He knows that some people will never understand what an observant Jew is doing in his line of work, and he’s a little weary of explaining. Besides, it’s not like he took up boxing because he was a Jew or started praying more because he was a boxer. “I love Judaism,” he says. “I love the culture of Judaism, the tzitzit, the tefillin, observing Shabbes, but you have to understand, we had nothing. My parents would buy the bags of fruit. You know the bags—the bananas and oranges and apples no one else wanted, in the 69-cent bag? That’s what we ate. You’ve got to understand where I came from to understand why I’m boxing. Some kids get an education, and that’s beautiful. But this is what happened to me.”
People like to take things out of context, he says. “ ‘You’re religious,’ they ask. ‘How can that be?’ What do they want me to do, quit boxing? If not for boxing, I wouldn’t be able to talk to schools, to talk to kids. I wouldn’t be talking to you.”
He says he knows he’s a role model. “Athletes, especially in boxing, great athletes take on social responsibility. That’s the way the cookie crumbles, as Jim Carrey said in Bruce Almighty.”
Salita couldn’t possibly have imagined this life fifteen years ago. That’s when Aleksander Lekhtman and his wife, Lyudmila Salita, left the port city of Odessa just as Ukraine declared its independence from a collapsing Soviet Union. They took their two boys, Dmitriy, then 9, and Misha, then 18, and Lyudmila’s mother and left behind a tidy house with a large cherry tree in the backyard, careers as an engineer (Aleksander) and accountant (Lyudmila), and a lifetime’s worth of casual but persistent anti-Semitism. Once, when a rumor of a pogrom filtered through the neighborhood, Aleksander bought a pistol. When a classmate called Dmitriy a zhid (the Russian equivalent of kike) and Dmitriy kicked the kid in the groin, Lekhtman told his youngest son he had done the right thing.
The five moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Midwood, a quintessentially American neighborhood, which is to say, a place where immigrants worked long hours at jobs far beneath their skills and children who had arrived a month ago tormented those who showed up last week. “Yeah, I got picked on,” Salita says. “But it was because I had $3 sneakers and $2 slacks. You know, I’d get the other kids yelling, ‘Payless shoes, Payless shoes,’ and throwing food at me. I was the new kid on the block. It’s something all kids go through.”
Four years later, when he was 13, according to the lore that has sprung up around Salita, the boy who would be Kid Kosher ended up at Starrett City Boxing Club in East New York because his parents and older brother were determined that the child learn to fight back. “That makes a good story,” Salita says. “But boxing was never for the purpose of defending myself.”
In school, Salita says, he was shy. “I wasn’t a cool kid, I wasn’t with the in crowd. Let’s put it this way: The prettiest girls in school didn’t know who I was. In the boxing gym, I felt comfortable.” There was also money, or the lack of it. “You know, people come from nothing, and they’re hungry. Some people channel that into going to Harvard. Some people get a car dealership, become successful businessmen. I wanted to prove myself to myself and to other people. I channeled it into boxing. And it so happened I was talented at it.”
Salita was one of the only white people at the gym. The other boys loved to spar with him, though “spar” probably isn’t the right word. He made a game punching bag. “He had that European style,” says Jimmy O’Pharrow, Starrett’s founder and Salita’s longtime trainer. “Stand up straight, that ‘art of self-defense’ stuff. But this is a ferocious country. It’s always been a ferocious country. And I taught him to fight ferocious.” O’Pharrow, who is Catholic, black, and 80 years old, is perhaps the young fighter’s closest friend in the world and a man who rarely utters a sentence that doesn’t seem destined for boldfaced type. Their relationship serves as the emotional linchpin of Golden Boy.
At Starrett’s, the radio was always tuned to Hot 97. Salita shadowboxed to hip-hop—Tupac Shakur, the Fugees, the Notorious B.I.G. “He didn’t fight white boys,” O’Pharrow says. “I had him fighting black boys, Spanish boys, kids who were out to kick his ass. And I taught him how to kick their ass, how to slip and slide, how to fight their way.” Today, as O’Pharrow will tell just about anyone with a notebook, “Kid looks Russian, prays Jewish, and fights black.”