The Basement – by Len Abram



by Len Abram
Boston Broadside Columnist


It was a synagogue of 200 Jewish families, in a town in Massachusetts, following World War II. Israel was fighting its war of independence to become the first Jewish state in two thousand years. Teenage Jewish boys in the town were harassed as kikes, money grubbers, and Christ-killers – tropes from centuries of hatred now planted in American soil. The Jewish kids were challenged to fight or flee.

The year 1948 may have been a pivotal year in the history of anti-Semitism in America. Gentleman’s Agreement, the Gregory Peck movie, portrayed Peck as a Gentile reporter, who poses as a Jew to write about this prejudice. Few movies of the time took on such issues, but another Peck movie was about racism, To Kill A Mockingbird. America was changing in this regard too. Likely the returning World War II veterans, who saw up close what anti-Semitism and hatred can do, helped pass civil rights legislation and change attitudes.

The youngsters who shouted hatred toward Jews didn’t know much about the Jews, except that they were different. The teenagers who fought each other with fists were against the “other” kids not part of their neighborhood, religion, or ethnicity. Irish-American kids from St. Mary’s and Italian-American kids from Sacred Heart clashed. Later, their conflicts, their differences, were settled as they found unity in high school classes and sports. Ethnic animosities began to end like a Shakespearean comedy: They married each other.

My teenage brother and his friends came to the businessmen in the synagogue with the problems of verbal and physical assaults. Like the emerging country Israel, they needed to defend themselves. The business people agreed to fund the project. A World War II vet, who served in the Pacific, volunteered to assemble a gym in the basement of the synagogue.

Upstairs in the synagogue of Beth Shalom, the house of peace, were the books and scrolls of sacred, everlasting spiritual truths, Biblical ideals such as people governed by justice and love, not power and hate. In the basement, however, were the truths of Everlast, the famous manufacturer of boxing equipment, started by a Jewish refugee in New York – train, fight, defend yourself, and win.

Eventually the boxing training of the Jewish kids succeeded. My brother became a light heavyweight, and fought as an amateur for several years. If he and his friends could fight and fight well, bullies left them alone. In some ways, nations are not that different. The weak are often marginalized, abused, and even assaulted. The Jews know this from history and recently from October 7.

For decades until October 7, Israel thought its thriving economy, its successes in technology, its peace with some of its neighbors, its well-equipped army, made it secure. On the southern border facing Gaza, a billion dollars spent on high tech sensors and automated weapons systems made Israelis feel secure. The army diminished in size and prominence, as the high-tech wizardry rose.

But after October 7, Israel’s reliance on high tech is changing. Israel will need a larger army and a bigger budget for defense. Already there are demands that the religious community, some of whom are free from conscription, join the Israel Defense Forces. In addition, instead of relying on the U.S. for manufacture, Israel will also have to produce more of its own bullets, bombs, tank, and artillery shells. The current administration has threatened a cutoff of resupply for a policy change. Whether it carries through with this threat or not, Israel cannot allow itself to depend on others for vital supplies.

A country needs its ideals for its purpose and direction. The message from the basement in the synagogue is that a person or a country cannot survive unless it can also defend itself. When Israeli engineers went to the Pentagon with the idea of building small rockets – a bullet in effect hitting another bullet – to knock down incoming missiles, the Americans were skeptical. The Pentagon also thought such a project would take a decade. In less than five years, Israel had the prototype of Iron Dome working, now deployed with the U.S. Marines. In its first year of development, Iron Dome engineers needed a simple chip for their rocket. They found one in a game sold by the Israeli Toys ‘R Us. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *