A young boy immigrates to the United States from Odessa, Ukraine, and discovers here the two great passions of his life: Judaism, and boxing. Meet Dimitriy Salita in this edition of New American Voices.
Dimitriy Salita, a welter-weight boxer ranked 9th in the world, is an observant Orthodox Jew. Wherever his bouts may take him, he keeps kosher, and he will not fight on the Sabbath, from sunset Friday until sunset on Saturday. But growing up in Odessa, he says he didn't know very much about his faith or its practices. "No, not too many Jews were observant over there," he explains. "I didn't know what kosher was, I just knew that we couldn't eat pork. My grandmother, she still remembered some Jewish things from when she was a kid, so she kept holidays, she didn't eat pork. I mean, there was a vague idea of Judaism. For example, on Passover, I remember my dad and most of the Jewish men in town would go to the central synagogue to buy matzohs [unleavened bread]."
In 1991, when Dimitriy was nine, his parents decided to emigrate to the United States, where his grandmother and an uncle already lived. The family settled in Brooklyn, a section of New York City where many immigrants from the former Soviet Union gravitated.
Dimitriy remembers his first impressions of his new country. "You know, coming out of the airport I expected to see tall buildings, because that's what I saw in movies back in Ukraine," he recalls. "And we were driving on the highway, so I asked my uncle, 'Where are the buildings?' And he said, 'That's only in Manhattan.' It took a little time to adjust to the language, to the different culture, to the food. Like for example I remember, pizza and potato chips was an acquired taste, but once I got a taste for pizza I couldn't stop for a long time," he says, laughing.
It took him a while to adjust to school, as well, Dimitriy says. He didn't speak the language at first, his clothes were not cool, and when the other kids laughed at him or picked on him, he would get into fights. Then, at age 13, he found a boxing gym in a Brooklyn housing project, and started training. "I just remember that at the boxing gym, when I started boxing, at least in my conscious mind I always wanted to do it just for competition, and never for self-defense, or anything like that. Subconsciously, though, maybe it was for that reason. But going to the boxing gym I felt comfortable, I felt at home, and I felt it's where I belong. All day at school I would look forward to coming home, doing my homework and going to the gym!"
The Brooklyn gym happened at the time to have one of the best amateur boxing teams in the country, and Dimitriy Salita got to spar and train with guys who went on to become very successful professionals in the sport. He also found a trainer, Jimmy, who took the young immigrant boy -- the only white kid on the team -- under his wing. "The other fighters at the gym at first thought that I was going to be easy pickings [a weak opponent]. But Jimmy took an interest in me and he began to develop me," Dimitriy Salita remembers. "You know, a great trainer sees something that's there and works it, and one of the great things Jimmy did was that he reinforced self-confidence in me and reinforced the fact that 'you're going to be a world champion and you're going to win this and you're going to win that.' And for a young kid growing up it's very important for people to believe in him."
Dimitriy Salita's interest in his Jewish roots developed on a parallel track. About a year after he began boxing, his mother became ill with cancer. In the hospital, Dimitriy was introduced to his mother's roommate's husband, who turned out to be a rabbi of the orthodox Lubavitcher sect. They got into a conversation about life and Judaism, Dimitriy says, then the rabbi connected him with the local Chabad or Lubavitcher center, and step by step, Dimitriy Salita's involvement with his Jewish heritage intensified.
"I think it was a combination of a few things," Dmitriy Salita says. "Obviously boxing is not a team sport, so for me personally it helped me develop a personal relationship with God and become more spiritual. I pray every time before I spar, before I fight. You know, we need help all the time, but in boxing you directly feel that you need help. Almost every day when you train. So that definitely helped me in dealing with some of the things that were going on personally in my life at that point in time. You know, there's good things to be gained from any experience. So fortunately I met the man that I did at the hospital, and he directed me to this chabad house, and thus started my route of observance."
Having made the decision to abide by all the requirements of his orthodox faith, Dimitriy at one point almost gave up boxing because of the difficulty of competing professionally and keeping shabbos (refraining from work on the Sabbath) at the same time. But now he has a manager - as it happens, a rabbi who from childhood was hooked on the sport of boxing - who takes care of such issues as scheduling and diet for him. Dimitriy feels that he is on his way to reaching his goal. "My dream is to be a world champion, and to be in the Hall of Fame when I'm done and retired," he says. For the amount of time that I'm blessed with talent, to capture people's imagination and prove that I'm the best boxer in the world." He adds, "I've had this goal since I was thirteen years old."
Dimitriy Salita's next fight will be for the North American Boxing Association's welter-weight title in New York's famed Madison Square Garden on August 25th. He says that before a bout, he trains six days a week, two or three times a day. But bout or no, he tries to visit the synagogue daily, and spends fifteen minutes each day studying the Torah.
This interview was based on an interview conducted by Jon Kalish in New York.