My father was a professional boxer but while his career in the ring is an interesting bit of trivia (a trump card in the "my dad can beat your dad" debates of my youth), it did not define him. He was a boxer, but that’s not all he was.
During preparation for a recent stress test, a nurse advised me that the longer one lasts on the treadmill, the more accurate the diagnosis. With this in mind, I apparently persisted a longer time than the average. As she helped me off the machine, the nurse whispered, "You’re a fighter." My immediate reaction was an intense wave of pride, which, in truth, surprised me. I wondered why this comment so resonated with me and whether I deserved it. My thoughts quickly turned to my father.
My father was a fighter. He didn’t have a lot of choice. When life is a fight, you have to choose between being a fighter or a victim.
He was born into the pogroms of Poland. As a small boy, he had to hide with his family in the woods to survive. At age 8 he came with his family to New York to a life that was physically safer but where the family had to fight its way out of poverty. His father was a gentle, pious Jew whose job operating a steam press failed to fund the basics. My father helped his family fight hunger by working at any job a child could perform. He sold handkerchiefs on street corners. He hired out to peddlers pushing their carts home and unloading them at night. He worked the docks emptying banana boats. When it snowed, he wrapped his shoeless feet in newspaper and stood in lines, competing with men for shoveling jobs. When this wasn’t enough, he quit school in the eighth grade to work full time.
Is life fair? Should someone else have helped? These are irrelevant questions to a fighter. If something needs to be done, a fighter just does it.
This is how my father became a boxer. A modest-sized man due, in part, to poor childhood nutrition he trained hard and won most encounters in the ring. He boxed at first as an amateur, competing for a watch that could be pawned, and then later as a professional. Out of respect for his Orthodox father, who disapproved of boxing, he changed his last name (in the ring) to Ziegler, but kept his first name, Max, and wore a Star of David on his trunks.
Although he rarely talked to us about fighting, his mantra was that he wanted his children to learn the importance of "hustling." Not hustling like a con artist, but rather giving your all and ignoring the nay-sayers. A fighter knows that he has earned all he has. What he doesn’t earn, he doesn’t get. There is no one else to blame.
A fighter does what it takes to provide for his loved ones. When presented with a job opportunity at Western Union requiring typing proficiency, it didn’t matter that he had never typed. He begged time on a typewriter and taught himself to meet the requirements in days. When the best job he could find didn’t support his family’s needs, he added a second job. When the second job caused him to frequent neighborhoods the police would not patrol on foot, he persisted.
Some fights are against wrongs. As a soldier in World War II, my father suffered a demotion for standing up to a superior officer who made anti-Semitic comments. In his 60s, when he saw a man being mugged on the street, he intervened and chased and cornered the mugger until the police arrived. In the coldest winter, he came home coatless because he had encountered someone he felt needed it more.
I believe his toughest fights were with my brothers and me when we dated non-Jews. It was not that we were such skilled opponents, but rather we had an unfair weapon we could withhold our love. That was his kryptonite. Ironically, at the time I accused him of loving conditionally, but that could not have been more wrong. He was fighting and risking our love, out of love.
He was fighting for his aunts, uncles, and cousins slaughtered in the Holocaust. He was fighting out of love for his parents, who put their Judaism front and center in the midst of pogroms and poverty. He was fighting out of love for us, knowing that things we would hold dear at 40 can be unwisely discarded at ‘0. A fighter knows he will not win every fight, and my father did not win all of his.
He lost his "last fight" several years ago. I began his eulogy by describing him as a man of action, rather than words. Today, I might just whisper, "You’re a fighter," and hope it meant as much to him as it does to me.