It’s become something of a cliche for the Jewish press, upon hearing of a cultural icon’s death, to explore his or her “Jewish side.” But in the case of Muhammad Ali, it’s hard to ignore: this is, after all, the Baptist-turned-Muslim fighter whose grandson had a bar mitzvah.
Like many things about Ali, his statements and feelings about Jews evolved publicly: as an adherent of the Nation of Islam, he spoke out against “Zionist control” of America. But meanwhile, his assistant trainer and speechwriter Drew Bundini Brown married a Jewish woman and converted, and Jewish journalist Howard Cosell was among the first to recognize Ali’s name change. His Jewish devotees were many: Billy Crystal, in a 1970s comic bit that rides the line between admiration for Ali, Jewish self-deprecation, and dated-seeming racial mimicry, also joked that Ali might change his name once more, to the very Jewish Izzy Yiskowitz.
By the time his grandson Jacob was called to the Torah, Ali had softened his edges, acknowledging that his family, representing three religions in as many generations, couldn’t be forced apart by differences — they “all served the same God in different ways.”