Rabbi Abraham Abraham, the Coney Island-based leader of a winter swim group who was also known for stunts like living in an ice house, died on May 18 of bone cancer in Manhattan. He was 77.
Abraham, born on June 17, 1933 as Abraham Navitsky, was a Herculean figure who channelled the honky-tonk spirit of Coney Island through his zany feats and religious stage name. Abraham wasn’t a practicing rabbi with a congregation, but most say that his persona was more than appropriate.
“He was a self-styled rabbi,” said his son, Mayer Navitsky. “He was charismatic, majestic and would call on everyone to swim with him. Coney Island was his congregation.”
Abraham became a local celebrity as the member of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club, a century-old winter bathing organization with whom he took his first ice-cold plunges with at age four, according to Navitsky. But Abraham, known as much for his oversized personality as for his oversized biceps, was pushed out of the Club in 1990 by members who felt that he was hogging the publicity.
“A lot of members felt he was more about himself than the organization,” said Polar Bear Club president Dennis Thomas. “He loved to be the center of attention.”
But Abraham didn’t let his rift with the Polar Bear Club slow him down. That same year he started his own group, the Ice Breakers Winter Ocean Swimmers, which took daily plunges off the coast of Brighton Sixth Street. And he performed other stunts, such as parachuting, fire-walking and holding his breath underwater long enough to break magician David Blaine’s record in 2008. Blaine lasted for 17 minutes, but the 75-year-old Abraham held out for 19 minutes, according to Ice Breakers member Bob Stewart.
“That was one of his greatest feats,” Stewart said.
Abraham took his frozen feats a step further by living in an ice house, which he had built on Coney Island Avenue near the Boardwalk, for 110 hours.
“Physically, he was beyond the average man,” said his nephew Marty Novitsky.
Many say that Abraham is a Coney folk hero who deserves to be chalked up in history along with other strongmen like Polar Bear Club founder Bernarr McFadden and Joe Rollino, who once lifted 3,200 pounds. They describe Abraham’s constant antics, which included breaking out into a series of one-armed push-ups on the street, beating out hipsters to win the 2008 Sideshows by the Seashore Beard and Mustache competition and driving in front of the Mermaid Parade procession to be the self-proclaimed leader.
“It was that type of acting-out that led me to make him Mermaid Parade King in 1999,” said Dick Zigun, whose organization Coney Island USA runs the parade. “He was crazy, but we loved him.”
Abraham got cancer several years ago, but he continued to stay active in his community, despite being in-and-out of the hospital.
“He called me on his death-bed and asked if we could go for one more swim,” Stewart said. “He never wanted to stop.”
Abraham lived on West 12th Street near Neptune Avenue. He is survived by his 10 children and his wife, Elaine. Abraham’s funeral was on Thursday at Beth David Cemetery in Queens.