Thursday, November 19, 2009

Binnie The Demon Barber Klein Featured In CT Jewish Ledger


Yale prof puts on her gloves...
and goes a few rounds in a new book about boxing

Connecticut Jewish Ledger
Published: Wednesday, November 18, 2009 1:54 PM EST

By Cindy Mindell
  • The Jewish Ledger

  • Binnie Klein is a psychotherapist, radio-show host, and lecturer in the Yale University Department of Psychotherapy, where she supervises psychotherapy trainees. It may be surprising to learn that in January, SUNY Press will publish Klein's book, "Blows to the Head: How Boxing Changed My Mind," a memoir that also forays into other areas, like Jewish boxers in the U.S. and immigration history, to name a few.

    Klein told the Ledger about coming to the sport as an unlikely contender in middle age, and how boxing changed her life.

    Q: Okay, boxing?

    A. It's still a little mystifying to me, even after spending a few years learning to box, covering professional fights, working the corner for a young fighter, and interviewing boxers on my radio show. The basic narrative is that, some years back, when I was in my mid-50s, I fell in my back yard -- it wasn't exotic like skiing -- and broke my ankle and my foot. I was in a cast for eight weeks. I was bored in physical therapy, I had never been athletic, and one day I spotted a pair of boxing gloves in the gym. I asked the trainer, "Could you teach me to box?" He took me as far as I could go with punch mitts, and I fell in love with it because it was the first time I felt good in a physical activity. As a psychotherapist, there's a lot of sitting, talking, listening, thinking. With the punching and hitting, I was feeling my body's power for the first time.

    The trainer told me, "You need a coach" and I said "Huh?" Around the same time, the AARP magazine came in the mail, which in and of itself was a shocker, and there was an article about a middle-aged guy teaching women to box. My book chronicles how I found a way to get this guy, John Spehar, to take me on. He's co-owner of Fighting Fitness Gym in Orange, where he offers classes, but I wanted one-on-one training. Most of my training went on in my living room. For about six months, we weren't boxing; John was training me, holding up the punch mitts, and he said, "You're getting professional training just like my male and pro fighters," and one day he takes out gloves and headgear and we're sparring.

    Q: How did you decide to write "Blows to the Head"?

    A. My first idea was to write the book with my coach, like "Tuesdays with Morrie." But John told me, "This is your story." Before I became a psychotherapist, when I was in my 20s and living in New York City, I was trying to be a writer, but I was a poet. Poets can't make a living except through teaching, and I knew I needed a career. When I was training to be a psychotherapist, I left the writing behind. In 2003, I started writing a novel but didn't finish. I got a scholarship to the Wesleyan Writers Conference through the General Federation of the Women's Clubs of Connecticut. The novel didn't get finished, but as my boxing journey had already started, I felt I had a story to tell.

    Q: In your book, you talk about more than just your own experience. How did those other inquiries unfold?

    A. One day during a boxing lesson, I asked John -- who was really knowledgeable about American history and is a student of history and a former middleweight state champion, and would talk during our lessons and teach me things -- "Were there ever any Jewish boxers?" and out comes the information. In the early part of the century, there were tons of them. That just keeps my interest, because like a lot of people, I grew up thinking that Jews were the pale scholars and that we were not athletic. I learned a lot from writing the book. I didn't have a lot of ethnic pride: we were very assimilated in Newark in the '50s and I was really very disconnected from any Jewish community, though we were cultural Jews. We didn't belong to a synagogue, I didn't go to Hebrew school, I was alienated from the religion.

    I started reading about Jewish boxers and felt connected to them, felt compelled to learn about their lives and what drove them to become boxers.

    I started reading about immigrant history. I wasn't knowledgeable about immigrants to this country, despite the fact that my mother came here at age 8 from a shtetl in Poland. It made me do some genealogical research. The experience changed me completely. I met people in the boxing community, who were the opposite of what I thought they'd be like. I always thought boxing was repulsive and violent. My father loved it but we had a contentious relationship; he was actually a little scary. All kinds of links started to happen -- to my father, to my mother's immigrant past, and I developed more sense of and pride in my body.

    In amateur boxing, which I was more involved with, you're wearing headgear, there are three three-minute rounds, there's not a lot of blood, but there's a lot of sweat. That was thrilling. Another "Yes" moment was getting a press pass to cover a live pro fight in Hartford.

    The other hat I wear is at the alternative radio station WPKN, where I've hosted a show for 30 years. Every Thursday, from 9 a.m. to noon, I do music and interviews. I started "In Your Corner," where John Spehar and I interview people in the world of boxing -- Burt Randolph Sugar, a beloved Jewish sports writer and an idol of mine; Yuri Foreman, a Jewish boxer studying to be a rabbi.

    Q: Has your approach to psychotherapy changed since you took up boxing?

    A. It has. In the most overt way, I have occasionally and very selectively referred people for boxing lessons, people who I felt could really benefit from experiencing their own physical power: for example, gay men who were beaten up as kids and felt scared and weak just walking on the street; a guy with a huge problem with his own aggression, and who was working with me on anger management. I said, "Let's put it in the ring."

    The other, more subtle way is that I'm more conscious and aware of how people seem to inhabit their bodies and their relationship with their physicality. I became more aware of issues of aggression; boxing forces you to face your own aggression. In many Jewish families, "aggression" is a dirty word -- we're an intellectual, peaceful people. But aggression is part of the natural world and it's better to work with it and understand it than to pretend it's not there.

    Q: What happened to the Jewish boxers?

    A. Boxing has always been a way out of various ghettos. People on the lowest rung of the ladder get involved as a way out, and as more opportunities opened up, Jews moved on to other things. For some Jewish boxers, there was a feeling of pride: they would go into the ring with a Jewish star on their trunks. For some of the parents, it was considered a shame, a shanda, but they would bring home the money and the parents would say, "Box." It was more than they could make in a sweatshop.

    There are still people -- Yuri Foreman, Dmitriy Salita - who are speaking openly about their Judaism and their boxing. For example, Salita doesn't fight on the Sabbath.

    Q: Did you ever consider trying to professionally?

    A. I'm so peripheral to competition; I only sparred with my coach. I wanted to go further but I developed the problem with my leg. The way I would go further is to spar with other women. In the book, I interviewed a bunch of women who box, like Samantha Danes, an emergency-room physician and ringside physician, and her partner, who is a referee, as well as women who take John Spehar's boxing classes. On my radio show, I interviewed Dutch boxer Lucia Rijker, one of my heroes. She was in "Million Dollar Baby," and was the first woman inductee into the World Boxing Hall of Fame. Women boxers are going to the Olympics in 2012 for the first time.

    POETS & WRITERS JAN. 15, 2010



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  • Binnie Klein

  • Prince of the City @ Hartford Club

  • The Jewish Ledger
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