Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Orthodox pugilists & others


Highlights from the 27th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

Dimitriy Salita in mid-bout, from Orthodox Stance. Photo: Courtesy SFJFF
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This 27th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival hits the mark with a riveting focus on Jewish fighters. In the first four decades of the last century, Jewish boxers held more than two dozen fight titles, the sweet science serving as a road to mainstream acceptance if not total assimilation for pugilists with unforgettable names: "Slapsie" Maxie Rosenbloom, Ted "Kid" Attell, Barney Ross. For every Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax who graced baseball diamonds, there were hundreds of Jewish boys battling their way through club fights in the Lower East Side, Cleveland, Detroit, and yes, even San Francisco. The SFJFF runs from July 19 through August 6 at four Bay Area venues in San Francisco, Berkeley, Palo Alto and San Jose.

Orthodox Stance "So we got to see a minute and 25 seconds of Dimitriy Salita, and Ron Gladden will go back to Kentucky with a bloody nose." Ten minutes into James Hutt's portrait of Orthodox Jewish boxer Dimitriy Salita, we realize that there's much more to this quiet young man than the buzz about his eating kosher and refusing to fight on the Jewish Sabbath. Following his "coming out" on national TV, we see Salita chatting with an HBO sports director on how to take the buzz to the next level: big-time opponents for serious money. His pale skin and high cheekbones hint at his Ukrainian birthplace, with an accent that reeks of a Brooklyn childhood. At 25, Salita has been preparing to be a fighter since his bar mitzvah. His biggest obstacles often lie outside the ring.

Preparing for a Saturday-night fight, Salita is accompanied by an Orthodox spiritual advisor who keeps a kosher plate warm under hotel bedcovers, disarms their room lock with boxing tape to keep from violating Sabbath restrictions, and later accompanies his charge to a Brooklyn temple Q&A, where skeptical congregants pepper him with queries about when he plans to quit the ring and marry a suitable girl. Some wag even jokes that maybe his future wife should box, herself — to which Salita replies with a firm, "No."

Queer fight fans will enjoy the sight of Salita and a very hunky opponent at a weigh-in in nothing but their Speedos. Later, that same opponent will rock our hero before being dispatched.

P.S. I was downloading some amazing fight photos of this guy long before I learned his story. You'll be surprised how seductive this film may be for the non-fight fan. (Castro, 7/22; Roda, 7/30)

Body and Soul If Orthodox Stance shows today's Jewish fighter as part business executive, part entertainer, part community role model with fighting as almost an afterthought, this pugilistic classic returns to more traditional themes of a young man punching his way out of poverty while battling hoodlums for control of his career. Body and Soul is also a showcase for artists blacklisted for their off-screen politics: star John Garfield, director Robert Rossen, and screenwriter Abraham Polansky. Fifty years later, Polansky, whose gripping screenplay steered the film past the usual clich�s of the genre, was still mad as hell about his years in exile. (Castro, 7/23; Roda, 7/30)

Max Baer's Last Left Hook A disarming send-up of an overly serious Holocaust documentary, you may find yourself totally believing Avida Livny's shaggy dog story about a famous Jewish fighter's fabled last ring appearance. (Castro, 7/22; Roda, 8/1)

The Bubble Israeli master Eytan Fox opens this dangerously hopeful tale with a reluctant warrior. Noam (the very enticing Ohad Knoller) is a T

A scene from The Bubble. Photo: Courtesy SFJFFA scene from Just an Ordinary Jew. Photo: Courtesy SFJFF
el Aviv slacker doing his army reserve duty at a border checkpoint. A young Palestinian woman has a miscarriage, and Noam unexpectedly finds himself smitten by her young cousin, Ashraf (Yousef "Joe" Sweid). When Ashraf suddenly pops up in Tel Aviv, Noam and his left-leaning roommates work miracles to give the kid a Hebrew name, a fake ID and an off-the-books restaurant job. Soon the gang is partying together, holding raves to protest their country's occupation of Arab lands, yet at the same time living as if their hip neighborhood were not in a perilous state of denial.

Before it pops, The Bubble provides a window on hot sex, complicated friendships and a parallel universe where Israel and Palestine could co-exist like New York and New Jersey. The subtly emotive Sweid is a perfect everyman for an upside-down world where hope is still a four-letter word. (Roda, 8/2)

Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women With a bow to Woody Allen's classic framing device in Broadway Danny Rose, Rachel Talbot has four contemporary female Jewish comics describe the rigors of being funny and feminine while noshing out at a traditional Jewish dairy restaurant. The four comics — Judy Gold, Jackie Hoffman, Cory Kahaney and Jessica Kirson — use their own career mishaps and triumphs as a jumping-off point for reviewing a century of struggles by six notable Jewish comic performer/writers: Molly Picon, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Joan Rivers, Wendy Wasserstein and Gilda Radner. You may wonder how the careers of such a disparate group of entertainers manage to dove-tail so neatly in 85 minutes, but they do. We learn how Brice broke through taboos about women doing raunchy physical humor, how Tucker convinced audiences of her day to tolerate a female performer who not only enjoyed sex but was eager to keep her male lovers in line. Rivers demonstrates just why she has kept a large queer fan base while frequently exasperating more traditional Jewish crowds. The career of the late Radner illustrates why the phrases attractive woman and female comic can be used in the same sentence, and the story of Wasserstein shows why it took until 1989 for a female playwright to win a Tony. The film includes some amazing performance footage and some great food scenes. And yes, somebody does go into the dirty little secrets behind binging and purging. A hilarious and instructive closing-night film. (Castro, 7/26; Roda, 7/28)

Just an Ordinary Jew Ben Becker delivers a devastating monologue in the role of a German Jewish culture writer who's been asked to represent Germany's tiny Jewish community for a class of curious German high school students. This one is tortuous as the subject wanders morosely through his cluttered apartment reviewing artifacts of his Jewish clan's past and his own uncomfortable attempts to pass as a "real German." You'll see why the traditional German short pants can feel tight in the crotch for a skinny blonde Jewish boy who's not sure what statement he's making by wearing them. (Castro, 7/25; Roda, 8/2)

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