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Jewish boxers supported ‘People’s Olympics’

It is now 80 years since the staging of the infamous 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Looking back on it one is dumbfounded by how stupid world leaders were at the time to support an event now remembered as a grotesquery of Nazi pageantry.

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JACK MILNER

What many people do not know was that with the growth of Communism, an alternative to the Berlin Olympics was arranged to be staged in Barcelona at the same time. In May 1936, the government of autonomous Catalonia in Spain announced they would play host to a Popular Olympiad, also known as the “People’s Olympics” and the “Workers’ Olympics”, for athletes who wanted no part in supporting the Nazi regime.

The Barcelona Games, organised under the auspices of Catalan President Luis Companys, whose name appeared on all official documents, were ambitious. Planned athletic competitions included track and field, soccer, rugby, swimming, water polo, tennis, basketball, cycling, wrestling, gymnastics, shooting, and table tennis.

An athlete merely needed to make his or her way to the Games to take part. The organisers promised room and board for all competitors and a seven-storey hotel was reserved to room 1 600 participants. The hotel had been built for the International Exposition held in Barcelona in 1929, as had been the 54 000-seat Montjuic Stadium, which was to be the site for track and field events.

In Canada Sammy Luftspring, aged just 20, was the son of a bootlegger. Sammy had grown up in a tough Toronto immigrant neighbourhood and learned to protect himself at a boxing club at the local Young Men’s Hebrew Association. By 1933 he was an Ontario amateur champion.

That year Luftspring took part in the famous wild street brawl when members of a local pro-Nazi club put up a large banner with a swastika. It led to a confrontation with a rival Jewish baseball team and lasted for hours.

A move to boycott the Berlin Olympics found little support. In the United States Avery Brundage, president of the American Olympic Committee, complained that the boycott movement was part of a “Jewish-Communist conspiracy” to keep the country from participating.

Canadian officials followed Britain’s lead in agreeing to take part even after it became clear the Nazis intended to use the Games as a propaganda stage.

Luftspring was certain to win a spot on Canada’s Olympic boxing team and he wanted to go overseas to show the Nazis the same fighting spirit he had shown their sympathisers on the streets of Toronto. But his parents feared for his life and as a good Jewish boy, he listened to them. So he decided to go to Barcelona instead.

Luftspring convinced fellow boxer Benjamin Norman Yakubowitz to join him. Yakubowitz was a ferocious bantamweight and fought under the name Baby Yack. They wrote a letter to The Globe explaining their decision to skip the Canadian Olympic boxing trials.

“We know that we, as Canadian boys, would be personally safe and perhaps well received in Germany,” they wrote. “But can we forget the way the German government is treating the Jewish boys in Germany? No athlete or sportsman would think of engaging in a sporting contest with a bully who would ill-treat even a dumb animal. The German government is treating our brothers and sisters worse than dogs.”

It was during the Depression and the two did not have funds to travel to Europe. Harry Sniderman, a well-known Toronto sportsman, found a group of Jewish backers. Businessmen donated funds and more money was raised from the pass-the-hat proceeds from Jewish Community Softball league games.

Sniderman also organised a stag at which bookies and bootleggers were in the unaccustomed role of giving – not taking – money. More than $2 000 was raised and Sniderman joined them as a team manager.

Athletes from other participating countries began converging on Barcelona. Germans who had fled the Nazis and were living in exile, had a delegation, while a team of Jewish athletes represented Palestine.

Some of the early arrivals in Barcelona were delighted to hear what they thought were fireworks being exploded in their honour. Unfortunately, they were bullets as the Spanish army launched a rebellion against the Republic.

As it turned out, the Canadians were waiting for a train in Toulouse, France, when word reached them about the uprising. Alas, the “People’s Olympic” were cancelled.

Luftspring and Yack turned professional soon after returning to Toronto. Both had some success, though Luftspring’s career ended prematurely after being accidentally thumbed in the eye during a fight. He went on to become a distinguished boxing referee and co-owned a popular Toronto nightspot.

He wrote an autobiography in 1975 titled “Call Me Sammy” and he was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame. He died in 2000, age 84.

Yack won the Canadian bantamweight title in 1937. After retiring from the ring, he struggled to find his place, serving in the armed services during the Second World War before becoming a bookie. He spent some time in prison.

When the journalist William Stephenson profiled the fighter in 1979, he was a recovering alcoholic driving a cab for a living while resident in a cheap hotel. Yack died in 1987, age 71.

 

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Habonim honours Anstey, a ‘superman without a cape’

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The outgoing manhig (leader) of South African Habonim Dror, Errol Anstey, took his departure from the youth movement after 20 years of service in an online Zoom call with nearly 300 current and former members, friends, and family.

“I agreed to take the job for a year or two back in 2000, and never dreamt it would end up being 20 years of challenging but hugely satisfying work,” Anstey said in an emotional speech to his audience from around the world.

In the late 1990s, the movement had dropped in numbers, finances were in a mess, and the well-known Onrust campsite was in bad shape, former shaliach Ronen Segall recalled. “Errol was the obvious choice for someone with deep knowledge of the movement, its workings, and its campsite. In my eyes, Errol became Habonim’s true hero, a superman without a cape but full of capability.”

In a short space of time, Anstey led a significant turnaround for Habonim along with the team of shlichim and Habonim leadership. His fundraising, finance, and administration skills shone, and over his term as manhig an estimated R20 million has been raised and invested in the Onrust campsite to make it one of the most sought-after and valuable campsites in South Africa.

“This has enabled the movement not only to maintain the site to a high level, but the revenue has helped finance many of the movement’s activities,” Anstey proudly told his audience.

The traditional role of the manhig since the founding of SA Habonim Dror was always to be the “adult in the room” to act as a guide and mentor to the movement’s young leadership. Former mazkira klalit (general secretary) of Habonim from 2005, Micaela Browde, paid tribute to Anstey saying, “You were really a stalwart for us, you fought for us, you had our backs, you made sure we were supported, guided, and you did so with strength, humility, and humour.”

Anstey described some of the challenges during his stint including differences of opinion and sometimes open confrontation with mainstream Jewish community leadership when Habonim was critical of some of Israel’s actions. “It wasn’t easy to be a lone voice for progressive, liberal thinking as South Africa’s community became predominantly conservative,” he said with his usual frankness.

Another mazkir klali, Daniel Sussman from 2019, described Anstey’s catch phrase as “do everything, all the time, never sleep”. This succinctly summed up for him the endless number of projects and activities which Anstey led over the past two decades on behalf of Habonim.

Stanley Bergman, originally from Port Elizabeth and now in New York, the national treasurer for Habonim in 1968, paid tribute to Anstey’s enormous efforts to support several generations of Habonim members. He praised him for his ability to connect with graduates from the movement around the world and develop a donor community to support the Habonim Foundation which he initiated.

Anstey spoke of the erratic provision of Habonim shlichim from Israel over the years, and how he had additionally become a shaliach himself, which meant mentoring the leadership and members of the movement. He emphasised that he had “the privilege of working with the cream of South African Jewish youth” and said “there was nothing more fulfilling than working with inspired youth”. Their activism had motivated him to run successfully for public office in 2011 as a member of the Democratic Alliance.

During the Zoom session, many participants showered praise on Anstey’s term as manhig including Isaac Herzog, the chairperson of the Jewish Agency for Israel, who acknowledged the “outstanding contribution” that he had made to Habonim over so many years.

Former mazkir klali in the early 1980s, Stephen Pincus, expressed his appreciation for Anstey’s earlier roles as camp organiser at one of the largest Onrust camps ever, and later in spearheading the 50th anniversary celebrations of the movement.

“It was clear from those early years that Errol had that obvious aptitude for organisation along with a commitment to the movement,” he said. “Little did we know that we unleashed a formidable force which reverberated in the movement for more than 40 years.”

Anstey told the audience that his two children, Saul and Talia, had followed in his footsteps, having attended 12 Onrust camps and later became his “eyes on the ground” regarding movement dynamics. He also noted that it was probably an unprecedented situation that they had actually left the movement before their father did.

Anstey warmly welcomed the new incoming manhig, Wayne Sussman, in his usual modest style saying how satisfying it was for him to hand over the mantle to “someone who will be better than me and will take Habonim to new heights”.

Sussman responded in the session with his usual passionate style, describing the six previous manhigim who preceded him as “giants on whose shoulders we stand”. He lamented the fact that the Habonim leadership was on a Zoom call and not at the annual Onrust camp, and how challenging it was going to be in 2021 without the lessons learned and experiences from machaneh.

“Our first task will be to assist the 2021 bogrim led by the new mazkir, Aaron Sher, to capture some of the magic which will be lost, but I’m confident we can do it,” said Sussman.

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JNF Blue Box enters the digital age

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When is a Jewish National Fund (JNF) Blue Box not a blue box? Never. Even though the physical box now has a digital donation option, it’s still the age-old Blue Box.

This box has for decades symbolised the JNF and the commitment of Jewish people around the world to rebuild Israel.

And for decades, it has been filled to the brim with pennies, cents, nickels, dimes, lira, and francs – coins of every denomination dropped in, one could almost say, religiously every Friday evening before Shabbat candle lighting.

Now it’s no longer limited to physical coins and a metal box. The new Blue Box with a digital donation option via SnapScan will be launched in time for Channukah to keep the tradition of the Blue Box alive for the next 120 years.

The first real Blue Box was, oddly enough, Theodor Herzl’s hat. At the Fifth Zionist Congress in 1901, he used his hat to solicit donations from delegates as a means of purchasing land to establish a Jewish homeland.

Soon after, a Polish bank clerk proposed that a collection box bearing the words “National Fund” be placed in every Jewish home to raise money for land purchases. Production began in Vienna. The boxes were initially produced in a blue material and thus became known as Blue Boxes.

Over the past 120 years, funds collected via the Blue Box from around the world have assisted the JNF to realise its aim of developing land in Israel: building roads and water reservoirs, establishing parks, and preparing the soil for agriculture and settlement. Beyond fundraising, the Blue Box is also an important educational tool for spreading the Zionist message and renewing the historic bond between the Jewish people and EretzYisrael.

Stories about the Blue Box have become legendary. In the United States around Tu B’Shvat, teams of children brandishing JNF Blue Boxes would travel from Brooklyn to Manhattan on the New York City subway system. They would move from train car to train car with these ubiquitous boxes in hand, soliciting contributions from passengers and stopping only when they sensed or saw the approach of policemen.

In South Africa, members of the JNF would visit Jewish homes every Sunday to collect and then empty Blue Boxes, diligently counting the hundreds or thousands of coins inside them. In addition to being proudly displayed in almost every South African Jewish home, Blue Boxes were also present in schools, shuls, Jewish-owned businesses, medical waiting rooms, even hairdressing salons.

In times past when life wasn’t so frenetic and women could spend afternoons playing rummy and socialising, the money raised and won during the games was often dropped into the Blue Box, adding to the largesse and reputation of that particular hostess.

Today the iconic Blue Box (or pushke) remains the link between the Jewish people and the land, and to many, perhaps even to the majority of the Jewish world, it’s a symbol of Jewish continuity. They can also be quite valuable: a few antique Blue Boxes were auctioned by Sotheby’s recently, realising more than $3 000 (R46 006) each.

However, in the age of credit cards, cryptocurrency, and e-wallets, fundraising via a coin-based Blue Box risks becoming an anachronism.

So, the JNF has relaunched the Blue Box and linked it to the SnapScan mobile-payments app. A QR code will be found on all new Blue Boxes purchased from the JNF. People with old boxes can bring them in to have the QR code imprinted for no extra charge.

It’s modern technology indeed, but inextricably linked to a century-old tradition of keeping Israel alive in every Jewish heart.

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Back to Work

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So many in our community have lost jobs since the onset of lockdown. We are publishing their details to help them find work. This is the last group for this year. We will resume in 2021.

Name: Fran Lurie

Experience: Sales Consultant

Education: Matric

More information: I have worked in the exhibition industry for 20 years, and because of COVID-19 this was the first industry to go. I was retrenched and now seek new employment. I am driven, enthusiastic and ready to take on a new venture.

Current location: Johannesburg

Willing to relocate: No

Email address: franlurie@telkomsa.net

Name: Nicole Williams

Email address: nmoskovitch@gmail.com

Experience: National Key Accounts Manager/PA/Secretary

Education: Matric (Herzlia); Travel and Tourism diploma (Travel and Tourism Academy)

More information: I’d like to work for a company which will allow me to grow professionally and as an individual. I’m eager to work in a team structure and am happy to travel. I enjoy new challenges, and having a proactive mindset has helped me achieve success. I’m creative, energetic, and pay attention to detail. I’m committed, loyal, enthusiastic, and give 101% in everything I do.

Current location: Cape Town

Willing to relocate: No

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