Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 24, 2008

Orthodox Stance

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 2:44 am

Dmitriy Salita (black trunks) in the ring

Dmitriy Salita putting on tefilin

Opening on January 25th at the Cinema Village in New York, “Orthodox Stance” is the finest sports documentary I have seen since the 1994 “Hoop Dreams.” Besides dramatizing a young man’s struggle to achieve success in professional boxing, “Orthodox Stance” is as much a story about prizefighter Dimitriy Salita’s search for faith as an Orthodox Jew. In keeping with the lively intelligence that characterizes this documentary by first-time director Jasun Hutt, the title is a clever reference to the traditional right-handed boxing stance as opposed to the southpaw stance of an Oscar de la Hoya.

The dramatic tension that propels this documentary forward grows out of the contradictions between the brutality of Salita’s profession and traditional Orthodox Jewish aversion to violence of any sort. Even in Israel, those who follow Hasidic teachings are exempt from military service although the Lubavitcher Hasidim that originally won Salita to its views does serve. For non-observant Jews, boxing no longer has the attraction that it did in the 1920s and 30s when the field was dominated by Jews, including greats like Benny Leonard and Barney Ross.

Ironically, it was social conditions for his immigrant Russian-Jewish family that led young Dmitriy to enter the ring for the first time. As Dmitriy puts it, “In the beginning my family struggled, we were on welfare and food stamps. Kids made fun of me. I wore bad clothes. I got into a lot of fights, a lot of arguments, and then at the age of 13 my brother and I started to discuss the idea of boxing.”

Boxing also provided him for an outlet for the psychic pain he endured after his mother succumbed to cancer not long after he took up boxing. He said, “It helped me lock out the pain and give me a purpose. I knew that I was winning and I knew it was something that I had, that kept me feeling good.”

Like most Russian Jews, the Salitas were not observant but when his mother was being treated at Sloan-Kettering Hospital (where I worked in the mid 1980s), he discovered that the woman who was in the next bed was involved with the Lubavitcher Hasidim and before long began attending their services. Unlike most other Hasidic groups, the Lubavitchers perform a kind of missionary work among non-observant Jews. About five years ago, you could spot them at the front gates of Columbia University where they would approach men like myself walking past them to ask, “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” That would be the first step in persuading the person to go into a van parked near by and put on tefilin, the leather straps that terminate in a little box containing scripture.

You can see Dmitri putting on tefilin throughout the film as well as preparing and eating kosher food with his manager and spiritual adviser Israel Liberow. Like everybody else in this altogether winning movie, Liberow is a fascinating character. The youngest of 11 children from a Lubavitcher family, Liberov grew up in London without a television but developed a love of boxing at an early age. With his Bar Mitzvah gift money, he purchased a Sony Walkman and began listening to fights on BBC. While at Yeshiva, he would sneak out of dorms to watch boxing matches at friends’ houses.

The press notes state:

Israel met Dmitriy six months after Dmitriy began coming to his brother’s synagogue. Israel says in the film, “Dmitriy was shocked at how much I blabbered on about boxing and couldn’t believe I was Zalman’s brother–like I was in disguise, with a clip on beard.” Because of his knowledge and passion for both boxing and Judaism, he calls their relationship “divine providence.”

While watching “Orthodox Stance,” I was tremendously impressed with Dmitriy’s strength of character and beliefs. Like other famous Jewish athletes such as Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg who would not play baseball on High Holy Days, Dmitriy would not fight on the Sabbath, even more of an obstacle for a professional career.

In some ways, the rigors of Orthodoxy are as demanding as that of boxing. If you have to get up early to say your prayers and follow a strict dietary laws, that requires the same kind of discipline as doing roadwork and keeping within a certain weight limit. If you’ve followed the career of a Mike Tyson or have seen the movie “Raging Bull”, based on the life of Jake LaMotta, you’ll know that discipline does not come easy to many fighters.

If watching this young boxer’s attempts to reconcile his religious beliefs with a violent sport were not sufficient in themselves to draw you to “Orthodox Stance,” the film’s insights into boxing as a business are an extra incentive. Put simply, there has never been a documentary that reveals the nitty-gritty, frustrating details of trying to make a living as a boxer. For all of the success stories of a Floyd Mayweather Junior, whose bout with a British boxer Ricky Hatton earned him millions and endless hype on HBO, the struggle to make it for Dmitriy and other boxers not in the upper tier requires infinite patience and a wary eye toward the promoters who would fleece them. Watching Dmitriy haggling over a contract with some of these sharks makes you wonder whether they can do more damage than a left jab when all is said and done.

The world of the Jewish boxer is of great interest to me. As a young boy in the 1950s, I used to spend time chatting with Barney Ross who was working as a greeter at a nightclub in my Catskill Mountains village. Although I was too young to really understand the boxing profession, I sensed that there was something unusual about this man, who was as kosher as my parents and the top fighter pound for pound for a time in the 1930s.

Written by Douglas Century (the author of a great biography of Barney Ross), the chapter on Jewish boxers in the 3 volume “Jews and American Popular Culture” concludes as follows:

The Jewish presence in boxing today is a story of a new breed of striving immigrants, immigrants from the former Soviet bloc via Israel. Junior welterweight and welterweight contender, Dimitriy Salita, born in Odessa, Ukraine (a historic center of Jewish life), immigrated to Israel and later Brooklyn. Yuri Foreman, a junior middleweight, born in Belarus, spent his teenage years in Israel, and also boxes out of Brooklyn; heavyweight Roman Greenberg was born in Russia, raised in Tel Aviv, and boxes out of London, England. All three fighters proudly embrace their Jewish identity; like hundreds of fighters in the 1920s and 1930s, they fight with the Star of David on their trunks. Salita, a follower of Chabad Lubavicher, even attracts a passionate and incongruous black-hat-wearing Hasidic fan base to his fights. Detractors say they are contenders whose promoters have cherry-picked opposition to capitalize on the promotional goldmine of a promising Jewish contenders. American-born Jewish prizefighters of the first rank may have vanished, but the interest in their bygone era is experiencing a marked resurgence among scholars and artists.

If you want to see this new breed up close, go see “Orthodox Stance”. It is unforgettable cinema.

Orthodox Stance Website

Dmitriy Salita Website

3 Comments »

  1. I used to know George Chip, Jr. His father was a middleweight champ.

    KLAUS KNOCKED OUT.; George Chip Scores Winning Blow in Fifth Round at Pittsburgh.

    New York Times
    December 24, 1913, Wednesday

    Page 09, 950 words

    PITTSBURGH, Dec. 23. — Frank Klaus of East Pittsburgh, claimant of the middleweight championship, was knocked out in the fifth round of his fight with George Chip of Madison, Penn., here to-night. Chip outfought Klaus in the first round, held his more experienced opponent even in the next three rounds, and knocked him down for the count in the fifth round.

    Comment by mperelman — January 24, 2008 @ 3:09 am

  2. This post does a good job complimenting your post about the tough Jew. Save them for your book.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — January 24, 2008 @ 8:32 pm

  3. Speaking of Jewish boxers, Dana Rosenblatt had a reasonably successful career as a middleweight fighter in the Greater Boston area during the 1990s.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dana_Rosenblatt

    Comment by Jim Farmelant — January 27, 2008 @ 9:05 pm


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