It really is a shame that Dmitriy Salita gets punched in the punim (face) so frequently.
The Ukrainian-born, Brooklyn-raised, observant Orthodox Jew is a regular at Chabad of Flatbush in New York where he studies Torah with Rabbi Zalman Liberow. The people who know him best will tell you that he is kind, earnest and a good listener. You need only know him for five minutes to feel the same way. And yet, Salita is constantly getting into fights.
Salita vs. Fabian Luque, February 28, 2008 PHOTO BY: Alex Gorokhov.
In 1991, 9-year old Salita, his parents and older brother emigrated to the United States from Odessa, Ukraine. Though the country had recently gained independence, the Salitas had had enough of living in a country where their children were harassed for being Jewish and the opportunities for success were few.
Their first years in America, in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, were difficult. The family was on welfare, Salita was picked on in school, and for two years, his mother battled cancer at Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital before passing away in 1999. It would have been easy to wallow in self-pity, drop out of school and turn a cold shoulder to the world. But, Salita doesn't do things that are easy. During those trying teenage years, he was busy building his strength, both figuratively and literally.
At 13, a pale and skinny Salita, who had only recently mastered the English language, walked into Starrett City Boxing Club and told the owner, Jimmy O'Pharrow, he wanted to fight. Salita was the only white face in the gym. His prospective opponents were eager to take him up on the challenge. As O'Pharrow tells it, Salita predictably lost that first spar. But came back the next day and the day after that. Eventually, O'Pharrow recalls, it was Salita who was beating up the black and hispanic fighters.
"My gym is like a league of nations," O'Pharrow has said. "I seen every kind of kid come through the doors, but I ain't never seen one like this Dmitriy. Kid looks Russian, prays Jewish and fights black."
Salita's triumphant rise from struggling immigrant teenager to national boxing champion is chronicled over five years in the film documentary, "Orthodox Stance," directed by Jason Hutt, an alumnus of Harvard Hillel. Hutt first learned about Salita through a Washington Post article, published in 2002. At the time, Salita was 20-years old and had recently turned pro after making a name for himself in the amateur boxing world. Salita was named New York Golden Gloves champion in 2001 and earned himself the Sugar Ray Robinson Award for outstanding amateur boxer.
Hutt, who says he is interested in making films about things he doesn't understand, was immediately intrigued. Himself a Jewish athlete, Hutt wanted to learn more about the intersecting roads of Jewish observance and violent professional sport.
"People have this prejudice that boxers are brutes, angry people," says Hutt. "They're not. They get their aggression out in the ring." (Just ask Mike Tyson, who infamously bit into his opponent's ear during a televised bout.)
When Hutt began documenting Salita in October 2002, he had no idea where the film would take him. The outcome was not only surprising but inspiring, prompting spontaneous applause and cheers from the audiences who have since screened it. "Orthodox Stance" debuted at the AFI/Discovery Silverdocs Festival in 2007 and has made the rounds in more than two dozen cities across the U.S., Canada and Israel.
The film is a cross-section of cultures, with a cast of characters one would never expect to interact. A Chassidic rabbi and his brother, an elderly black man, a Panamanian trainer, and a Russian-speaking father who form a bond around Salita. They follow him on airplanes and in locker rooms, dispensing advice from different perspectives along the way. Salita listens to it all and endures the various forms of affection that accompany it -- a slap in the face, a pat on the back, a bear hug embrace.
For Salita and his entourage, the ultimate goal is to be signed by a promoter who secures high profile fights, preferably in New York, where Salita's largest fanbase resides.
"My fights have very polar draws," says Salita. "They either attract lots of people who are very proud, waving the Israeli flag and then there are those who are crossing their fingers and toes hoping for me to lose."
Salita, who wears a Star of David on his boxing trunks, can't say if it is anti-Semitism or simply support for his opponents that fuels his detractors.
Israel Liberow and Jimmy O'Pharrow with Salita. PHOTO BY Alex Gorokhov.
Though he admits he's encountered subtle forms of hatred, Salita ultimately feels validated and respected in the industry. "The great thing about sports," he says. "Is that at the highest level, it transcends [racism, and religion]. I just have to keep winning and proving myself."
Bouts have been re-scheduled to accommodate his Sabbath observance and his rabbinic adviser, Israel Liberow, prepares kosher meals when Salita is forced to spend a Friday night away from home. In one scene of the film, the two men light candles and huddle over a desk in a Las Vegas hotel room to share food that was kept warm under blankets to avoid using electricity on Shabbat.
Odd as it seems, Salita's boxing career has helped him develop a closer relationship with God. Salita was first taken under the wing of Chabad when his mother was sick. Throughout that time, as he was training with O'Pharrow, he spent a lot of time praying.
"My early training sessions were very intense and…it was so competitive," says Salita. "I prayed to God on my own and it helped me develop a relationship with [Judaism]. Through boxing, it became personal to me."
Rabbi Zalman Liberow with Salita.
Salita also admires Chabad because of his own experience growing up in the former Soviet Union. At a time when all Jews were hiding their religion, Salita says Chabad was the only organization that kept a small flame of Judaism burning there. Even today, in New York, Salita's father and brother (also his roommate) do not share the same level of observance. But, Salita understands saying, "It's very hard to change your way of life. Their level of observance does not represent their level of faith."
Professionally, 5-foot-9 Salita is ranked #2 in the world for his weightclass (140 pounds) and is waiting for a number of boxers to answer his challenges. Once he secures a world title, he will move to the next weightclass (147 pounds). "In the meantime," he laughs. "I have to skip a few meals."
His last fight was in February. But with his contract now expired, Salita is a free agent and cannot afford large venues. So for now, he continues to train and is hopeful that the major networks, HBO and Showtime, will soon take notice of his undefeated record and growing fanbase.
"People are attracted to what I represent in the ring," says Salita. "People are not used to seeing a Jewish person being something other than a lawyer or a doctor. And I'm very outspoken about it…I believe in Judaism and the American Dream. America is the greatest country in the world. God bless America."
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