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The Mighty Atom

I began my fitness and wellness career in 1993 to pay rent while I was going to school at Lock Haven University. My goal at the time was to pursue a career in academia as a professor of Exercise Physiology and personal training was simply a means to an end. At that time, it was a very new field and was non-existent in this region. It began one day as I was working the desk at a local YMCA and was conversing with a member. I mentioned that I had an interest in teaching people proper exercise technique and figured I could make a better wage than working the desk. The member, and another that was eavesdropping, both expressed interest and thus began my career.

I continued to pursue my graduate school education but my heart wasn’t in it. I needed to be around people and feel that I was improving people’s lives in a tangible way. At this time, in the mid-1990s, wellness was just emerging as a profession. It was still very fitness oriented with just a sprinkle of health education and programming mixed in. In addition, it was still somewhat rare to be a fitness/wellness professional with a strong formal education in health and exercise science so finding work was still fairly easy. The downside was that none of it paid well and since I was married and desired to start a family, I was conflicted regarding whether to stay in the fitness and wellness fields or enter into a more “adult” profession. I still wonder about my career choices but since I am fortunate enough to be able to pay my bills and my wife and I have raised 5 exceptional children, I have probably made the correct one.

This somewhat convoluted introduction leads us into the theme of this article. What is your calling? As I was thinking about what I wanted to write about for this week’s column, I first thought about all of the crazy things going on in the world today. Pandemics, racial injustice, riots, etc., — the list goes on. I’ll admit, things have been weighing heavy on my heart as of late. Then I thought all of the things people of my parents’ generation have been through including World War and the Great Depression. It occurred to me that tough times forge us and help to make us who we are and if we pay attention, can even help us to become better people. One such person who was forged in tough times, and whom I like to think of as one of the forefathers of modern wellness, was Joseph Greenstein.

If there is a single person reading this article that knows who this is I’ll be completely shocked but you might know of his work. Mr. Greenstein was the last great performing strongman, turned health promoter, of the Coney Island performers. When you think of a man in a leopard skin flexing next to a show girl, or if you’re younger, a cartoon character of a circus performer lifting a heavy weight, the image was likely based on Joe Greenstein.

He was born on July 15th, 1893 in the poorest section of Suvalk, Poland, near the German border to Jewish parents. He was a very sickly infant and wasn’t expected to live. In fact, the doctors present at the delivery offered to pay the parents money should the baby not live so that they might use the body for their medical studies. In what I like to think of as his first act of defiance, the baby lived and was named Yosselle.

He was asthmatic, with slow physical development and at that time there was no effective treatment for either condition. Albeit slowly, Yosselle still grew, though it was likely that he would suffer the same fate as his father who died at age 39 from a respiratory illness.

One day, while he was still a young boy and unable to pay the fifteen-cent admission fee, Yosselle snuck into a circus tent to see the main attraction, Champion Volanko, a strongman that traveled with the circus. As he attempted to make his way to a better vantage point, he was seized by the neck by one of the circus employees. “Dirty little Jew, I’ll kill you” the man spat, and he proceeded to beat and kick the boy. As the story goes, the man actually intended to kill young Yosselle. Eventually the man tired and, as the boy was no longer resisting the blows and appeared dead, the man left. Peering out of half-closed eyes and barely able to move, Yosselle crawled across the circus arena, in the hope of hiding should the man return. He ended up being discovered by none other than the man whom he wished to see, Valenko. “What is this?” he said loudly in his native Russian. Yosselle was petrified. “Don’t be afraid.” the big man said taking pity on the beaten and bloodied boy. The strongman asked the boy his name and then what had happened. Yosselle told the man how he was beaten for trying to get a peek at the big man’s performance. Enraged, the giant eventually found the worker who had assaulted the boy and with a single punch, flattened the evil man’s nose to his face and threw him like a rag doll. Thus, began a friendship, and with the permission of Yosselle’s mother, his apprenticeship to become a performing strongman with the circus.

Some years later, in 1910, as Jewish persecution grew in Europe, Yosselle found himself involved in trouble with a Nazi soldier. He learned that the soldier had just struck and killed an old Jewish man with a knife. Yosselle, at that moment, made a life altering decision. He fought back. He charged the soldier, tackling him to the ground. Yosselle was certainly not a violent man nor am I condoning violence now, but something had to be done. He then stepped on the soldier’s knife blade and broke it. As the soldier stood up to stab him with what was left of the sharp end of the blade, Yosselle grabbed the heavy brass hilt of the soldier’s blade and hit the man once. The Nazi soldier fell dead. Yosselle’s life in Europe was now over. He would be a wanted man.

There is so much more to the story than I am able to tell in this article. Needless to say that Yosselle, having witnessed horrible things in his native Poland and elsewhere, ended up in the United States as Joseph “Joe” Greenstein, the Mighty Atom. Performing feats of strength on Coney Island and in vaudeville acts. Though he never made much money, he was very successful in other ways. He went on to father ten children with his wife and was beloved by many. At one point in his career, to his wife’s dismay, he proclaimed that he wanted to make his living by producing and promoting his own line of health products which he did at events and carnivals for many years. His calling was to promote health and wellness and to inspire people. He lived into his early nineties and was performing strongman feats in the hospital up until the end, bending horseshoes and nails to lift the spirits of other patients.

We all have a choice. We can answer our calling by lifting up and inspiring others or we can choose to ignore it, living only for ourselves. I say we choose to be like the Mighty Atom and move past adversity by supporting one another when times get tough. I like to think that we live in an area where the core values of compassion and decency dictate our behavior and when people in other parts of the country have lost their way that we still choose to Live Well.

For more information on developing a fitness program or if you are interested in online training, feel free to message me on my Facebook page, Bellomo Online Training.

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