His parents were happy their boy had found something he liked—“They thought it was an after-school activity, like tennis,” Salita says. But when he started arriving home with black eyes, they weren’t so happy. Each of Salita’s parents had a master’s degree. A prizefighter their boy wanted to be?
Over the next few years, Jimmy O would drive Salita to tournaments around the country, often paying the entry fee. Salita remembers the T-shirts each entrant received. “A free T-shirt! That made my day.”
O’Pharrow bought Salita a raincoat when the boy complained about running in the rain. He bought him an air conditioner during one sweltering summer. He told the boy he could be great.
His mother woke Salita at six every morning. He would run to the school yard, then run around the school yard, then run home to shower, then attend school, then back home for some homework and a nap, then the gym, then back home and more homework. One afternoon when he came home after school, he found his mother on the living-room floor, shaking from a seizure. She had breast cancer, and it had spread. Salita was 14.
The next couple years, he woke himself. He still ran, still worked hard in school, still followed Jimmy O’s every bit of advice. But now to his daily itinerary he added trips to Sloan-Kettering hospital, where his mother was spending more and more time. Sometimes he slept there, in his mother’s room.
Jimmy O remembers the day she arrived outside the gym in her car. Soon she would be back in the hospital for good. Times before, when she wanted to say something to Jimmy O, she had left the car. Today she waved. It hurt too much to walk. She called Jimmy O to the car window.
“I want you to take care of my boy,” she said.
She shared a hospital room in the last months of her life. Her roommate was an Orthodox Jewish woman. It was that woman’s husband who called another woman, and that woman called a rabbi to speak of the young boy who had one afternoon in the hospital room proclaimed his plan to be a world-champion boxer. The rabbi called Salita. Did he want to talk?
Salita’s family, like many Soviet Jews, was not observant. There were no weekly trips to the synagogue, no Friday-night candles, no Passover seders. He had a “Russian style” bar mitzvah. It was held in a Russian restaurant, now closed, in Brooklyn. There was a cake with thirteen candles. There were no prayers. Salita wore a yarmulke and a band played “the mazel tov song.”
“The mazel tov song?” I ask.
“You know. ‘Da-dum-da. Mazel tov, mazel tov, mazel tov.’ ”
Still, Dmitriy met the rabbi. Why? Because he was a lonely immigrant who didn’t fit in at school? Because his mother was dying? Because even though he’d never been religious, he’d always thought himself a Jew, had been so enamored of the religious freedom he saw in his adopted country that he had himself circumcised a few months before his bar mitzvah? (His uncle did the same thing at age 55.) Because, he says, “I always believed in God, and had a personal spiritual relationship with Him.”
In 1998, Salita won a bronze medal in the national Junior Olympics, “to show my mother I could do this at the highest level.” Shortly thereafter, Lyudmila died. Every day for the next eleven months, Dmitriy went to shul to say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. Not just any shul, but the Chabad House on Ocean Avenue. Chabad Lubavitch is a sect of Hasidism, a populist Jewish movement emphasizing spiritual revival that began in Eastern Europe during the eighteenth century. Based in Crown Heights, the Chabad Lubavitch utilize telethons, the Internet, and loudspeaker-equipped vans (“Mitzvah Tanks”) in the quest to save Jewish souls. Salita didn’t go because he thought his soul needed saving. He went because his mother was dead, and the Chabad House is where the rabbi who had called him taught.
After eleven months, Salita continued to go to the Chabad House, sometimes for just a few minutes. He wrapped tefillin around his arm and forehead, then said morning prayers. Much of the time, he had no idea what was being said.
“It wasn’t crazy,” he says. “I don’t want you to paint a picture that I was crazy religious from the beginning. I ate French fries and cheeseburgers. It was very step-by-step. If it felt uncomfortable, I took a step back.”
He made deals with himself. After one boxing tournament, he went to both Friday-night and Saturday-morning Sabbath services. After another, he shut off his computer Friday at sundown and kept it off until Saturday night. One weekend, he kept the television off. A few weeks later, he avoided talking on the telephone.