JTA — Cassius Clay won gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics when he was 18 years old. Speaking to the media in the Italian capital, he talked up his love of country.
Then, he returned to his native Louisville, Kentucky, and instead of a hero’s welcome, the boxer encountered segregation and derision, an experience that would help radicalize him and by 1964, turn him into Muhammad Ali, a proud black Muslim.
Yet, Ali never abandoned Louisville, and in the funeral he planned for himself, he made clear that — thanks in part to his leadership — it had become a different place from the city that did not welcome him home.
Ali’s vision of a welcoming Louisville extended to the Jews – after all, one of his closest friends, sports journalist Howard Cosell, was Jewish.
Pastor Kevin Cosby, speaking Friday at the service in a Louisville stadium about the pride Ali instilled in African-Americans, listed those who “stood with him in the mud” when the establishment marginalized him after he refused to serve in the Vietnam War. Cosell was one of them.
Among the speakers Ali selected for his funeral was Billy Crystal, who in the 1970s performed a one-man comedic sketch framed as a boxing match, “15 Rounds,” that celebrated Ali’s triumph over racism. Crystal, speaking at the service, said he got “lost in him,” like he never had playing any other character. Ali, after one performance, gave him the ultimate compliment: “Little brother, you made my life better than it was,” Crystal recalled.
Cystal, who said Ali called him his “little brother,” also spoke at length about how Ali helped him raise funds for an Israeli-Palestinian theater project that is ongoing at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and how Ali quit a sports club after Crystal told him they didn’t accept Jewish members.
“He taught us that life is best when you build bridges, not walls,” Crystal said, earning knowing laughter and applause for the sly dig at a presidential candidate who would keep Ali’s coreligionists from entering the United States.
Ali chose two rabbis among the clergymen he wanted delivering eulogies. Rabbi Michael Lerner, the liberal activist was one, and for the second, he chose locally, Rabbi Joe Rapport, the rabbi of Congregation Adath Israel Brit Shalom.
Lerner was blunter than Crystal in referencing Trump: “We will not tolerate politicians or anyone else putting down Muslims, and blaming Muslims for a few people,” he said to a standing ovation.
He went on to express solidarity with Muslims, including by likening Israel with terrorists, and to pitch subscriptions to the magazine he publishes, Tikkun.
“We know what it’s like to be demeaned,” Lerner said of American Jews, which he said he was speaking for. “We know what it’s like to have a few people who act against the highest visions of our tradition, to then be identified as the value of the entire tradition. And one of the reasons that we at Tikkun magazine, a magazine and liberal and progressive Jews, but also an interfaith magazine, have called on the United States to stand up against the part of the Israeli government that is oppressing Palestinians, is that we as Jews understand that our commitment is to recognize that God has created everyone in God’s image and that everyone is equally precious, and that means the Palestinian people as well as all other people on the planet.”
After a litany of other demands of the US (end drone strikes, end private funding of elections, tell Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to get out of the West Bank, end poverty), Lerner twice repeated the url of an organization he spearheads, Spiritual Progressives.
As his theme, Rapport chose a commandment Jews should be familiar with – kindness to strangers. He recounted how Ali and his daughter Hana once picked up a man hitchhiking home from church. The man was thrilled to meet the legend, and at the drop-off, Hana gave the hitchhiker her number and told him to call her whenever he needed a lift home from church. Ali, tears in his eyes, recognized that he has inspired his daughter, Rapport said.
Rapport said that those who admired Ali also recognized his generosity in themselves: “We can say each of us in our hearts there’s a little bit of Ali in me.”
“I am not the fighter that Ali was, and I may not have the courage which he never lacked, and I am definitely not as pretty, but in my heart and in my hope and in my prayers, I am Muhammad Ali,” Rapport said.
He then led the stadium in a chorus of “I am Ali.”