Georgian England’s Jewish Boxing Champion

May 19, 2016 | Wynn Wheldon
About the author:

The grandson of Sephardi immigrants to Britain, Daniel Mendoza (1765-1836) grew up in a Jewish enclave in east London where he developed a reputation for brawling. He first participated in a professional fight at the age of fifteen, and then rode the wave of boxing’s popularity in England, and his own success, to become something of a celebrity athlete—and a source of pride to his fellow Jews. Wynn Wheldon writes:

Daniel Mendoza was not merely a revolutionary boxer, not only a Jew who raised the status of his community, not only a natural entertainer; he was also a writer. His Memoirs, probably written in 1808 but not published until 1815, is a vital document in the understanding of Jewish assimilation into English cultural life. It is written in rounded, Augustan English, and the journey of his life is presented in picaresque terms. . . .

While his Jewishness is not prominent in the book, it is never skirted around or ignored. He was clearly proud of his faith, claimed to have learned Hebrew to a highish standard, married a Jewish wife, brought up his children as Jews, honored his father and mother. He knew how to make and bake Passover cakes. He invariably fought as “Mendoza the Jew” and was known as “the Light of Israel.” Such was his popularity and the respect he earned that in very few of the two-dozen or so prints depicting him is there a suggestion of malicious caricature. Certainly he is identified as a Jew, but not as an alien. . . .

It was—is—thought by many that Mendoza’s example made Jews less vulnerable to insult or attack, that his prowess tempered traditional stereotyping of Jews as cowardly or passive, that he contributed to the thinking that allowed Blackwood’s magazine to declare in 1817 that “the idea of a Jew (which our pious ancestors contemplated with such horror) has nothing in it now revolting.” In his retirement, Mendoza trained a generation of Jewish boxers who helped establish Jews as bona-fide Englishmen.

Read more on Commentary: