Toe-to-toe with boxing’s future rabbi

Yuri Foreman v Daniel Santos

I’ve found it more and more difficult to praise religion reporting found in the Los Angeles Times — more on that soon — but Kevin Baxter gave me great occasion to lay down my arms with his profile of Yuri Foreman. At least, I thought he would.

You might recognize Foreman’s name. He’s been getting attention because of his paired, and overlapping, professions. Orthodox rabbinical student. Junior middleweight boxing world champion. Foreman burst unto the national media scene when The New York Times told his tale of Talmud and tape two years ago.

Before Foreman replaced me as a speaker at the Jewlicious Festival, an annual weekend retreat for young Jews, Baxter caught up with the once-novel character who has blossomed into a Jewish icon. His account contains many fascinating details, but very little religious or historical meat. I’ll start with what I liked:

The 29-year-old Foreman never set out to be a Jewish icon. In fact, he never set out to be Jewish, having grown up in a secular family in Belarus and Israel before finding religion — and a pro boxing career — in Brooklyn.

“Becoming a Jew,” he says with a grin, “was a gradual process.”

The journey began on the banks of the Sozh River in Gomel, the second-largest city in the former Soviet republic of Belarus and a place that was once home to a vibrant Jewish community. That community was nearly wiped out twice, first during the pogroms of czarist Russia at the start of the 20th century and four decades later by the Nazis.

By the time Foreman was born in 1980, his family had become so secular that his parents thought their ceremonial kiddush cups, passed down from their ancestors, were fancy shot glasses for drinking vodka. “We were so far away from Judaism we didn’t know to hide it,” Foreman says.

It gets even more interesting when Baxter retells the alleged threat from Foreman’s ex-coach. But there are a lot of religion ghost floating around this story.

To be sure, this is not the first time I’ve been critical of an article Baxter has written about Foreman. Appearing in November on this blog:

Typically, we refer to a person studying to be a rabbi, like the newly crowned WBA junior middleweight champ Yuri Foreman, as a rabbinical student, not a rabbi-to-be. The Los Angeles Times got it right; USA Today got it wrong. But the LAT failed to deliver even a light body blow to the broader tale of Talmud and the tape. The first word of sports reporter Kevin Baxter’s article about Foreman is “rabbinical” — and not another mention of anything related to Judaism.

This article was a vast improvement over that effort. But …

To start, Baxter never mentions that Foreman is another in the long line of legendary Jewish boxers. (There was a bit of a gap for the past three-quarter century.) He only quotes two rabbis saying their is no tension between pummeling your opponents while wanting to redeem their souls — Tikkun olam, anyone?

“Judaism is very much stressed in the here and the now. That is, it’s a celebration of life, not withdrawal,” says Rabbi DovBer Pinson, Foreman’s rabbinical instructor. “The stereotype of Jews in America is Woody Allen. I think that’s a very good stereotype to break.”

I like it. I bet Scot Mendelson does too. Though long before Foreman there was Bugsy Siegel and a lot of other “Tough Jews” who broke the weak Jew stereotype, though without the holiness of, say, Samson.

This boxing tradition omission bothers me because it completely overlooks an elemental part of Foreman’s story. Imagine Major League Baseball, which has had its problems attracting African American youths, not having a notably black player for a few decades. When an all-star broke through, wouldn’t it be worth mentioning, for context, history changers like Jackie Robinson and Frank Robinson and Matt Kemp? (You just wait on that last name; it’s going to happen.) Or imagine that the NBA, a league once dominated by Jews, didn’t have a single Jewish player for several years. I think a reporter might deal with a profile of Jordan Farmar, a back-up point guard for the Lakers who happens to be Jewish, in this manner.

Baxter also quotes Foreman mentioning that when he trained in Israel, the other boxers wanted to hurt him because he was a Soviet Jew. This sentiment is never explained. Having worked in the Jewish community and having visited Israel, I don’t need it explained. But I imagine most readers do.

And though Baxter gets into a nice conversion story that involves Foreman and his wife, a Hungarian model, both searching for a spiritual anchor and finding it in their familial religious tradition, there is no explanation of why Foreman began studying to become a rabbi — or why he’s still working toward that goal despite his unbelievable success in the ring. So much success that it looks like he’ll be on Yankee Stadium’s first fight card in more than three decades.

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  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Brad,
    Too bad Foreman isn’t a few inches shorter – he would have fit in great with Stanley Fish’s NY Times column today about Fish’s desire to “identif[y] with a short, tough guy who is also Jewish” (e.g. Edward G. Robinson, James Caan).

  • Matt

    Baxter is a sportswriter, formerly on the Dodgers beat as I recall, though I don’t know that the LAT has a reporter who focuses on religion anymore. On a more encouraging note, I thought the current Dodgers beat reporter, Dylan Hernandez, did a rather decent job of profiling the Christian faith of young pitcher Clayton Kershaw. Personally, I’d have liked details like the church he attends, but Kershaw got a fair amount of space to speak for himself.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    Baxter was on the Dodgers beat, but not for long. Thanks for pointing out the Kershaw feature though. I missed that.


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