He wore a Star of David on his boxing shorts. Stuart Rosen never forgot it.
Rosen was a 10 year-old boy when his dad took him to the New Haven Arena to watch local Jews’ version of Rocky Marciano — boxer Julie Kogon (pictured) — in one of his last bouts. Kogon grew up on New Haven’s Portsea Street in the 1920s. He went on to become the ninth-ranked boxer in the world in the lightweight division; he accumulated an 81-38-17 lifetime record. He died in Florida in 1986.
Decades after seeing Kogon fight, Rosen drove to the Greater New Haven Jewish Community Center Sunday from his home in South Windsor. He came to share memories of Kogon and of days when New Haven’s local Jewish celebrities were just as likely to be deli owners and bakers and pugilists and numbers-runners as they were attorneys, scholars and doctors.
Some 100 old-timers from bygone New Haven days came to the JCC event. The event was a reading by Allen Ruff, author of a thinly veiled autobiographical family novel about life in the rough-and-tumble Oak Street/Legion Avenue neighborhood. The book is filled with the local celebrities and the streets and shops and strivings of immigrant Jewish families from the first half of the 20th century in a neighborhood that fell victim to New Haven’s urban renewal bulldozer — but survives in the vivid memories and the hearts of its diaspora. (Click on the play arrow for a brief visit to the gathering, which brought together old friends and neighbors.)
The lightweight boxing champ Julie Kogon makes a brief appearance in Ruff’s novel, a climactic one. It earned him a spot in the novel’s title: Save Me, Julie Kogon. The title stems from a real-life incident involving Ruff’s father, who had gambled heavily on Kogon in a bout at the now-demolished Arena. When Kogon went down for the count, the otherwise hushed stadium was filled with two sounds: the referee’s count, and the gambler’s prophetic wail that would become the son’s book title.
(Click here for a previous interview with the author and story about the book.)
Stuart Rosen never forgot a different Kogon bout that he saw at the Arena. Rosen was too young to place bets with the bookies that night. Which was fortunate — Kogon lost that night, too.
“My father was good enough to take me out on a school night,” remembered Rosen (who’s pictured greeting an old friend Sunday). “I think I felt worse than Julie did. It was a ten-round decision. My father and I walked him back to his dressing room.”
Rosen encountered Kogon the next day at a luncheonette the boxer ran on Norton Street. “His face was like sandpaper,” Rosen recalled. But mostly he remembered the pride he felt in seeing a famous Jewish boxer in his hometown. “He had a Mogen David [Star of David] on his shorts.” Today Rosen has a framed photo displayed in his home of Kogon in those shorts. And he’s working with other Kogon fans to try to have the pugilist inducted into Connecticut’s Boxing Hall of Fame.
Mel Zeidenberg brought photos to Sunday’s event of Kogon, who was his uncle. He said Kogon ran three different restaurants around town before retiring.
“He was a wonderful person,” Zeidenberg remembered. “He was a great boxer: He could knock you out with either hand. He fought four or five champions of the world.”
He was also known, Zeidenberg said, for not being “a killer” after he knocked opponents to the mat.
“He was a hero to New Haven Jews,” said Edith Goodmaster, who remembered listening to Kogon’s bouts on the radio.
One landsman related the tale of Kogon’s “worst beating: the night his wife gave birth. He was thinking about his wife, and he got [pummeled to the head, including his ears]. That’s when he got his big ears.”
Kogon was the best known, but not the only, Jew competing with Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans and African-Americans in rings like the Arena and Madison Square Garden. Sanford Soufrine (pictured) brought a poster Sunday of a poster from one Jewish-themed night at the Arena. Besides Kogan, the bill included Louis “Kid” Kaplan (“former world featherweight champ”), Sammy Goldberg, Art Levett, Eli Shapiro … and Irv Zeider, Soufrine’s uncle.
Uncle Irv is now 92 and living in Florida, Soufrine reported. Boxing was a way for “farm boys” like his uncle to make money in those days, he said. His uncle grew up on a Woodbridge farm property where Soufrine lives today — without ducking gloved blows to the temple.
In 50 years, another gathering like Sunday’s might take place. Only this one might take place in a new home for the Afro-American Historical Society, and it would honor today’s local boxing hero, light heavyweight champ Chad Dawson.