For the JC July 2020
The late boxing promoter, Jimmy O’Pharrow, founded and ran a legendary gym in New York, Starrett City Boxing Club. It was almost entirely a gym for African-Americans, but he had one outstanding white protegé — Dmitriy Salita.
O’Pharrow, who died in 2011, summed up Salita like this: “My gym’s like a league of nations. I seen every kind of kid come through the doors, but I ain’t never seen one like this Dmitriy. Kid looks Russian, prays Jewish, and fights Black.”
Now the Odessa-born Salita is repaying the investment and experience of his late mentor by his own work as a boxing promoter. He still looks Russian — but he most certainly “prays Jewish” — and though he has a string of successful fighters, Salita won’t attend their appearances on Shabbat or Jewish holidays, just the way he wouldn’t fight on those days himself.
There was a time, in the early 20th century and during the war, when it was not unusual for young Jewish men to take to boxing and do well at it. In rabbinic times, however, because Greek and Roman fighting was often done naked, young Jews were dissuaded from entering the sport, less they be thought to be aping the non-Jews.
In Britain the tradition, supposedly, goes back to the 18th century prizefighter Daniel Mendoza. By the 1920s and 30s, getting in the ring was not just a way of escaping poverty but also offering a handy route for defending against antisemites, liable to take a step backwards if the Jewish “victim” showed signs of hitting back.
Antisemitism, as he tells it, played a role in Salita’s life, too. His parents, engineer Aleksandr Lekhtman, and his accountant mother, Lyudmila Salita, picked up Dmitriy and his older brother, Mikhail, in 1991 and moved to Brooklyn, New York. Salita’s grandmother went with them. Members of his father’s family “had gone to the US during the first wave of immigration [from the former Soviet Union] in 1979, and my father went to visit in 1988”.
Salita was just nine when the family arrived in the States and it does not sound an easy transition. In Odessa the family had lived in a big house, with a cherry tree in the garden; but there was sustained anti-Jewish prejudice and the boys’ parents took the difficult decision to move. Previous interviews have suggested that Salita boxed using his mother’s maiden name in tribute to her, but now he tells me that it was a deliberate change, made when he was born, by his father and mother, who thought he would have a better chance in life being called Salita, rather than the more Jewish name of Lekhtman.
But once in Brooklyn, times were equally tough. All five of them — the two boys, their parents and grandmother — lived in a one-bedroom apartment, and “like all Russian families, [were on] welfare, food stamps, public assistance…” There may no longer have been direct antisemitism, but Salita had a rough time at his new school. His brother was nine years older and so perhaps escaped the direct bullying faced by Dmitriy.
When he started going to school, he wore clothes from had Russia. School bullies made fun of them, and also taunted him because he couldn’t speak English. So he wanted to learn to defend himself, starting with karate, and eventually his brother took him to a boxing club. This got him into trouble a few times at school — but won him respect, so he didn’t care.
He really didn’t know what to make of his new life. “I didn’t speak English, I didn’t have any money, I didn’t understand the culture, the food, the movies…” On top of that Salita, who says his parents were typically Russian Jews — with little or no Jewish observance — was seeing Orthodox men, for the first time in his life, walking around New York wearing kippot and traditional garb. “I wanted to know what that meant.”
The family had been brought to America with the help of HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and once in Brooklyn they were invited to numerous Jewish events. But they did not appeal to the young Salita, who says he “always felt like an outsider. It wasn’t comfortable for me”.
Instead, he poured his energy into boxing, joining Starrett City when he was 13 after his brother and his karate trainer guessed that he might be good at the sport. “I felt the urge to fight outside my ghetto,” he says.
For Salita, expressing himself in boxing was clearly a way out of his domestic situation, because his mother was seriously ill with breast cancer from the time they arrived in America. At Starrett City he was “the only Jewish kid, the only white kid” — but he was also proving to be a very good fighter.
He had what he laughingly calls “a Soviet barmitzvah”, devoid of almost any religious content. “You go to a Russian restaurant, you have a cake with 13 candles and everyone gets to light one, and then they sing Yiddish songs”. It didn’t mean much.
But the turning point for Salita came when his mother took ill a second time, when he was 14. She was sharing a room in Brooklyn’s Sloan-Kettering hospital with an Orthodox Jewish woman, whose husband came to visit while Salita was seeing his mother.
“I had a lot of questions about Judaism and God,” says Salita. The “very nice” husband passed on Salita’s details to a local Chabad rabbi, originally from London, Zalman Liberow.
Rabbi Liberow began to call the teenage Salita, and it was not comfortable at first. “I had never had a call from a rabbi before. He called me once, two times, ten times… But he was very warm and open, and one day I decided to see what it was like, and I went to the Chabad House during the week. There were people there more religious, less religious — but there I felt at home”. Within two or three months Salita was putting on tefillin for the first time, and having a proper, religious barmitzvah.
With no degree of self-consciousness, Salita says that boxing “has always made me feel spiritual. You go in the ring, it’s just you and someone else. It had always made me look inside myself, made me connect with a higher power.”
Pretty soon, he says, he was putting on tefillin every day and learning things like the Shema. When his mother died, it was Rabbi Liberow who arranged the funeral and helped the family say kaddish for her.
As he was drawn more deeply into learning about Judaism, and practising levels of observance, in parallel he was doing well in the ring, fighting as a light welterweight and then a welterweight. With the encouragement of his two mentors — Jimmy O’Pharrow and Zalman Liberow, his life was firmly on track. At 16, he represented New York in the Junior Olympics, winning a bronze medal, and then became the US National Under-19 Champion and the 2001 New York Golden Gloves winner.
Aged 19, Salita turned professional and enjoyed considerable success, wearing a star of David on his boxing shorts and entering the ring to the sound of Yiddish rap.
In 2011, however, aged 29 — and by now with an American wife, with whom today he has two daughters — Salita hung up his gloves and became a boxing promoter. As president of Salita Promotions, he has a stable of prize-winning fighters, including one of the most high-profile champion women boxers, Claressa Shields.
“Judaism is a way of life, boxing is what you do,” he says. “It’s not a contradiction. Judaism and the Chabad philosophy strengthened me to be the best that I could be, and to work hard”.
He is aware that there are some rabbis who counsel against boxing, arguing that Jewish law does not permit a person to offer themselves up to be hurt, but Salita says he did not go into the ring to hurt his opponent, but to win.
Becoming more Orthodox was “a very slow process”, says Salita. “It didn’t happen overnight. I took upon myself things that I wanted to do. At 18, I stopped boxing on Shabbat.” When he was still fighting he was told he would be disqualified if he refused to meet his opponent on Shabbat, but Salita dug his heels in, the timing was changed, and he won his fight.
To his amusement, these days he is regarded as their private “rabbi” by his extended Russian family, who consult him on kashrut and whether they can hold events on Shabbat or festivals. He still clearly loves boxing, and is proud of the successes of his fighters. And talking to Salita, you become aware of the scrappy kid from Odessa, who looked Russian, prayed Jewish — and fought not just Black, but back.