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Tough Frummes – religious Jews making a career in the ring

November 26, 2009 – 2:32 pm8 Comments
Amir Khan and Dmitry Salita in an old-fashioned stare down.  They will fight on Dec 5.

Amir Khan and Dmitry Salita in an old-fashioned stare down. They will fight on Dec 5.

By Anthony Frosh

Last week, a rabbinical student named Yuri Foreman became a world boxing champion.

Jewish boxing champions are nothing new.  Daniel Mendoza, often known as the father of scientific boxing, and English champion in the late 18th century, was a Sephardic Jew.

In fact, in the first half of the 20th century, the American boxing scene was littered with fighters of Jewish heritage. Max Baer and Barney Ross were arguably the most famous of these. Baer was a bona fide world heavy weight champion in 1930s, who wore trunks with an embroidered Magen David.  Ross (born Dov-Ber Rasofsky) was also a bona fide world champion in the 1930s in the lightweight welter-weight divisions.  Ross was born into a religious family, apparently grew up with the ambition of becoming a Talmudic scholar and teacher.  However, the murder of his father in an armed robbery saw him turn his back on Orthodox religious life, and instead he became a man of the streets, rather than a man of the books.

Even in Australia, there have been some Jewish boxers of some note, such as David Oved and Henry Nissen.

However, until relatively recently, there have not been any professional boxers to my knowledge who could be described as frum, or devoted to their religion, at least not during their boxing careers.

Born in Belarus, raised in Israel, and currently residing in the USA, Yuri Foreman has become only the second Israeli ever to win a world boxing title.  The only previous Israeli world boxing champion, Johar Abu Lashin, won his title in a lesser rated boxing association. While Abu Lashin’s achievement should not be minimized, it is fair to say that Foreman’s title is a greater achievement, having been won through the top-flight World Boxing Association (WBA).

Dmitry Salita is another Baal Teshuva fighter born in a former USSR country.  From Odessa in the Ukraine, Salita became frum after moving to Brooklyn.  Entering the ring with Yiddish rap song playing, he apparently attracts a large following of Chabadniks who come along to watch his fights, chanting “Dima, Dima…”  In what will inevitably be described as a promoter’s dream, the undefeated junior-welterweight will next fight Amir Khan (British Muslim) for the world title.  At the press conference to announce this fight, Salita wore standard Charedi garb of black suit, white shirt and a black yarmulke.

Uriel Ben-Hamo has been Charedi his whole life, which in some ways makes his story more remarkable than either Foreman’s or Salita’s, even though his achievements as a fighter have not been as notable on a world stage.  Ben-Hamo, a reigning Israeli kick boxing champion, was born into a Charedi family in Israel, and still attends Jerusalem’s Magid Mesharim Yeshiva on a daily basis.  Ben-Hamo is studying to be a sofer stam (scribe),  but at the same time has aspirations toward winning a world-title.

I would conclude the article here, but possibly someone is out there thinking: “How can you write a story about religious Jews who are professional fighters without mentioning the great Zab Judah?”  Judah (as is  was once described as “the greatest Jewish boxer of all time.”   Judah is from a Black Hebrew Israelite family.  However, Judah (at least as of 2006) has apparently moved away from the faith of his father, and instead moved closer to Yehoshua.  Yes, while our Zabdiel could duck and weave with best of them, it appears he perhaps could not stand up to the quiet onslaught from the Jews for Jesus crowd.

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8 Comments »

  • ariel says:

    Great piece, frosh. I didn’t know about Ben-Hamo, wow!
    (Why are most of the Jewish boxers Russian or Sefardi?)

    I can’t help but posting this clip of 4 old men discussing boxing…
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rdjblkRkoPU

  • frosh says:

    Ariel – that scene (along with other scenes from that same barber-shop) you have linked to would have to be one my favourite pieces of comedy from the 1980s.

  • frosh says:

    Speaking of links, someone has been kind enought to supply us with a link to the video telecast of Yuri Foreman’s world title victory.

     

  • rachsd says:

    Hi Frosh,

    Three isn’t a big sample size, so do you think that there is actually a trend toward boxing in religious Jewish communities? Do you have any ideas as to why this might be the case?

    I have always thought that the reason that Jews used to be good at these types of sports but weren’t anymore (I was under the impression at the time that there were no longer many Jewish boxers) was related to the change in the general socio-economic staus of the Jewish community. Boxing seems to be a sport that attracts people of lower economic status as well as disenfranchised groups, and when Jews were poorer, and experiencing more antisemitism, they enjoyed quite a lot of success in this sport.

    It seems plausible that charedi Jews might experience more discrimination than other Jews at the moment, and might (on average) be less wealthy. If there is a trend toward boxing in this community, perhaps these factors are at play?

  • Fact checker says:

    Yeshu, not Yehoshua

    Ed: Apparently, facts aren’t what they used to be. See this link for some discussion of the Hebrew name for the name Latinised as Jesus.

  • ariel says:

    Fact checker, his name is open to speculation, but it was definitely not Yeshu.
    YeSH”U is a Hebrew acronym for Yimach Shmo V’Zichro.

  • frosh says:

    RachSD,

    Yes, boxers do tend to come from lower socio-economic communities, and I do believe this accounts for the Jewish prominence in boxing in pre-war 20th century America etc.

    However, I’m not sure this notion can be applied to the frum community, as far as boxing is concerned.
    Only Ben-Hamo was born into a Charedi community. Salita and Foreman, both coming from ex-Soviet countries (rather than coming from religious communities), could be said to have started boxing out of an under-privileged background.

    Salita’s family experienced a lot of anti-Semitism in the Ukraine (where anti-Semitism is still the old style, rather than the new leftist style that we have in the West). The family emigrated from the Ukraine to America, and the first years were tough. With no money, and no English, Salita’s immigration experience was not unlike Jew’s from the early 20th century.

    Foreman also started boxing at age 7 in Belarus. His family immigrated to Israel when he was 9, and continued with his boxing, training at an Arab gym (in Haifa I think).

    “The first time I walked in, I saw the stares. In their eyes, there was a lot of hatred. But I needed to box; and boy, did they all want to box me,”

    That would have been the making of Foreman :-)

  • TheSadducee says:

    Well at least Salita lasted 1 minute and 16 seconds in the match!

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