Muhammad Ali’s Jewish Grandson


"The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life."

The words sound as if they could have come from Pirke Avot, the nearly 2,000-year-old compilation of Jewish ethical teachings.

In fact, they were spoken in the 20th century by Muhammad Ali, one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time and a convert to Islam.

But in a twist that illustrates the mosaic of American life, the onetime member of the Nation of Islam — never considered a friendly group to the Jews — happens to have a Jewish grandson. And that grandson, Jacob Wertheimer, recently became a Bar Mitzvah at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Center City, with his grandfather in attendance.

Jacob Wertheimer is the son of Ali's daughter, Khaliah Ali-Wertheimer, and her husband, Spencer Wertheimer.

It's not known if Ali said anything profound to his 13-year-old grandson before he read from the Torah. The 70-year-old, once known as the "the Greatest," is suffering from Parkinson's Disease and, according to one attendee, was not on the bimah at any point during the service.

According to Catherine Fischer, Rodeph Shalom's director of membership, Wertheimer's family tried hard to keep the event private.

Nonetheless, the synagogue did mention the Bar Mitzvah — and the fact that Ali would be present — in its monthly bulletin.

But the service drew a crowd no larger than a typical Bar Mitzvah, leading Fischer and others to wonder how closely members actually read the bulletin.

In the 1960s, Ali was considered a controversial public figure, in part because of his refusal to be inducted into the U.S. Army on the grounds that it violated his Islamic faith. Once a symbol of the Black Power movement, he later received accolades for taking a stand against the war. In 1996, he was invited to light the torch that opened the Olympic Games in Atlanta.

Last week, Khaliah Ali-Wertheimer spoke about the occasion with, a website that covers boxing.

"I was born and raised as a Muslim," Ali-Wertheimer told the writer Thomas Hauser.

"But I'm not into organized religion. I'm more spiritual than religious. My husband is Jewish. No one put any pressure on Jacob to believe one way or another.

"He chose this on his own because he felt a kinship with Judaism and Jewish culture."

"The ceremony was wonderful and very touching," she continued. "The theme of Jacob's presentation was inclusiveness and a celebration of diversity. My father was supportive in every way.

"He followed everything and looked at the Torah very closely. It meant a lot to Jacob that he was there."


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