Emma Gabrielle Silverman


Emma Gabrielle Silverman lives in Ithaca, New York where she is a yoga instructor at Cornell University. She has previously published work in Chronogram, Jewish Currents, The Literary Gazette, and Illuminations.

The Star of David

Although it looked like his nose had been broken many times, he moved so quickly it never had. His mother, who loved him, would say, “Abi, my baby, he looks like an eagle, no?” There was something avian about him. Abraham Katcher’s hair was perpetually slicked back with pomade. The pomade, however, was often forgotten: his hands would fly up to smooth his hair back, only to retreat to his sides when they met the greased-up hairline. His eyebrows resembled an unruly plumage. They met in the center, exploring north in tiny, renegade hairs that spread across the lower forehead. Pointy chin, smaller mouth—nothing exceptional except that, like most birds, he was born handsome and austere and would remain so his entire life.

So, yes, the nose was larger (and crooked), the eyebrows explosive (his mother would say, “expressive”), but Abraham, Abi, was a good looking young man. He wasn’t known for his looks, though. Abi Katcher was the best boxer his neighborhood had ever seen, and the best Jewish boxer they ever would.

His fans who lived on New York’s Lower East Side, and they were plentiful, could be forgiven for gossiping about him. Abi was famous by the time he was a teenager—even before the Depression. He loved his mother, ignored the Kosher Nostra, and wouldn’t fight on the Sabbath. Quick and lithe in the style of Charley Rosenberg and Harry Harris, his opponents would comment, dumbfounded, that they had lost him in the ring. Handsome Mendel, trying to land a single punch, shouted out in a match: “Abi—this isn’t a horse race! Will you stay put?”

The defense he created, and became famous for, was to run behind his opponent after they had thrown a strong Cross. In their effort, their eyes briefly closed, and Abi would dart behind them as he dodged the punch. They would have to spin around to face him, throwing their balance. Abi would then knock them down with a glancing blow. The crowd loved this maneuver. They named it The Dreidel and would call out requests for it at all of his matches. It seemed like the heavier and stronger the boxer, the easier it was for Abi to make them fall. Being top-heavy, as many boxers are and were, has its disadvantages.

When he wasn’t fighting and training, Abi lived with his mother, his father, and his sisters Rose and Greta. The youngest of the three, Abi was brutalized by his older sisters. When they were very young they had all shared a bed. By the time he began his boxing career his bed had moved twice: first into the kitchen and then into the hallway. His sisters continued to harass him. Rose and Greta would pull on his twisted nose, attempt to rip out his eyebrow hairs, and pinch his arms in unexpressed love and inexplicable rage. Having a shared enemy made the sisters close to each other. Rose, being the older and more cruel, would start: “Abi, they gonna make a union for face punchers?” And Greta: “They make you pay dues for that?”

All of the questions were rhetorical. Abi was a quiet gentleman in a loud house, in a loud neighborhood, in a loud decade. Outside the one window of the Katcher’s apartment he could see his sisters’ and mother’s graying underwear drying on the clotheslines. Above, below, and on either side of his home were the homes of his neighbors, closed in and stacked like a hive. The walls were so thin he could hear the scrape of a fork against a plate in the apartment next door. As a young child, Abi would sit underneath his kitchen table, and close his eyes to listen to all of the sounds at once. It sounded like a great clashing symphony surrounding him.

Eventually, Abi’s ticket out of the beehive and into the ring came from his father, Meyer. Born in Prussia, Meyer had the thin, animated hands of a pianist, but labored as a plumber. If you got him on the subject of plumbing, which wasn’t difficult, Meyer could tell stories that indicated an unusually robust memory. While Abi took most of his appearance from his father, he lacked Meyer’s propensity for talk, even if on the subject of his employment.

“You remember the hotel that I rigged up last month?”

“Yeah,” Abi’s mother, half cooking.

“I spent fifty hours there, a week’s work.”


“The cistern dumped. The whole basement flooded and the lobby is starting to look and smell damp. That’s what their man told me.”

“So you gotta go back.”

“So I gotta go back.”

Abi’s father first sent him to the boxing gym when he was ten years old, five years before his first fight. “Too many women in this house!,” he would yell, making a show of it. Meyer was also concerned with the ease in which his daughters beat up his only son. The man running the gym was Moshe Lefkowitz, but he carried the nickname of Lefty. Mr. Katcher worked out a deal: he would do the pipes for Lefty’s daughter and new son-in-law’s place. Lefty, in turn, would babysit. Abi would learn by osmosis.

Abi had been allowed to walk over by himself, crossing Delancey, turning at Essex, to find his way to number 114A, in the basement below the key maker’s storefront. Everyone was rushing past him carrying parcels, reading newspapers, or shouting at one another. They surrounded him and pushed his body forward. It felt like he had been dropped like a leaf into a river and he let himself be moved along with it. The trust his parents had shown in him to get to the gym in this frenzy made him wonder if he was becoming a man. When he walked down the stairs to meet Lefty he did so with his hairless, narrow chest lifted to capacity.

Upon entering the boxing gym—really a basement with mats and a square roped off on the floor—Abi felt his young heart settle. The room smelled of earth and soil; he would have eaten his way through that smell if he could. On the ceiling, the lighting was provided by one naked bulb hanging from the center of room. The floor was tightly compacted dirt upon which they had laid the scattered equipment. A few pieces of rope with wooden handles lay next to a sagging milk crate at the foot of the stairs. Four sand-filled canvas bags, stitched in a variety of shapes, were placed at each corner of the roped off square. That day, like many of the days that followed, Lefty was seated cross-legged on the only table, next to a pair of light-weight gloves. He was shouting directives to a pair of perspiring young men who were dancing around one another underneath the lightbulb.

“This is not the way! Look at Aaron—Aaron do it to show him the way! Wait, nononoooo . . . Aaron! That is not the way! What are you doing Aaron?” Without moving off of the table, or changing the position of his legs, Lefty fluttered his hands into a series of elaborate movements, trying to demonstrate to the room what he needed their legs to do. “With that same ease! And smile when you do it! . . . Jacob, that is a terrifying smile.”

Even when Lefty wasn’t gesticulating in their direction, the boxers never stopped moving. Jacob wore one crepuscular eye socket and ankles taped up like a ballerina. Having moved on from his sparring with Aaron, he moved in circles around an invisible partner, jabbing at the air. A different boxer had begun to jump into the air, lightly tapping his behind with his heels. The sharp, loud, exhalation of the boxers’ breath was punctuated by the sound of black soled shoes hitting the dirt floor.

At the bottom of the stairs to the basement, Abi suddenly realized that he was surrounded by men he didn’t know. Having grown up surrounded by his ever-present family, Abi never knew what it felt like to be lonely. The indescribable emotions moving themselves up his chest and into his heart were original. Entirely overwhelmed, he unconsciously sank to a seat on the bottom stair. Now he began to notice things, things he hadn’t seen before, and the images assaulted him. There were peeling, blackened playbills from old bouts, hanging half off the wall. Photos of hirsute men stared down at him like reminders of an impossible dream. While men—here! In this very room!—seemed to never tire of running, jumping, and sweating. Five blocks from his home, Abi longed for his mother.

Across the room, Lefty saw a fluttering movement, like a bird falling from its nest. Looking to the stairs, he saw a skinny, tall boy slumping on the step. Abi’s eyes were moving around the room as though unable to settle on a single object and his head gently nodded. Lefty leapt from his seat and quickly moved the span of the room. Falling to a crouch, he met Abi at eye level.

“The plumber’s kid?”

Abi nodded, focusing in on Lefty’s thickly lashed eyes.

“Can you stand up, Abraham?”

“Yes, sir.” As many boxers over the years could attest, the stare of Lefty’s eyes gave them gumption, and Abi rediscovered his ability to stand.

“Well, good thing then. Maybe now we can teach those legs to dance?”

“Yes, sir.”

“All right. For now, here’s what you need to know: if you’re impressed by the boys, work hard, follow their lead. If you ever feel light-headed, take a seat and stick your head between your legs. In the meantime, go out there and run.”

“Yes, sir.”

The majority of Abi’s initial training was devoted to running. It was how he became comfortable in the gym and accepted by the other boys who trained there. The whole space ran about 30’ by 30’ and Abi would run the circle of it again and again, switching direction only if he became dizzy, and never complaining. In this way, he himself became less prone to the sense of dizziness he would inspire in others. Lefty never could have guessed that his preparations would later inspire The Dreidel. When he met Abi, he saw the bones of Abi’s rib cage sticking through, and a metabolism that probably cost his mother a month’s worth of groceries in one night. The width of his shoulders was already there, but endurance could only be gained through training.

Lefty was a patient and perceptive man. Beneath the quiet of Abi’s facade, Lefty saw that the wheels didn’t stop turning. Lefty was a short man with the strength of his youth still largely intact; he too had grown up in an overwhelming family and men with similar backgrounds had found their way to his gym before. They were often intelligent and sensitive boxers. By the time Abi came to him, Lefty had boxed competitively for the better of two decades and coached almost as long. While he didn’t need to see his glory years relived in his boys, he felt that their successes reflected his own.

Taking Lefty’s word as religion, Abi worked hard. When he would run the room, every thought in his head could clear out. The answers to decisions he didn’t even know he needed to make would come to him as he rounded a corner. When he wanted to be five years older, or be allowed to fight, or be famous like Solly or Maxie or Lew, or any of the boxers in Lefty’s gym, he would run. Abi came to intimately know every pock in the wall and dip in the dirt floor. Running one day, he heard his mother, speaking to him from the night before.

“What do you do there, all afternoon?”

Answering for him, Meyer said, “He’s getting trained, of course! Before you can clear the pipes you have to learn what wrench to use.”

“I know, I know. But what I mean exactly is what happens in the room? With all those boys. What does Moshe make them all do?”

“Esther, they all do the same exercises. He’s been doing this for years. I don’t know what the exercises are, but I’m sure they’re the right ones.”

Rose interjected, “Probably teaching him how to walk in a straight line.” “Or how to walk in a straight line without falling over,” Greta added.

Esther ignored them all. “Abi, baby, does he make people hit you? Do people hit you?”

“No, no, Moshe’s going to make him so strong that no one will ever get the chance,” his father said, still answering for him.

Looking directly at Abi, Esther asks again, “Has anyone ever hit you?”

Meyer finally stops, considers the question and the answer.

Abi pauses, too, unusually burdened with speech.

“Not yet, ma. But I hope someday they will.”

From when Abi was ten to fifteen years old, Lefty never directly instructed him and he trained alone. If he wasn’t doing some other job in the gym, like sweeping the dirt floor or cleaning the blackened walls, he would silently and unobtrusively follow the instructions Lefty gave to boxers like Mischievous Marvin and the Rabbi (both excellent boxers, although one might be confused by the appellation of the latter, even—especially—upon meeting him in person). It wasn’t uncommon to find the twelve-year-old Abi, hands in the dirt, attempting dozens of push-ups. He flopped his hips down as he lowered, arms akimbo like de-boned chicken wings, making quiet straining noises under his own negligible weight.

Eventually Abi became stronger. He began to look like the boxer he would become. Lefty noticed and quietly began to visit the other gyms in the city and outer boroughs, looking for Abi’s first match. Meyer continued to lend his hand to any projects the gym, Lefty, or his extended family needed and Abi started his formal instruction. It wasn’t all that different than before, and Abi barely noticed that he was being spoken to directly after so many years of listening in. His impressive brow would blossom like a watered begonia with sweat, effectively keeping the salt from stinging his eyes. An athlete’s body is both born into and developed. One doesn’t come without the other.

Lefty, sitting on his desk as cross-legged as a kindergartener, would quiz Abi on the punches he had physically memorized when he was ten. Dempsey’s left hook, Max Baer's devastating right hand, Jack Johnson's patience and then his counters, Gentleman Jim Corbett's feints, Gene Tunney's left jab. To be a boxer these days you had to fight with your head, not just your chin. But Abi had grown up breathing that loamy gym air. There was no need for the tests. He was ready to fight years before, but knew to wait for Lefty’s word.

One day at the gym, Lefty motioned for Abi to come sit next to his on the table. Abi hopped up and crossed his legs. There were only two other boys in the gym, shadow boxing opposite eachother, facing the cement walls. The muffled sounds of the city descended into the room.

“What do you think about when you train?” Lefty asked.

Abi thought about this. “Sometimes, when there’s a lot going on, I see an orchestra.”

Lefty nodded his head. “And what instrument are you?”

“I’m not. I’m just listening to everyone else play.”

“Do you watch them play, too?”
“Yeah, sure, I guess.”

“Abraham, you’re almost ready for your first fight,” Lefty said. “During that fight, I need you to become one of those instruments. It’s gonna be your show. I want you to play out the big solo number, okay?”

“Yes, sir.”

Finally, in the summer of 1927, Abi was allowed his first boxing match. It was against a boy his own age that Lefty knew Abi would clobber. His name was Shlomo Bergman. Shlomo’s own trainer had stopped by the gym before agreeing to the fight, and concurred that Abi would, in fact, clobber Shlomo Bergman. The prospect of declining the fight, however, so incensed the ego of young Shlomo that upon threats from his extended male family, the bout was scheduled. The Brighton Arcade, right there on the beach, would play host. Lefty never told Abi about any of the back story behind scheduling the fight. After knowing him for over five years, Lefty knew Abi didn’t get cocky. He was, however, also a superstitious man and didn’t want to take any chances.

The night before the fight, at the kitchen table, Abi’s mother salted the potatoes with her tears. She wailed, taking away all taste from the food. Sometimes she looked to Meyer, with blame in her eyes. There wasn’t much Meyer can do.

“This is the kind of plumbing a man cannot fix,” Meyer said. Esther continued to cry, swelling her face and reddening her eyes. Rose and Greta found themselves overwhelmed with care for Abi and unsure of what to do about it. So they stayed quiet and passed him the tasteless beans, the gray chicken. Suddenly, Abi realized that they all wanted him to speak. Even his mother, who had overwhelmed the whole room with her sobbing, wanted him to un-quiet, to bring his thoughts to words for their benefit.

He wished he could ignore their eyes and keep eating the food Lefty had told him he needed to eat. Greta and Rose, being young and unable to bear the silence of family, finally made this impossible.

“What are you thinking about?”

“Are you scared?”

“Do you think you’re going to win?”

“Do you think you’re going to lose?”

Abi’s hands were constantly moving to his hair line and back to his lap. His mind was running circles around the outline of his kitchen like he had so often ran along the walls of the gym. With so many thoughts, there was nothing to say.

“Lefty told me to do my best.”

“Does that mean you’re going to win?”

“I don’t know.”

“Does that mean you’re going to lose?”

“I don’t know.”

Abi closed his eyes and tried to imagine an orchestra and what instrument he would play in it. His mother wailed again in the background; there really was nothing he could say.

The next afternoon, Abi found himself in the hungry sunlight of Brighton Beach, standing next to Shlomo Bergman, waiting for his name to be called. Out of a lack of space and planning, the owner of the arcade had no waiting area for his boxers. So they waited together. Abi’s pale Ashkenazi skin began to pinken on the boardwalk. Beside him, Shlomo shifted from foot to foot. At one point, he began to hum, and quickly stopped. It was a beautiful summer weekend, and the boardwalk was packed with kids (should they see a kid from school!), families, and slow-walking groups of old men. Everyone stared. It was made even more awkward by the presence of the fight-pusher, a short bulb-nosed man whose large voice made up for his small stature.

“This doesn’t come too often, so better come and see it now! Two boys, one fight! But not just any fight! Special fight this afternoon here. These boys standing here,” the pusher gestured towards the shrinking Abi and Shlomo, “are about to experience their first ever boxing fight! This doesn’t come too often! A sight to behold!”

So, soon, the boys turned away from the water, from the crowds, and from the man trying to get people off of the sunny boardwalk and into the tight, dark arcade. Abi squinted into the Brighton Arcade, but against the glare outside could only make out the barest outline of a ring. In his chest, he noticed his heart beating- and tried to count the beats, thinking that if he counted to one-hundred, he would hear his own name. He counted until one-hundred, and then two-, and then stopped counting. The announcer continued to not call Abi’s name until, finally, he called Shlomo. “Good luck,” he cried out, as Shlomo sprinted into the open air arcade. Now, he only had to wait to hear his own name.

When he finally did heard his name called, Abi walked into the arcade. The light coming overhead seemed to come to a pinpoint on his body. Against the navy blue of his shorts, a Star of David, stitched in sunflower yellow thread by his loving mother, was illuminated and its light seemed to carry him towards the ring. It felt to Abi like the crowd’s eyes became attached to his body like the cloth tightly wrapped to his hands and simultaneously lifted him fifteen feet off of the floor, carrying him forward to the ring.

When Abi stepped between the ropes, naked to the waist, he looked like an Olympian on the diving board. Taking the time now to see what he couldn’t while waiting outside, he measured up the room. There were flickers of brightly colored paintings on the side of cardboard and rubber balls stacked in the corner. Fortune telling machines, love calculators, and tests of strength lined the walls of the room. Dust particles flashed in the bright overhead light. The crowd was in the dozens. Men walked around the room taking bets and stuck their heads in between the ropes to size up the boys. Abi’s boxing ring was temporary. By that evening the room would again be an arcade, but for now, the platform of the boxing ring was his own. Whitewashed pine sitting about two feet off of the ground, somehow made beautiful by the avian body of its inhabitant.

For all of his training, when the owner of the arcade announced “Fight!,” Abi found himself forgetting what to do. He looked across the ring to Shlomo, who was moving about like a plodding dancer at an old fashioned wedding. Shlomo was already perspiring, breathing heavily, and muttering underneath his breath. Abi felt unsure about even attempting to hit the angry looking boy across from him, so he moved away from Shlomo, and tried to ignore what he was saying. But when he finally gave some of his attention to his opponent’s mouth, he found what he said confusing.

“You bastard, I am going to get you, you bastard. Watch out. I’m Shlomo the killer,”

Shlomo, at this point, began to lightly growl. Abi glanced over to Lefty, who offered nothing but a raised eyebrow.

Misunderstanding Shlomo’s venomous self-pep talk, Abi became convinced he had already managed to do something to make the boy angry. Instinctively, he moved back from Shlomo, winging towards the ropes. Shlomo pursued and in the boys’ inaugural bout, they found themselves running, one after another, in circles around the ring.

As Abi ran around the edge of the platform, his body began to recall the circles he would make around the perimeter of the tiny basement gym. Orbiting the ring, Abi’s own velocity drew his body faster and faster. Abi created a centrifugal force, bowing in the walls of the arcade, drawing the people forward in their seats, everything leaning in towards his circling body, Shlomo’ s body, and the square of the boxing ring. While Abi ran, his body became warmer, looser, and more at ease. He flew around the boxing ring, becoming progressively closer to rounding in behind Shlomo. Shlomo, on the other hand, couldn’t remember why he was running in a circle, and was as dizzy as at the Passover when he drank a full glass of wine.

Abi’s circling, and the dizzying of Shlomo, ended when the owner of the arcade, standing at the periphery of the ring, cried out, “What the fuck are you boys doing?” The boys stopped and looked over at him, immediately realizing their error. Abi looked over at Lefty, who now raised both of his eyebrows and tilted his head. His teacher's dark lashes blinked at Abi in what the boy read as instruction. In his head, he began to hear the music of his symphony, and began to box.

Abi found himself living, breathing, expanding into the space between where he knew he was going to hit Shlomo and when his entire arm moved in synchronicity towards the boy. His first punch landed: Abi’s taped fist met Shlomo’s eyebrow. The impact moved up Abi’s arm and across the muscles of his back. It seemed to him that an entire world existed between deciding to move and actually moving. There was an invisible line and Abi palpitated it, sensing when it would give way and electrified by the difference. His muscles twitched in anticipation. It was all in a brief moment. The world between thought and action doesn’t occupy much real time. Abi made a home in liminality; in these moments he found rest and renewal for every moment that followed.

It was in this space that Abi found his intrument. His body became a box of wood, a piano box, full of strings and unquestioning muscles. Abi played the keys of his body to see if the instrument was truly his and it responded. He tested the notes and found the refrain in the movement of his feet. The song moved up his body and his legs danced in response. Soon, he felt his torso davening to the singing strings of nhy-nhy-nhy-nhy and pressing air against the breathing organ of his skin. He moved forward and back, evading punches and throwing some of his own, torso coming forward with his arm. The room began to reassert itself.

Again, the people were standing, sitting back down, some even talking amongst each other and Abi pressed himself back against those distractions, too. His left foot stepped back as his right fist came forward, striking a chord against Shlomo’ s stomach and suddenly the room filled again with notes, his hip moving forward with his shoulder as his chin tucked protectively in. The crowd came back to him and murmured nhy-nhy-nhy-nhy. Their eyes lifted him another six inches from the earth and the air pressed the pedals beneath his feet. A two-step back, Abi heard the prayer notes in his head, the pressing tones of his body, and it seemed to him that Shlomo nodded out the solo. This one’s yours. Nhy-nhy-nhy-nhy, nhy-nhy-nhy-nhy.

In staccato, Abi began to hit Shlomo in a series of coordinated movements. His right hand, curled into a fist, knocked into Shlomo’s chin. As the right arm came forward, the left drew back to prepare and then collided into the other side of Shlomo’s face. Abi kept switching his feet back and forth and his eyes narrowed in concentration. Lefty stood quietly to the side of the ring, watching Abi and seeing the rhythm in his boxing. The two boys had moved from the edge of the ring, when they were running, to the center. Shlomo shifted from side to side as Abi hit him from the right and then the left. Finally, Abi performed the first Dreidel of his long and illustrious career. The crowd whooped and Shlomo fell to the floor.

All things considered, the fight was over soon after it started. After the circling, the symphony, and the Dreidel, Shlomo was on the ground and crying. When Abi offered a taped hand to him, he refused, retreating out of the ring and into the darkness of the Arcade. The notes scattered from Abi’s head now and he heard his mother, who had sworn she couldn’t come to watch such a fight, at his side. Her touch would bring him fully back into the room and the ordinariness of his own body.

“My baby! So beautiful you look! You move just like a sweet Angel.”

His hand fluttered to his hairline, to smooth back the smoothed back hair, then returned to his side. Finding his mother’s hand, they stepped out of the ring, and moved through the milling crowd into the bright daylight of the beach.

Around four years ago, I started reading New Yorker articles from the 1920s about Jewish boxers. I highlighted words and took notes on the rich cast of characters. This story began as a series of poems before becoming “The Star of David.” The larger story of American boxing and American immigrants aligns in a pretty outrageous way—those newest to this country fought their way out of poverty both literally and figuratively. Many of the details from this story come straight from the history of Jewish boxers in New York.