By: Jared Ross, Hon. BA. MA in Cultural and Imperial History
Thank G-D! A Jewish comic that isn’t about the Holocaust. I know this sounds flip, but as a “Jewish intellectual”, in Toronto, I’m always enthused when Jewish history isn’t framed though such a narrow lens. There are so many persecutions to pick from, and while I acknowledge that the Holocaust is important to study, Jewish history shouldn’t be just one sad slow train to Auschwitz.
Enter ‘Mendoza the Jew’, a graphic history of a poor Sephardi Jewish boxer in 18th century London. It represents a different story, and a poorly told one. The style of the comic is quite brisk, with bold colours and lots of action sequences. It is heavily narrated with lots of explanation and the modern author showing up to brief the reader on any vague historical points. Each chapter begins with a Hebrew letter that spells out Daniel. The comic is only one part of the piece, with a section of primary sources as well and an explanation of the writer’s process as well.
Title: Mendoza the Jew: Boxing, Manliness, and Nationalism: A Graphic History
Author: Ronald Schechter
Illustrator: Liz Clarke
Published: Oxford University Press (2013)
Pages: 240 pages
Dimensions: 25.1 x 3 x 20.1 cm
Other Specs: Softcover, colour cover and interior
Purchase: In the Ad Astra Online Shop
Expelled from England in the 14th century, Jews were allowed back into England by Oliver Cromwell and it became a home for Sephardic Jews who came from Spain via the Netherlands. The Sephardic community was already well established when they were joined by Ashkenazi Jews from the Pale of Settlement in Eastern Europe (Modern day Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Romania) in the late 19th and early 20th century.
It is in part due to figures like Mendoza that the Sephardic community was so successful. Taking advantage of England’s “tolerant” attitudes towards religious minorities and the effects of the Enlightenment, the Jewish community was allowed a degree of integration that was not possible in most of Western Europe. While still suffering persecution, it was as an old prof of mine used to say, “run-of-the-mill 19th century anti-semitism”, in contrast to the race-based dehumanizing persecutions that mark the 20th century.
Daniel Mendoza’s story illustrates the tension between tolerance and assimilation quite nicely. The son of a Schochet, (a kosher butcher), Daniel Mendoza soon discovers that a quick way to acceptance is boxing, a sport that was embraced by both the working class and the gentry as quintessentially English (like tea and sado-masochism). Mendoza wins several high profile bouts, and parlays his success into running a series of boxing academies for both nobles and the working class.
After losing a rather shady match to his old partner, John Humphries, Mendoza agreed to a rematch, with each writing letters to the newspapers of the time challenging each other’s health, manliness and honesty.
Mendoza won the rematch and with it a princely sum of 2000 pounds. He then went on to beat Humphries in a third rematch (one that took 72 rounds).
The author speculates this was due to either gambling, alcoholism, bad investments or a combination of all three. Defaulting on his debts and jailed in 1797, Daniel took on a variety of jobs including as a publican and pedlar. He continued to box and stage exhibition matches, but died penniless in 1836.
In the words of the author, the story of Mendoza fits into the school of “history from below” and helps to illustrate why Britain avoided a revolution, unlike France. He points to Britain’s religious tolerance, free press and ability to harness a nascent British identity as a reason for its relative political stability. In this the author is right, but he also neglects to mention that Britain was able to co-opt many of its subject people, ethnic minorities like the Irish and Scottish Highlanders into replicating the same structures of rule and control in an Imperial context, and as such use migration as a pressure valve, something that was not done in France.
So let us evaluate the author’s claim. ‘History from below’ in this context is also very much a history of whiteness. The 18th century marked the rise of scientific racism. The work of Blumenbach, dividing humanity into five races, was published in 1779. The idea that each race had a separate origin (polygenesis) was a tool of imperialist expansion and the justification for slavery as an ideology. Jews as a category were always hard to classify. Were they white? Were they intelligent? How could they be separated from the Aryan/ Nordic White Anglo-Saxon?
Interestingly enough, Mendoza also acted as a second for Tom Molineaux, a freed Virginian slave. The author does not mention this.
The push of this ideology of race was stubbornly resisted. Manliness and ideas of masculinity were a weapon that Jews deployed to prove that they were just as manly as the White man. This subverted the ethnocentric language of white supremacy and allowed some Jewish men to express their identity in ways that were culturally permitted. This strategy had a long shelf-life. In the aftermath of increasing anti-semitism following World War One, Jewish veterans used the language of patriotism and masculinity to protect themselves from discrimination. One particular case was the Jewish flying aces, considered among the most masculine of war heros during World War One. In an excellent article by Todd Samuel Presner, “Muscle Jews and Airplanes: Modernist Mythologies, the Great War, and the Politics of Regeneration” there is a discussion about the efforts of Jewish flyers to publicize their deeds and claim that because of their military service, they should be recognized as German nationalists. Unfortunately this was all for naught, as the Nazi’s expunged their service records, and while allowing for special treatment for some, sent others to camps.
In the 18th century Daniel Mendoza and other Jewish men used the language of nationality and masculinity to combat persecution by putting themselves forward as paragons of strength, athleticism and sportsmanship; values dear to the English nationalist project. After World War one, German Jewish veterans tried the same tactic. In England, it was to some extent successful; in Germany, it was not It remains to be seen whether a minority should ever try to embrace the cultural and gender norms of a society to end their own persecution.
* * * * *
Jared N Ross is a museum and history enthusiast who has worked in museums and education for 10 years. Starting as a lowly summer-student playing a 19th century British soldier, he has continued to work at many Museums and historic sites, including Fort York, Mackenzie House and Black Creek Pioneer Village. He has presented to thousands of students on all aspects of 19th century life, from the power of the original mass media (the printing press), to the first waves of immigration in 19th century Toronto. He completed his Undergraduate Honours in History at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, and a Master’s in British and Imperial History at York University. He hopes one day to lead a Klezmer-Celtic Fusion band.