind takes place at the UCL Bloomsbury Theatre on Tuesday 29 March.


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
Howard Fredrics talks to BBC's Danny Kelly
"Boxing is so theatrical and lends itself to opera"



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