As detailed in the engaging documentary Orthodox Stance, Dmitriy Salita brings together belief systems that appear to be opposite, being a professional boxer and an Orthodox Jew.
Kid looks Russian, prays Jewish and fights black.
-- Jimmy O'Pharrow, Washington Post (1 September 2002)
"Dmitriy is not a devastating puncher, but he could hurt people," says boxing trainer Oscar Suarez. With the laconic praise typical of the business he's in, Suarez is describing his new client, then 23-year-old Dmitriy Salita, by all accounts a remarkable talent. He represented New York in the Junior Olympics, and won the New York City Golden Gloves and the U.S. Under-19 National Championship at 18. Salita has been competing professionally since he turned 20, winning matches and earning respect.
For all his success, Salita is hardly a conventional boxer. As detailed in the engaging documentary Orthodox Stance, he brings together belief systems that appear to be opposite, being a professional boxer and an Orthodox Jew. Born in Odessa, Ukraine in 1982, Salita moved with his family to Brooklyn when he was nine, seeking religious freedom and financial stability. At 13, Dmitriy began boxing at the Starrett City Gym, founded by trainer Jimmy O'Pharrow. At the time, the boy's mother was dying of cancer. "Boxing helped me emotionally," he says now, "It helped me to block out the pain and gave me a purpose." Still, he guesses, "For my mother, it must have been very difficult knowing that her son is doing this crazy sport."
Salita understands her concern, but also finds ways to work through the seemingly obvious tensions he embodies. The film charts basic, diurnal conflicts: he can't fight (or travel, cook, or use electricity) until sundown on the Sabbath, and it can be difficult to keep kosher on the road (he's worked out a system by which hot kosher food might be delivered to a Vegas hotel room, for instance, and kept warm, wrapped in a blanket, until dinner time). In one instance, promoter Bob Arum arranges so the usual card girls won't parade in bikinis to mark the round changes, as he knows they will upset the rabbis who have come to watch Salita compete.
The film focuses on such intersections between business as usual and religious observance that occasion collaboration and compromise rather than conflict. Salita assumes the best of all his associates, as he changes promoters and trainers (always keeping O'Pharrow, now over 80 years old, in his corner; "My role," he says, "is to stand in the background of the guy and if needs help to help him out"). As Salita understands his work, he needs more exposure and, especially, a chance to fight in New York City, so his family and friends can see him. Self-reflective and charismatic, Salita seems an ideal documentary subject; as he drives from home to the gym, the camera looks up at him from the passenger seat as he considers the various aspects of his "image" and his commitments. He worries that a suit he's wearing for a press conference needs pressing ("It's not nothing," he tells his brother, "You think that wrinkled is nothing"). And. watching a fight on TV, he's moved by one boxer's decision to withdraw, even as he's still standing, sort of. Salita's manager and advisor Israel Liberov suggests the choice is wrong, that it makes the boxer look bad, but Salita makes a more generous assessment: "You can't criticize him," he says, "You can't know what he's feeling."
Dmitriy is habitually attentive to others' feelings, while also measuring his own, displaying them quietly. During one question and answer session, he responds to Jewish congregants, with good humor and patience. Informed he should "stop fighting" and pursue "good" religious objectives, like a wife and a family, he smiles, mic in hand, fully able to play both entertainer and arbiter. "I think the girl he will have," says a supporter, "he will never disappoint her." A couple of boys come up after the session, admiring his physique ("You're huge," says one, enthusiastically, "You're built"). An older Russian man also pays his respects, admitting that he used to box himself, back in Georgia. The two exchange smiles, sharing a sense of history and promise, briefly, before Salita moves on to another event.
The marketing of Salita may be the film's most intriguing focus. Addressed obliquely, the process is plainly complicated, an effort to achieve a balance among multiple expectations and obligations. The film itself serves as promotion, underscoring his special status as commercial device, noting the appearance of Matisyahu at one of Salita's bouts, as well as the many ways the boxer has to frame and reframe his self-identification, at press conferences and for "human interest" feature stories.
Even as Orthodox Stance allows Salita and his multi-culti team to make his case, the broader questions -- about commercial culture, boxing as an industry, and shifting standards of masculinity -- remain compelling. By adhering to traditions, Salita also challenges them. Following one match that he has won, a fan -- a black woman who gestures elaborately -- keeps pace with him on the sidewalk outside: "You always finding a way," she enthuses. "I know you coulda did better." Salita smiles, again. His work is never done.