By Jeff Best 

Barmitzvar Boy

Barmitzvah boy Jeff

Date: 1946. Place: Rectory Road. Stoke Newington.

There are two of them. One big, one small. The big one blocks my way.

“How old are you?”

“Six.”

“I’m eight. You’re one of those dirty Jews aren’t you?”

“No, I’m a…”

“Yes you are and you can’t get past till you fight me.”

“That’s not fair, you’re eight and I’m only six.”

On getting home my mother took one look at my bruised, bleeding face and went ape. She instinctively knew what had happened and grabbing me by the scruff of the neck dragged me, crying and objecting, to the house where the rough boys lived.

Calling up to the window “You get down here right now misses.”

“What’s your problem lady?”

“If you don’t come down here I’ll come up there and break your neck!”

“OK, I’m here. What do you want?”

A drama group in 1962: Jeff is standing on the extreme right of the picture. The man standing fourth from right is Harold Pinter.

A drama group in 1962: Jeff is standing on the extreme right of the picture. The man standing fourth from right is Harold Pinter.

“Look what your boy did to my son.”

“So, what’s it got to do with me?”

Bang. The punch came from nowhere and the woman went sprawling against the steps. My mother was an East Ender who was at the Battle of Cable Street (In fact she was brought up in that very road).

“If your son touches my son or another Jewish boy again I’ll come back here and rip your head off. Do you understand me?”

“You’re mad.”

 Ted "The Kid" Lewis in boxing stance.  (Photo credit: Bettmann/Corbis from Wikimedia Commons)

Ted “The Kid” Lewis in boxing stance. (Photo credit: Bettmann/Corbis from Wikimedia Commons)

“I said do you understand me?” Fist clenched ready to deliver another massive blow.

“Yes, yes, yes. All right.”

“Come with me, you.”

Again the grip at the scruff of the neck and I’m half dragged half carried, my feet struggling to get a purchase on the pavement.

“Just wait till your father gets home. You let someone hit you. You let someone beat you up. Just wait till your father hears about this.”

When my dad got home from work he didn’t know what hit him.

“Look at him. Just look at his face. That’s your fault. You’re his father; it’s your duty to teach him to defend himself. Teach him to punch. Teach him to fight back.”

There was rationing. No one could get anything but in the East End of London stuff could be got if you knew where to go and my dad knew people that knew people. The very next night he came home with two pairs of leather boxing gloves.

Young Jeff

Young Jeff

And so it started. Every night after supper it would be “Left, left-right-left. Keep your guard up. Now dance away, now dance back. Combination, combination. Left-right. Left-right”. 

And all the time being regaled with stories of the great Jewish fighter Kid Lewis.

Ted Kid Lewis knew that an English fighter could never win on points in America so he always made sure he knocked his opponent out. Ted Kid Lewis would win a fight then take the other man’s manager outside and beat him up as well.

Ted Kid Lewis, world champion, would then use his winnings to take the boys from the local Yeshiva to the seaside for the day.

Memories play tricks and I don’t know if it was weeks or months later but there we were, my dad and I, on that same bit of road where the rough boys lived.

“Wait here while I go over the road to get a paper.”

The same two boys, the little one hanging back, the bigger one advancing on me, fists raised, sneering.

“You dirty Yid!”

My dad came out of the paper shop; his Hackney Gazette tucked under his arm and saw the boy writhing on the floor.

“What happened?”

“He started on me.”

What did you do?”

“Blocked him with my left then a straight right to the stomach.”

“The stomach! The stomach! How many times do I have to tell you? The jaw. The jaw. You knock him out. Look at him, he’s still conscious. Ted Kid Lewis would have knocked him out.”

I became quite skilful and successfully represented my school at boxing comps. I was never bullied again and all my life I’ve hated bullies.

Many years later, in the 1960s, on a family outing to Brighton, we popped into a small, private hotel for tea and there he was. Ted Kid Lewis.

He was living there at the largess of Jack Solomons (Remember him?) An old man now, laughing and chatting to a few people.

I managed to exchange a few words with him although I never mentioned my early boxing lessons or my dad’s stories. No doubt he’d heard them many times before.

But I’ve never forgotten those few minutes with The Great Ted Kid Lewis. World champion. My lifelong hero.