The early Zionist theorist Max Nordau spoke often of Muskeljudentum—a muscular Jewry that would demolish the stereotype of the effete, scholarly Jew by excelling at conventionally manly activities. Born in London in 1851, Edward Lawrence Levy became just such a Jew before Nordau ever coined the phrase. Orphaned at the age of six, Levy began his unusual career working at the Birmingham Hebrew School. Zack Rothbart writes:
While [in Birmingham], he would, among other things, found the city’s first Jewish Amateur Dramatic Club in 1872, followed by the Alliance Literary and Debating Society—“somewhat avant-garde in admitting ladies” as well as in having both Jewish and non-Jewish members. While remaining active in the Jewish community, in 1875 he went on to establish and run the Birmingham Jewish Collegiate School. When non-Jewish students enrolled, he renamed it the less parochial “Denbigh Lodge Collegiate School,” proud not only of its academic [standards], but also of its “glorious mixture of the best Jewish lads with similar Christian school fellows.”
Besides running a school, teaching, attending and criticizing theater performances, writing, and founding and serving as an active member in numerous other organizations, Levy developed a growing interest in gymnastics and physical fitness as the “strongman boom” peaked and he approached his fortieth birthday in 1891. That year, Levy won the first-ever British Amateur Weightlifting Championship.
Just two months later, he won the first World Weightlifting Competition, beating out strongmen from Germany, Austria, Italy, and elsewhere and officially becoming the first-ever international weightlifting champion. He later recalled, “There is one great feature of the two championships I won which I cannot refrain from referring to, and that is the great joy I felt as a Jew at winning these events.” From 1891 to 1894 he would go on to set no less than fourteen world records.