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‘And in this corner…’

Author goes into the ring of self-discovery

The author gets a few pointers from her coach, John Spehar. Photo by Michael Marsland
The author gets a few pointers from her coach, John Spehar. Photo by Michael Marsland

One would think a person like Binnie Klein — a petite, 50-ish psychotherapist — would know better. To go out of the way to get smacked around on a regular basis? That’s nuts. But that’s just what she did a few years back when she took up a new sport — boxing.

And we’re not talking any shi-shi “boxercise” class, where trendy fitness enthusiasts bob and weave to aerobic dance music. No, this is in-the-ring, put-on-the-gloves pugilism.

Klein — who grew up in a lower-middle-class family in the Weequahic section of Newark — challenged the “nuts” diagnosis.

“I don’t know whether that said something about my personal psychology,” said Klein. “It didn’t seem so nuts when I heard about this class called Aging Bulls,” taught by John Spehar, a former Connecticut state middleweight champion, “who trained not only professional boxers, but middle-aged women.”

Most people get into boxing and then fall — during training, in the ring, etc. Klein became involved in the activity because of a fall in 2004 that resulted in a broken foot. While undergoing physical therapy at a local gym, she noticed a pair of boxing gloves.

“I don’t know why, but they called out to me,” Klein told NJJN in a phone conversation.

“It all just happened in that organic way. I was drawn to the gloves. I learned a few moves with the very nice trainer…, and then one day he said, ‘You need a coach.’” So she began taking lessons with Spehar.

Klein, who lives near New Haven, Conn., has a psychotherapy practice, writes, lectures in the psychiatry department at Yale, and hosts a radio show. “I wear a lot of hats.” The most recent is that of a memoirist with the publication of Blows to the Head: How Boxing Changed My Mind (SUNY Press).

The book turns out to be not just about her newfound passion. Among other issues, it’s about her relationship with her religion and her father, Julius. A traveling salesman, he was frequently on the road, and when he did come home, one of his few pleasures was watching boxing on TV.

“Boxing looks horrible to me,” Klein writes in Blows. “Violent, primitive, scary, with few obvious redeeming characteristics. It’s a lot like my father, and I don’t like him much either. He’s a rager, and because his moodiness so frightens me as a child, I can’t be very patient or empathetic to his struggles.”

“My dad was a pretty angry and bitter man by the time I was growing up,” Klein told NJJN. “When I found myself drawn to boxing, it made me think a little bit about him and the idea of strength and fear and assimilation in the Jewish community.”

“I think that the beauty of memoir is that…you start questioning,” Klein told NJJN. “Everyone around me was asking me ‘why?’ They would kind of raise their eyebrows: ‘You? Middle-aged, Jewish, female, not terribly athletic’ — but I had no idea at the time that it had anything to do with my father. As I went on this journey, it became clear that maybe there was some kind of unconscious…drive to understand him better.

“And it worked.”

Fascinating fighters

She termed the shift in focus from her father to Jewish boxers as “an organic process.”

These Jewish elements were “a huge part of the journey,” Klein said, going so far as to compare Spehar to a rabbi. “He was always teaching, teaching, teaching and questioning and pushing,” she said. During their conversations, she asked about Jewish boxers; Spehar began reciting the litany of Jewish champions through history.

“These were like the names of my relatives, the way they sounded,” said Klein. “So it meant a lot to me and I got very curious and I started researching Barney Ross, Benny Leonard, Daniel Mendoza, and the others. I found I was drawn to their courage and their strength. And then it made me start asking, why do I care? I’m not a very observant Jew. It made me ask those questions about myself. What was my connection to my Jewish identity?

“Once I started getting feedback, I began to be so fascinated by my coach’s stories of boxers that it occurred to me to start doing research [on the great Jewish boxers].”

In her book, she carried on “conversations” with the long-dead boxer Leonard and the longer-dead Mendoza, a British champion in the late 18th century. “Fantasy,” Klein said, “The concept of magical realism in literature. I hope it succeeds in honoring boxers, the history of Jewish boxers, and boxing writers, too, whom I’ve really come to admire.”

By the end of her book, Klein said, she saw herself as someone who was capable of protecting herself and not so much in need of a father-figure. And newfound revelations about Julius also had something to do with that change of mind.

“By the end, I felt more empathy for him.”

For more information, visit www.binnieklein.com.

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