A Think Tank full of jewels of the ghetto


By Jerry Tallmer

Charles Miller’s knockout series of Jewish boxers

Savor the names:

Abe Attell, “The Little Hebrew,” Jack Bernstein, “The Pride of the Ghetto,” Ruby Goldstein, “The Jewel of the Ghetto,” Benny Leonard, “The Ghetto Wizard,” Leach Cross, “The Fighting Dentist,” Sid Terris, “The Galloping Ghost of the Ghetto,” Al “Bummy” Davis, Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom, Kingfish Levinsky, Newsboy Brown, Schoolboy Bernie Friedkin, who officially stopped fighting on January 18 when he passed away in Brooklyn at the age of 89…

And Barney Ross, of course, who got more banged up at Iwo Jima than he ever did in the ring.

And Killer Kafka.

Killer who?

“I’m a big fan of Franz Kafka,” says boxer and artist Charles Miller. “I see these guys” — the guys he paints, headliners from this nation’s golden age of Jewish prizefighters, 1900-1945 — “as Kafka in boxing trunks.”

Boxing trunks with Stars of David sewn upon them, whether or not the wearers were actually Jewish. Max Baer, sometime heavyweight champion of the world, claimed — like John Kerry, in a subsequent era and context — to have a Jewish grandfather, but Miller’s friend, the late Charles Gellman, a boxer who became a great doctor and humanitarian, “told me he’d seen Baer in the shower, ‘and Max Baer is not Jewish.’ ” For that matter, Miller himself is only Jewish through his stepfather, math and science teacher Robert Pearlman.

In fact, says Miller, “being Jewish was not so important to these men. It was P.R., for their fan base. Lots of Irish and French guys changed their names to Jewish [though the Kafkas in boxing trunks also often changed their names to Irish or Italian].

“We’re talking about the days when in 12 minutes of boxing a young kid in the ghetto could make more than his father did [in some sweatshop] in a week.”

Eighteen of Charles Miller’s paintings, large and small, oils on linen, enhance the walls of a small office in the far West Village — a sort of art agency and media hive called Think Tank 3, at the corner of Hudson and Morton — through March 15. They sell for from $2,000 to $15,000 each.

“What we do here,” says Iranian-born Sharoz Makarechi, “is come up with ideas — TV commercials, radio spots, print ads, things online — that propel other people’s ideas.” A friend told her about Miller’s paintings. “We think it’s relevant, a story people should know.”

Charles Miller was born in Manhattan, April 12, 1960, “but grew up all over the country” — Boston, New Haven, Santa Barbara, other places. “I grew up with a lot of fear,” he told the Jerusalem Report (in an April 2001 interview marvelously headlined: “Sting Like a Maccabee”). “I was a tall, redheaded, skinny kid who got singled out by every bully.”

“Oh God, everywhere,” Miller said this past week, over the phone from his and his wife’s digs in Brooklyn Heights. “Public school in New Haven, Boston during the busing crisis. Public schools were like the gulag system. Yes, I got chased and victimized, so I went and took lessons in karate and martial arts.”

The boxing was not to come until he arrived in Brooklyn in 1991, and discovered Gleason’s Gym, a historic and very much ongoing institution at 83 Front Street. In the intervening years he had earned a BA in Art at Bennington College, an MA in Architecture from the Harvard University School of Design, had worked as an architect in Spain, France, India, Egypt, Israel. “I did it,” Miller said with a note of resignation, “but I felt like I wanted to do something more.”

The path to something more opened up when his friend Josh Rosenthal, a Sony executive, dropped by to lend Miller a book called “When Boxing Was a Jewish Sport,” by Allen Bodner. By the time Miller finished reading it, he was ready to paint his first Jewish boxer, and the one he started with was Ruby Goldstein (1907-1984). “a very tough fighter who, however, had a glass jaw” and so ended up as one of the ring’s most prominent referees. (The Goldstein portrait is not in the current show.)

At Gleason’s, Miller learned that his own grandfather, Edward Miller, a New York City detective for 35 years, had been a terrific boxer. He died before Charles was born. Edware Miller’s grandson has had a lifelong hero of more recent vintage: Muhammad Ali.

“I’m a huge fan, including his stand against the Vietnam War. A character larger than life, and a partial reason I wanted to box.” It was in Florida that Miller took lessons from Morris Reif, a golden-age boxer “with a huge left hook. He showed me how to balance my weight on my left foot. I feel sorry for the mugger who would attack Morris Reif.”

Miller’s boxing weight was 190. He’s now up around 200; not bad. His wife is the writer Amy Sohn, who used to contribute a more than candid personal-history column to the New York Press, and has since produced two books, “Run Catch Kiss” and “My Old Man,” plus — with Charles — one 18-month-old daughter.

Guess what the daughter’s name is.


Well, we can’t all be Jewish.