Thursday, September 11, 2014
The Kosher Boxer: A New Spirit of Adoption
A few years ago, I spent my spare time going to boxing matches, mostly in the New York City area. If this seems like odd behavior for a clergyman, you’re just going to have to deal with it. My passion for boxing is somehow different from the other sports I love. It is a sport of mystery, and paradox—where you remember that things are not always what they seem to be. And I think you will hear a sense of mystery in the story of a summer evening when I attended a championship fight in New York City, at the Hammerstein Ballroom in the Manhattan Center.
Attending a prizefight is a unique anthropological experience. The scene outside the Manhattan Center? The best word for it —here’s a Kent word that evokes a rich and textured seediness—the scene was sketchy. I joined the fight crowd, the many gangster types, wearing a Kent tie. Not a single person besides me was wearing a necktie. It is sometimes said that the human face is the construction of the mind. If this is the case, then everyone there should have been arrested. Except for me, I’ve got a tie.
Just to pick up my ticket at will call, I underwent, and survived, the most invasive pat down in my life. All pockets were emptied, metal wands were swiped. Not even in an airport have I been so thoroughly investigated, my necktie notwithstanding.
And I passed the test. I found my seat in the balcony above the ring, and I sat back to enjoy the 5 early fights on the under card.
And that’s when things took a strange and unexpected turn.
In the row right in front of me, three young men in yarmulkes sat down. Before I could do a double take, two old men in black hats, long beards, and black coats walked down the aisle; they might just as well have walked out of 19th Century Poland. The incongruity of these growing sights at a prizefight was startling. Something new and strange was in the air. In a span of maybe thirty minutes, the arena was wholly transformed. My section filled up. With Jews. I was swallowed completely in some kind of Jewish rooting section, and the flags of Israel began to wave. It was absolutely tribal. But there was also something more, a new spirit moving among all of us. Some days have a unique energy. This summer night had a soul.
“What’s the story here?” I asked the man seated next to me. I had heard enough of his conversation with his friends to know that he was a medical student; and that he and his other medical student friends, all Jewish, had never been to a boxing match in their lives.
“What do you mean?” he asked me.
“Well, this is not a typical fight scene.”
“More like a synagogue on Friday night?” he asked.
“Yes. So what’s going on?”
“It’s all because of Dmitri.”
As the championship bout approached, my neighbor told me the story of Dmitri “Star of David” Salita. Otherwise known as the Kosher Boxer. He is the only Jewish fighter in professional boxing (there have been just a few in the 20th Century). Dmitri is an Orthodox Jew, and completely observant. He grew up in the city of Odessa, in the Ukraine. His first experiences of boxing were all on the receiving in the end—the many beatings he experienced as the only Jewish kid in his neighborhood. His mother had a dream of a different way of life for her only son: in America. His mother also had cancer.
Dmitri’s mother was dying just as her family arrived in New York City. Her son stayed by her bedside day and night, and the family of a Jewish patient in the same room was moved by his devotion. They took young Dmitri to pray at their synagogue. They might just as well have adopted him. The entire synagogue wrapped their arms around the boy, in every conceivable way; and they never let him go. And the boy became a man. A spirit of adoption, of God’s presence, came through the love and affection of the second family, the synagogue, and a special rabbi; they got him through the worst experience in his life: the death of his mother. So Dmitri began to practice his Jewish faith, the faith he had never followed in the Ukraine, the one he had hidden trying to fit in. And in the meantime, he became an extraordinary boxer. As the Orthodox community of Flatbush, Brooklyn, once took him into their hearts and lives, he has likewise adopted the entire Jewish community of New York, and beyond. And I for one did not feel like I was on the outside of his unfurling story. I was part of a big Jewish group hug at a prizefight.
So back at ringside, we all stood as the lights went out for Dmitri’s entrance into the ring. A soulful song rose from the darkness, a song of the heart, and its beautiful depths. Lights came on the stage of the Hammerstein Ballroom, and a band, seemingly appearing out of nowhere, played a slow reggae version of Hava Nagila. Half of the band looked like they were from Phish, the other half from the cast of Fiddler on the Roof.
“Who are they?” I asked my neighbor.
“Oh, that’s the Orthodox Reggae Band.”
“What? You gotta be kiddin’ me.”
“Nope. These guys are terrific.”
And they were. The lead singer, separate from the band, emerged from the shadows, in black hat and beard; the singer led the Orthodox boxing entourage out of the crowd and into the ring. The song rose in intensity, going faster and faster, a summer swoon ripened to spiritual perfection. Everyone in the arena was standing. Goose bumps were now commonplace; everyone had them. A spotlight fell on the boxer as he walked slowly towards the ring. His face was hidden under his blue hood, and he wore the Star of David up and down his matching sky blue boxing trunks. The scene transcended athletics, certainly. It was liturgical, like what we do, or should do, in church.
Finally, the boxer and the singer stood before each other. In the center of the ring. The reggae singer put his right hand upon his own heart. Then he reached out and touched the boxer on his heart It was Dmitri who had brought everyone together. With his strength, dignity, sportsmanship, loyalty, love, and his courage. Even after Dmitri won his first boxing championship nine rounds later, the first thing he did was seek out the talented fighter from Mexico, who was also undefeated, to embrace him. A sense of deep respect was everywhere.
I have thought back many times to the spirit of adoption that was in the air that night. A spirit of adoption is very much part of the Kent experience right now as we begin another year. Bonding is happening everywhere you look, from new classes to athletic teams-- from the dorms to the advisory you will eat with tonight. This new spirit of adoption can be as simple as explaining the many mysteries of Kent School to someone who is new.
A spirit of adoption is much more than being nice; it is more than simply doing the right thing in terms of your own ethical conduct. It means taking another person into your heart, sometimes into your own home in an hour of need. There is no doubt that a spirit of adoption, whether you give it or receive it, can change your life, as it did for Dmitri Salita. It can change the way you see everyone around you, and all of the boundaries that divide us. The time we get to spend together is precious; it doesn’t last forever. Embrace the change that is all around us right now, and embrace each other in the name of the one God. You won’t regret it. Have a great night and a wonderful year. Let us rejoice and be glad.