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Bookman a Jewish soccer pioneer in the UK

  • Milner Jack
I have to admit to being a bit of a history buff. Some 13 years ago I met Billie Jean King at a junior tennis event at Sun City for 12 and 14 year- olds from all over the world.
by JACK MILNER | Nov 25, 2015

King was shocked when she discovered none of the Swedish kids knew who Bjorn Borg was. “How do you go where you’re heading if you don’t know where you come from?” she asked them.

That’s when I realised why I had a passion for history: It fills in so many blanks.

Take the name Louis James Arthur Oscar Buchalter. How many people have heard of him, or even the name by which he was generally known, Louis Bookman?

Many Jews follow British football, but very few will know that Bookman was the first Jew to play in British soccer’s top professional league early in the 20th century. What made it even more remarkable is that he was the son of a rabbi who was horrified at the thought of his son playing professional football.

Even after his soccer career ended, Bookman continued to make his name as a cricketer, despite having parents and a wife who found it humiliating to have an athlete in the family.

Bookman was born Louis Buchalter, in Zagare, Lithuania, one of nine children of Mathias and Jane Buchalter. In 1895, the family boarded a ship with the intention of immigrating to New York.

According to family lore, however, they misunderstood an announcement when their ship stopped for provisions in Cork, Ireland, and got off the boat. The family soon settled in Dublin, where Mathias became a cantor in the city’s Lennox Street Shul.

As a teenager, Bookman played soccer for the local Jewish team, Adelaide, which in 1908 won the All-Ireland Under-18s Cup. Two years later, in spite of his parents’ objections, he turned professional and joined the Belfast Celtic club.

Within a year he had crossed the Irish Sea to join Bradford City, the then-reigning Football Association (FA) champions. This made Bookman, whose new teammates immediately dubbed him “Abraham”, the first Jew to play in Britain’s top-tier league.

Bookman played three seasons for Bradford City, mostly sitting on the bench. Even that did not prevent people from attributing the team’s tumble in fortunes to the arrival of this swarthy Semite, to whom they attributed a mystical negative power.

Nonetheless, he stayed with the Yorkshire team for three seasons, but was happy to move on from there to West Bromwich Albion where he remained for only a year, returning to Ireland when the First World War broke out.

The year 1914 also marked Bookman’s first international tournament - with the Irish national squad, who he helped win the British Home Championship.

It was hardly a surprise to find his parents unsupportive, but according to Bookman’s daughter, Joyce Levy, her mother refused to marry Bookman until he gave up professional sport.

“She came from Manchester and all her family were very learned and musical and, let’s be honest, a bit snobbish,” she told Irish sportswriter Eoin O’Callaghan.

Bookman was 40 when he finally married Rebecca Sirota and Joyce was born the following year.

Bookman played soccer until 1925, most notably during three seasons (1919 - 1922) with Luton Town during which time he appeared in 101 matches and scored eight goals.

According to his daughter, people often called Bookman “Eye-Tie,” assuming he was Italian because of his dark complexion. In fact, Anthony Clavane, author of a book about Jewish soccer players in the UK, notes that many fans had a peculiar preoccupation with Bookman's heritage.

He refers to a contemporary newspaper cartoon in which a reporter is seen asking the footballer: “Does your brother play, Mr Bookman?” “Well, he is able,” responds Bookman’s character. “Did you say his name is Abel?” “No! I say he can play the game.”

When he left the sport, Bookman returned to Dublin where he worked both as a railwayman and as a jeweller. He was, however, a dreadful businessman, according to his daughter. When her father repaired watches and customers would ask for the bill, “he’d say ‘Ah sure, it doesn’t matter!’ So he never made any money and that was another nail in his coffin as far as my mother was concerned,” Levy said.

He also began playing cricket, including for the Irish national team - “the first Jew to be picked for the Gentlemen of Ireland”, according to his daughter; he appeared 14 times in the 1930s for the team.

Bookman died on June 10, 1943, at age 52. Joyce Levy recalled that after his death, her mother banned all talk of sport in the house. Yet, years later, she discovered her mother had saved many scrapbooks with press clippings about Bookman, which she had held on to. “I’m not that madly interested,” said Joyce. “I just have them to show the quality of the man.”

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