Isadore Choynski (1834–1899)
Isadore Choynski was the mosquito buzzing in the ear of the San Francisco Jewish elite. Over the years he owned and ran several newspapers in the city. He also was the San Francisco correspondent for the American Israelite, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise’s national Jewish newspaper. Among his other ventures, he owned a saloon, tried his hand at gold mining, sold stock in mines (unsuccessfully), and hawked newspapers on the street. For many years he owned a bookstore where the intellectual elite of the city—including Mark Twain, Bret Harte, and Robert Ingersoll—would gather.
Choynski pulled no punches—nor did his son, the heavyweight boxer Joe. He was merciless in his columns, attacking the hypocrisies of the San Francisco Jewish community, as well as mocking the Irish, the fabulously wealthy Christian merchants, and the Chinese. He called Jesus “The Hanging One” and had scathing words for the Virgin Mary and Jews who celebrated Christmas.
Here is a selection of his most acid works from the American Israelite.
December 25, 1874
We are, as Jews, the moneyed people of the state; we are more—we are the brains of the Commonwealth; and yet with all these advantages we are a listless, lazy, lukewarm set of people who can be aroused by nothing short of an earthquake or a Mortara abduction case. Synagogues, gorgeous and vast, have we builded for ourselves; ministers have we engaged regardless of expense, and yet are we but Jews in name and not in deed. The Sabbath—yes the seventh day, like many other observances, has become obsolete, except to those who still cherish the memory of their parents, or are held to repair to the house of worship by virtue of their being officers of their respective congregations, or by the words suasion of their better halves….
September 1, 1878
Our synagogues are being placed in trim, our choirs are practicing and our trustees are busying themselves to sell seats to the highest bidder, evidently intending to give the man who pays the largest amount for a choice seat a passport to a clear record in the story above the skies. We are a smart and above all, a religious people. Who does gainsay this?
October 5, 1877
It is quite evident, judging from the facts before me, that the Kippur day will soon be a thing of the past, with modern Californians at least, since no less than sixty Old World Californians sat down last Kippur day at the Concordia Club—after the poker game was disposed of—to a very healthy dinner.
April 28, 1879
Hard times have their blightening influence upon our congregations, as many old members cannot afford the tax, however much they dislike to divorce themselves from the synagogues with which they were connected for years. The Jew pays more for his religion than any other denomination, owing, it is true, to the fact that not five percent of our people are members of congregations and the expense falls upon the few. Some of our wealthiest men never see the inside of Schul, and only mingle with other people when upon their death bed.
November 22, 1881
At a special meeting in the Temple Emanuel, held on Sunday last, the all-absorbing subject of “hat on or off” was the order of the day, and after much sparring and looking-glass fighting, the baldheads carried their point, and the members will hereafter be obliged to sit uncovered during services at the Temple. The pious old members manifest a little hot blood at this innovation, but then they will have to grin and bear it and make up for their so called sacrilege by giving a little charity, which covers not only a multitude of sins but every bare-head in every temple in the land.
Joe Choynski (1868–1943):
Joe Choynski, son of Isadore, is considered one of the greatest heavyweight boxers in history, and arguably the greatest Jewish boxer ever.
Although just 160 pounds, “Chrysanthemum Joe” was one of the hardest punchers of his day. He reportedly soaked his fists in vats of pickle juice in Chinatown to prep for his bouts. Jim Jeffries, whom Choynski fought to a 20-round draw in 1892, said a punch from Joe in that bout was the hardest he ever took.
Choynski was involved in some of the most memorable fights of the day. In 1901 he KO’d Jack Johnson in Texas. In that state, however, it was illegal for whites to fight blacks—so they were jailed together for 23 days. That experience formed a deep bond, and they would remain friends for many years.
Choynski’s most famous bout was against fellow San Franciscan Jack “Gentleman Jim” Corbett, on a barge in San Francisco Bay in 1889. The location came about because Corbett and Choynski agreed it was to be a fight “to the finish,” which was illegal. Corbett won in the 27th round. Corbett said in later years, “[It was] the very toughest battle that I had ever fought or was to fight.”
Jack Johnson said about Choynski in 1940: “...Jeffries No. 1? No, sir. Give me Joe Choynski anytime. I faced both and should know. Jeffries had a powerful wallop, but Choynski had a paralyzing punch. His left hand was a corker. He was the hardest puncher in the last 50 years, with Joe Walcott a close second. I think his left hook was even more effective than either Dempsey’s.”