Aside from people asking me if I once had a relative named Max (my last name is Baer; Max Baer was a famous Jewish boxer), I never really thought about the influence my people had on athletics. That is, I never really thought about their influence beyond what I as an agnostic but cultural Jewish self-identifier gleaned from "Great Jews in Sports," perhaps the funniest book in the world, which was given to me as, it was to many a doughy young student, as a tacky Bar Mitzvah gift so new men might read about Sandy Koufax and dream of being more than violinists, lawyers, studio heads, and writers. At last, however, "Orthodox Stance," Jason Hutt's documentary about Ukranian boxer and Orthodox Brooklyn Jew Dmitry Salita proves that I don't have to return to old stories about Rod Carew to get inspired about an athlete who knows his Torah. The film, which opens tomorrow at LA's Laemmle Music Hall Theater, follows the 21-year-old from the Starret City boxing club as he and his 80-year-old African-American trainer move from relative obscurity to a deal with boxing impresario Lou DiBella and an honorary mishpucha that includes Hasidic musician Matisyahu. What the film doesn't explore—why this mild-mannered kid with friends of all faiths and colors turned to a conversion-happy chabad and extreme boxing discipline in the wake of his mother's sudden death to cancer, and why his brother and father aren't really a) religious or b) a part of the story—seems to hang in the air like an uneaten matzoh ball. But the boxing footage is fantastic. Dmitry, a welterweight, may dress like any hood from Brighton Beach, but he lays into his opponents with the passion of a young Sylvester Stallone. It's also good fun to watch Dmitry scuffle with his extremely stoic brother: he shouldn't wear a wrinkled suit to a press conference ("But it's DKNY," his brother exclaims). And it's cool to know that a pro boxing outfit will delay your matches beyond Shabbat so you don't have to piss off God just to knock down another heathen. Of course, the flick's no "Rocky Balboa." It's much more real and hence mildly dry. But in an age when a Hasidic actor's shunned by his Williamsburg community for attempting to act in a film with Natalie Portman, it's cool to see a present-day Great Jew in Sports balance his jabs and High Holiday prayers.
"Orthodox Stance" opens April
11 at Laemmle's Music Hall. 9036 Wilshire
Beverly Hills, CA 90211. 310-274-6869. www.laemmle.com