Reflections of Black history by a White Jew

Dr. Alex Sternberg - 1st February 2016
Jun 28, 2018

Dr Alex SternbergJews and blacks have many shared experiences of discrimination, suffering, and poverty that has made us natural allies for many years. During the civil rights movement, many Jews and prominent rabbis participated in demonstrations and marches with Dr King and were arrested. Some Jews like Schwerner and Goodman were killed by the Klan for leading voter registration drives among poor southern blacks in Mississippi. I, however, grew up in an all black Brooklyn ghetto and learned about black life from personal experience.

In 1965, four short years after emigrating to NY from Hungary, I found myself with a summer job in Brownsville Brooklyn. The year before, Brownsville erupted in one of the most destructive riots that made the community a household name across America.  Buildings were set on fire, stores were looted and people were hurt. Many were arrested.  A year later I was a 15 year old student attending one of the most respected and rigorous Rabbinical seminaries in Brooklyn when my father got me a summer job as a ‘gopher’ in his garment factory. Most of my friends from the seminary were off to camps and vacations while I was off working in a sweat shop because we needed the money.

Shortly after the summer began, I joined a local karate ‘dojo’ on Fulton street. Needles to say, I was the only rabbinical student and was training alongside some of the hard core denizens of one of America’s poorest black neighborhoods. I was an oddity but just as I was learning about black people, they were learning about me. The students were tough physically with hard-core attitudes. We didn’t have much interaction in the beginning, as I really didn’t understand the black lingo. I showed up and trained then went home.

After the summer had ended, I returned to the seminary though continued to train on Fulton Street every evening. Slowly with time, I began to loosen up and make some friends.  I learned that growing up in the ghetto pretty much set kids up for failure.

When visiting my friends’ homes, I was surprised to see no books anywhere. My house and all the houses that I had visited before were filled with all types of books. My parents had instilled in my brother and I a healthy respect for education and encouraged us to select professional careers. My black friends were mostly raised by single moms that struggled to put food on the table, often working several jobs. There were no uncles and aunts that were doctors and lawyers to educate and inspire my friends. They grew up surrounded by crime and poverty.

With the passing years and the gentle prodding of our instructor, we became a force on the local NY tournament circuit and began to compete outside of NY. We travelled to an event in South Carolina once that was very educational.  Arriving in the local southern town where the tournament was held, we went to the hotel where we had reservations.  Well, the reservations suddenly disappeared after one look at our black instructor by the hotel clerk.  Several minutes later, I was sent in to get the rooms. “How many rooms do ya’all need?”

Our club began to dominate competitions wherever we went. Naturally, this was not welcome by many white instructors and their students. But I believe the attitude toward me was even more hostile. After all, I was a “traitor” who sought the company of blacks. I was called N….. .lover and “white colored boy.” “Here come the New York Jew and the n…ers”. Those were interesting times and an eye opener for me. I got a glimpse of black life, training and travelling with my friends from the ghetto. Naturally, I didn’t get the full dose of the black experience, but I did get a glimmer.

With the passing years came the awakening of black power. The influence of the Black Panthers, Black Muslims and Malcolm X transformed the ghetto. I participated in discussions with my friends, listened to speeches by the recently assassinated Malcolm X, and learned African  phrases like Ujambo and Uhhurro. Having recently graduated from the Yeshiva seminary, I was now attending college dressed in a dashiki with my hair combed in “Afro style.” But on top of my head was a yarmulke.

Part of the transformation that I sensed in the black communities that I was visiting daily was a sense of defiance and of pride. Many of my friends were attending college as well. Our dojo was well known as a center of black pride and our instructor as a pioneer of black karate. Many instructors were coming to visit him, asking his advice on “beating the man” and often just getting technical help. I was by now a well-known champion and a seasoned veteran of the famed “Tong Dojo.” As an advisor to our sensei, George Cofield, I participated in discussions with black martial arts leaders who trained the Panthers, the Fruit of Islam, the FOI of the Black Muslims, and the young Rev. Al Sharpton. Rev Al was just starting out in those days as head of a local group called  ”Youth in Action” and needed tough instructors to train and instill discipline in his members.

Education was becoming more popular in the ghetto, with many more going to college. Some of my friends graduated as accountants, lawyers, teachers and community organizers. One moved to Atlanta and became a top assistant to Mayor Andrew Young.

Along the years, I became an instructor of karate myself. At first I taught in Sensei Cofield’s Tong Dojo as well as in clubs throughout the ghetto. With encouragement from my black instructor, I opened schools in the Jewish communities of Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island. During the past 40 some years, I trained tens of thousands of Jewish youngsters. I taught them George Cofield’s brand of ghetto toughness.

But my involvement with the Brooklyn black community was far from over. For close to thirty years, I was the director of a Pulmonary Function and exercise testing laboratory at Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn. My patients were the present- day dwellers of the same neighborhoods of Brownsville, Bed-Stuy and Crown Height. Neighborhoods and cultures that have become so familiar to me.

I am in contact with many of my old friends from the dojo. We share the black history of having grown up in the ghetto. We learned the importance of education, and of the role that self pride plays in getting ahead.

About the Contributor

Founder and chief instructor of Shotokan Karate USA, is a 8th dan conferred upon him by leading senior senseis throughout the USA. He received his 7th Dan from the USA National Karate-do Federation (USA-NKF) member of the US Olympic Committee, as well as from the prestigious International Shotokan Research Society. He has also earned a 6th Dan from the Japan Karate Association (JKA) personally issued by Master Tetsuhiko Asai and from the World Karate Federation (WKF) member of the International Olympic Committee. He has been practicing Karate for 54 years.

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