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Pro-Wrestling Legend Shakes Off Family Tragedy to Stage One Last Fight in Israel

Kevin Von Erich, the sole survivor of a legendary wrestling family, returns to Tel Aviv for one last sentimental bout

Liel Leibovitz
July 11, 2017

Growing up in Israel in the 1980s, before cable TV and the Internet and the peace process, there was one pleasure, and one alone, that gave us all hope: the Von Erich brothers.

Tall, handsome, and muscular, these professional wrestlers, beamed to us through a channel broadcasting out of southern Lebanon, were my generation’s idols. We were born too late to revere Zionism’s founding fathers or the IDF legendary generals, and so we looked up to these oily sons of Texas, who, week after week, suplexed their way into our hearts. Never mind that their paterfamilias, Fritz—born Jack Barton Edkisson in Jewett, Texs—got his start portraying a nefarious German with vague Nazi sympathies. To us, the Von Erichs offered a glimmer of the cosmopolitan life beyond our narrow and impassable borders. The only other entertainment available to us being episodes of The Love Boat every Friday afternoon, we hailed the Von Erichs as the biggest celebrities we knew.

And they hailed us back. In the mid-1980s, they came for a visit, and thousand of sweaty teens showed up, begging for a selfie avant la lettre. The Von Erichs were gracious; a handful of my friends still recall their wide, easy smile and their patience, waiting to take snapshots with kid after kid after kid.

Slowly, the rumors trickled in. David Von Erich died suddenly in 1984, aged 26. The doctor said it was acute enteritis, but we knew it was an overdose. He joined his older brother, Jack Jr., who was electrocuted by an exposed wire and drowned in a puddle when he was seven years old, in 1959. In 1987, Mike, the fifth Von Erich boy, committed suicide in Texas by overdosing on a tranquilizer. His younger brother, Chris, was heartbroken: in 1991, just two weeks before his 22nd birthday, he trained his gun to his head and pulled the trigger. Kerry went two years later, shooting himself in the heart. Kevin was the only one left.

This week, Kevin took the stage one final time. At 60, he’s been retired for more than 20 years, but there was still one place he wanted to go: Tel Aviv. Barefoot, and with his sons in tow, the old wrestler put up a show. His fans, themselves parents now, cheered wildly. “I’ll never forget what Israel did for me when I came here after my brother, David, died,” he told the Israeli press. “I’ll never forget how you wrapped me up with love. I love you guys. I love Israel.” There was nothing fake about his words: a traumatized man, he returned to the only place that ever gave him unconditional love, to a traumatized country that needed him as much as he needed it. And for one fleeting moment, those of us who grew up watching him fight every Saturday night imagined that we were still young, that David and Kerry and Mike and Chris were still alive, and that our fiercest struggles took place in the ring, featuring five perfect American boys who we knew would always win.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.