Film festival packs a wallop

To me, boxing is like a ballet, except there’s no music, no choreography and the dancers hit each other.

— Jack Handey

These days, any mention of Jewish boxers is likely to elicit a question involving the phrase “nice Jewish boy” and ending with “a place like this?”

But in the days when a Jew had it made if he was pressing suits or collecting scrap, a disproportionate number of pomade-headed young Semitic lads took to the ring — between 1901 and 1939, 27 Jews hoisted championship belts overhead as world title holders.

And, best of all for Nancy Fishman, it makes for good cinema.

The program director for the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival grew up in a household where her father and his pals’ after-dinner conversations consisted in large part of waxing nostalgic about Jewish ring legends like Barney Ross, Bummy Davis or “Slapsie Maxie” Rosenbloom.

Like many intellectuals, there’s just something that engages Fishman about the most primal of sports. She’s a fan of boxing and movies — and the twain will meet at this year’s festival. Five of the 54 films featured in the 27th Jewish Film Festival are about boxing; you could call it an undercard.

“There’s something archetypal about boxing. It’s about confronting one’s own mortality,” said Fishman, who assembled the boxing films along with New York Jewish boxing historian Mike Silver.

“It’s all about the romance of the ring and, I hate to say this, it’s a blood sport,” she continued. “It’s life or death in there. When you watch tennis, you don’t usually imagine the loser of the match being knocked out cold.”

Silver describes “Body and Soul” as the “quintessential boxing film,” about a good Jewish boy who fights his way out of the slums, his Yiddishe mama and a pack of mob heavies who want to deliver a boy from the neighborhood.

Despite these obvious devices, the film avoids clichés, in large part due to star John Garfield’s Oscar-nominated performance. (As an aside, Garfield could understand why so many Jewish boxers anglicized their names — he was born Jacob Julius Garfinkle.)

“My Son the Hero” is the sort of amusing little farce that is hardly produced anymore. It stars Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom himself as a borscht-brained boxer who shares a squalid hotel room with his two-bit manager, Big Time. When Big Time’s son returns on furlough from the war (the film was made in 1943), the boxer and his manager pretend Big Time really is big time, acting like he’s a successful businessman and finding him a house to call his own.

The Rosenbloom vehicle is on the same program as “Max Baer’s Last Right Hook,” a sharp Israeli mock-documentary detailing quasi-Jewish boxer Max Baer’s trip to pre-state Israel to fight a German boxer in the midst of World War II. “Rare footage” of the fight even shows up.

“It couldn’t have possibly happened, but once you get into the film, you wish it had,” said film festival Executive Director Peter Stein.

Among the festival boxing films, there is not one, but two main events: “His People” and “Orthodox Stance.” The first is a 1925 silent film revolving around the lives of two Jewish brothers in Roaring ’20s New York City: A law student and a boxer. Take one guess which is the “good” brother and which is the bad. In this inversion of what constitutes status, the law student is a sniveling coward who is ashamed of his greenhorn parents, while the pug is a mensch.

“It’s not a boxing film so much as it is a classic that really captures a time that is totally gone, and an era of Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side of New York with vendors and packs of kids,” Fishman said.

And those aren’t incredible sets — those really are street scenes from the Lower East Side of yore, Stein notes.

But the film’s most knockout feature may well be the music. Silent films of the day were all intended to be screened with at least a piano or organ accompaniment. For “His People,” the festival has gone one further. Jazz composer Paul Shapiro heads a six-piece band that will play Shapiro’s original score at the film’s July 21 Castro Theatre show.

“It’s a really, really great film,” Fishman said. “I think it’s a good date movie or a family movie. There are winners and losers, and a few teardrops will be shed. And the music is fantastic.”

“Orthodox Stance” is the film that convinced Stein that a subset of boxing films would work for the festival. He saw a rough cut of the documentary some time ago and is convinced the film is every bit as intriguing as its subject — Dmitriy Salita, a 24-year-old Ukraine-born Orthodox Brooklyn Jew and one of the most scintillating young fighters in the world today.

There are no Friday Night Fights for the observant Salita. Instead, his thousands of bearded and kippah-wearing fans enjoy Sunday fights and, often, live music from Matisyahu, a friend of the boxer’s.

Following the Sunday, July 22 show at the Castro Theater, a panel featuring Silver, director Jason Hutt and, if he doesn’t have a fight, Salita himself will convene.

Just don’t ask Salita what he’s doing “in a place like this.”

Unlike Max Baer, he’s got many right hooks left in the tank.


Sieg heil, mein satire

The best of the rest of the fest

Orthodox boxer wins rounds, fans in new documentary

Jewish film fest schedule

Cover photo illustration by Cathleen Maclearie

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.