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Russian Bull: Orthodox Stance

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Russian Bull: <em>Orthodox Stance</em>

“Greatest Jewish Fighter Since Samson!” a banner announces in Orthodox Stance, a sweet little film for the sweet science, a fascinating documentary that follows the Orthodox Jewish, Russian immigrant, professional boxer Dmitriy Salita as he navigates the seemingly disparate worlds that make up his life. From a Chabad Synagogue in Brooklyn, to the Black- and Latino-filled Starrett City Boxing Gym in East New York, to the fake glamor of the Las Vegas ringside, director Jason Hutt has crafted a no-frills, no-nonsense sports movie that is less about left jabs and right hooks than it is about the American Dream. As Dmitriy’s rabbi puts it, “His message is that no career should ever convince you that it’s a contradiction to religion.” Such simple words form a radical idea coming from a pugilist who escaped the anti-Semitism of Odessa, Ukraine as a kid.

In other words, Orthodox Stance is an American—and, more specifically, New York—story more than it is a Jewish or a boxing one. (Yup, it’s got “TriBeCa Film Festival” written all over it.) This is the type of movie where yarmulke-clad, long-bearded old men in “Salita” T-shirts cheer right alongside heavyset, heavily opinionated Black women and Latino bruisers. Starrett City Boxing Club founder, octogenarian, and Dmitriy trainer Jimmy O’ Pharrow even remarks that the rabbis, the men, sit right next to their Jewish women during his fights—forbidden practice in the Hasidic community. “This is different than what’s happening in their own backyard!” O’ Pharrow exclaims. As Dmitriy has forced the boxing world to work around his Sabbath (he doesn’t fight from Friday night until sundown Saturday) and his religious Puritanism (no beer promotions, no bikini-clad girls holding up round-numbered cards), so has the boxing world forced the Orthodox community to work around its customs. Dmitriy is a bridge between societal oceans, allowing communication, tolerance and learning. You can’t get more melting pot than that.

And Jason Hutt’s street-style, straightforward filmmaking is as powerfully raw as the boxing gyms he filmed in. Over three years, Hutt grabbed the shots he needed and pieced them together seamlessly, nothing more, nothing less. Through his patience, his lack of an “agenda,” through getting out of the way and just letting the story unfold, Hutt uncovered a lot more than probably even he expected. There’s Dmitriy’s relationship with the Zen-like O’ Pharrow (asked to look out for the somewhat lost kid by his mother as she was dying of cancer), who not only lets Dmitriy make his own training decisions, but forces him to—expects him to—become his own man. On the opposite end, there’s Dmitriy’s overzealous, boxing fanatic manager and “adviser” Israel Liberow who lucked into the job by what he calls “divine providence” (his brother is Rabbi Zalman Liberov, Dmitriy’s rabbi). Even the film’s score is gypsy-like, subtle, and includes the music of the Hasidic reggae singer Matisyahu who serenades at the final fight (this is a movie in which oxymoron becomes the norm).

But if it’s a fight you’re looking for, well, of course there’s that, too. Dmitriy Salita has the face of an angel and the hands of a devil. He claims to have found religion through boxing and when you watch him in the ring it shows. An observant Jew must be humble, must listen, must obey ritual and possess discipline—the same traits that make for a champion boxer. His mother’s death—something “I still haven’t rehabilitated from,” Dmitriy admits—is even described as if Dmitriy views emotional and physical injury as one and the same. Boxing “blocks out the pain,” acts as therapy for Dmitriy, who uses physical pain to overcome the emotional. “Anything could happen in boxing—anything!” one trainer emphasizes. Which is where religion comes in. For Dmitriy, Russian immigrant and grieving son, Judaism offers a foundation in the midst of upheaval. When a woman at a party asks him if he’s ever afraid he tells her that’s why he gets up at six in the morning, goes running, goes to the gym. “Fear is a big motivator.” Throwing himself headfirst into life’s chaos, fists flying, religion provides the “known.”

Brooklyn-based writer Lauren Wissot is the publisher of the blog Beyond the Green Door, the author of the memoir Under My Master’s Wings, and a contributor to The Reeler.