- E. Lawrence Levy and Muscular Judaism, 1851–1932: Sport, Culture, and Assimilation in Nineteenth-Century Britain, Together with “The Autobiography of an Athlete” ed. by David M. Fahey, and: Muscling in on New Worlds: Jews, Sport, and the Making of the Americas ed. by Raanan Rein, David M. K. Sheinin
The covers of both books under review feature photographs of bare-chested Jewish men displaying powerful physiques. Despite their original publication one hundred years apart, settings on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean, and divergent author vantage points, a pervasive concern with the bodies of Jewish males pervades the two volumes. Iconic [End Page 117] American bodybuilder and fitness entrepreneur Dan Lurie, imposing arms flexed and chest extended, fronts Muscling in on New Worlds. No other photograph appears in the book, and the text makes no mention of Lurie, but his outsized, Schwarzenegger-like torso sets the tone for the subsequent discussion. Even more striking, the E. Lawrence Levy and Muscular Judaism cover photograph displays the eponymous memoirist—serious, bespectacled, and bald—with Popeye arms folded across his chest.
E. Lawrence Levy and Muscular Judaism relates the transformative tale of an Anglo-Jewish sportsman. The republication of Levy’s autobiography, with a substantive introduction and light editing by historian David Fahey, merits attention. Primarily known for his late nineteenth-century weightlifting triumphs and strongman exhibitions, Levy writes in a cluttered and unreflective manner.
In the early 1890s, Levy won British and international amateur weightlifting championships while establishing numerous records. He also excelled at several other sports, most notably gymnastics. Serving as an agent for the brewers’ association provided his vocational base, but Levy also was a school teacher and founding headmaster, theatrical performer and impresario, newspaper reporter and editor, lecturer, and author of several books, primarily related to his organizational affiliations. A devote of a potpourri of clubs, he devoted much time to conviviality. A denizen of Birmingham, Levy provided ballast for the Conservative Party in his home city and the surrounding Midlands.
Levy’s was a busy, energetic life, though not one subject to much autobiographical introspection. Discretion and omissions render his memoir incomplete. Family life remains at a distance. There is limited commentary about the compatibility of an exemplar of physical culture defending the liquor trade. Nonetheless, details and tone yield significant, though incomplete, insight about a once well-known and now largely forgotten Anglo-Jewish athlete.
Fahey’s lucid introduction partially fills in ellipses concerning Levy’s family life, contextualizes the memoir, and acknowledges gaps. By intent, Fahey’s introduction is circumscribed. Aside from insertion of informational footnotes about individuals cited by Levy (primarily listing birth and death dates), elimination and addition of a few contemporary photographs, and augmentation of the original index of proper names, Fahey presents the Levy memoir essentially in the form of its original publication.
Muscular Judaism pervades Levy’s depiction of his transformation from a narrow framed, 5′ 4-½″, twenty-five-year-old, with twelve-inch biceps into the powerful “Little Hercules” who measured seventeen inches around the upper arm. While claiming to eschew vanity and punctuating triumphs with self-deprecating wit, he recounts the specific inscriptions on many of the awards he garnered and indulges in ubiquitous name dropping. Published in 1913 when age and gout had ended his athletic career and death taken his wife, Levy took satisfaction in the life that he had made. Savoring memories and legacy, he relished the day a boy spied him on the street and cried out, “That’s Levy, the strong man” (180).
While not religiously observant, Levy took pride in his Jewish identity, associated with fellow ethnics, and criticized anti-Semitism. Having won respect in gentile Britain, he sought to...