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Article of the Day – Rafael Halperin as “Mr. Israel”

September 2, 2011

Mr. Israel, by Eddy Portnoy

Rafael Halperin—who died last month—was an ordained rabbi, an ambitious businessman, and a middling politician. He was also a professional wrestler.

Conflicted identities inspire gripping stories, and Rafael Halperin capitalized on them. He made his name as the Israeli enigma, the boy who stayed true to his nerdy, religious roots while embracing the images of the modern Israeli sabra: an athlete and an entrepreneur.

The fun part about Mr. Portnoy’s article is that his writing style drives home the impact that conflicted identities had on Halperin’s life. The rabbi who permitted him to study bodybuilding, the Chazon Ish, the crème de la crème of the insulated ultra-Orthodox community, had a personal affection for the quite open-minded and secular world of the natural sciences, Portnoy remarks. Later, the author tells, Halperin managed to combine the worlds of religion, politics, and sports by following his mid-life rabbinic ordination with the founding of a political party named Otzma, or “strength,” after the athletic sabra identity he came to embody.

The conflicted identities in the tale reach a climax when, in an apparently scripted wrestling match, an Armenian wrestler sporting an Arab stage name pounces the great Halperin. Since Halperin apparently neglected to inform the police of the script, chaos erupted as the audience, energized by their own notions of identity, tried to defend their Jewish ‘hero’ against his believed-to-be-Arab ‘attacker’:

In 1966, Halperin organized a wrestling bonanza in Bloomfield Stadium in Ramat Gan. After the the final match, Halperin entered the ring and addressed the crowd. As he spoke, he was jumped by the angry loser of the main event, a man known as Fuad the Terrible, King of the Arabs from Nazareth. Fuad the Terrible’s real name was Alexander Deligorgos, and he was actually an Armenian from Haifa, not an Arab from Nazareth, but, to the shock of the audience, he began to choke Halperin and slam him to the mat.

Though this gimmick had apparently been planned by Halperin and Fuad the Terrible beforehand, the two had neglected to inform the police, who didn’t know what was happening and rushed the ring to break the wrestlers apart. Convinced that Deligorgos was an Arab attacking a Jew, the audience broke down barricades and tried to attack him. A small riot ensued, and many police were injured trying to protect Fuad the Terrible, who was nearly lynched by the crowd.

Lesson of the Day: How to identify subjects without losing (or boring) the reader

With all these conflicted identities, I find the readability of Portnoy’s article astounding! All too many authors fall into the trap of using such convoluted, wordy explanations for the conflicting identities applied to their characters that they lose their readers in the details. Other authors are so dry and repetitive in their descriptions that their writing becomes monotonous. How often do we get lost in newspaper reports about al-Qaeda that put parentheses after every terrorist’s name listing his numerous aliases?

How does Portnoy do it? He turns every identity twist into an aspect of the story. Rather than explain the transformation from nebbishy yeshiva-bocher to “Hebrew behemoth” in between a pair of parentheses, he makes it the crux of his plot line. The identity conflict, Portnoy infers, is the driving force in what made Halperin the man he eventually became.

If you want your readers to understand your characters, Portnoy’s article is a good example to study. Think back to your world history classes when you were told to memorize Joseph Stalin’s name, his background, and his role in the Communist Party. These are facts you probably wrote down on a flashcard somewhere and forgot shortly after the exam. Yet, if you remember the story of how Yosef Visarionovich Djugashvili became Joseph Stalin, the facts are easier to recall: “Stalin” (“man of steel”) was a play on the nom de guerre of his illustrious mentor, “Lenin” (“man of iron”), and he dropped his patronymic and family names because they were too “Georgian” for a prominent leader of the Russia-based Communist Party. Turn the identity conflict into the basis of the story and your tale becomes less wordy and more memorable. (By the same token, if the identity conflict is unimportant to the story, like a meaningless alias, don’t include it.)

From → Jewish Culture

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