The Tale of the Tape and the Talmud
By ZACHARY BRAZILLER
Four days before his first North American Boxing Federation title defense, Yuri Foreman sat in the basement of a Brooklyn brownstone studying Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish law. By early afternoon, he would be at Gleason’s Gym to train for his approaching bout with Saul Román, a power puncher from Mexico with 24 knockouts in 28 fights.
This hectic schedule is familiar to Foreman, a 27-year-old rabbinical student and an undefeated professional light middleweight boxer who wears the Star of David on his boxing trunks and a black skullcap when he is studying or praying.
He answered rapid-fire questions from his teacher, Rabbi DovBer Pinson, an author and lecturer. The mental exercise, Foreman said, was tougher than any boxing routine.
“It’s a sharpen-your-mind workout,” he said. “When I go to the gym, I’m training my physical self. With the rabbi, I’m training my spiritual muscles.”
His manager, Murray Wilson, said a victory against Román on Thursday night in Brooklyn could earn Foreman (24-0) a shot at Joachim Alcine, a Canadian who holds the World Boxing Association title.
Foreman said his studies to become an Orthodox rabbi eased the physical stress of his boxing training. But he said he set the sport aside while reading the Talmud or attending classes twice a week at IYYUN, a Jewish institute in Brooklyn.
“Boxing and Judaism go side by side, because it’s a lot of challenges,” he said. “I would love to be a world champion and a rabbi.”
A three-time Israeli amateur national champion, Foreman came to the United States eight years ago to become a professional fighter. In 2000, he hoped to win the New York Golden Gloves and parlay it into a successful career. Instead, he lost a close decision in the final.
“I was very disappointed, but looking back, it was good I stayed another year in amateurs,” he said. “I won the next Golden Gloves, and then I was really ready.”
At first, Foreman had trouble getting fights while members of his first management team clashed. He was financially strapped.
About four years ago, Wilson, a New York City restaurant owner, stepped in as his manager and guided him to Bob Arum’s Top Rank organization. As Foreman’s career prospects improved, so did his personal life.
At Gleason’s, he met Leyla Leidecker, the Hungarian woman he would eventually marry and who would help set him on his religious quest. Leidecker, an amateur fighter and former fashion model, did not consider herself religious while growing up. She converted to Judaism in 2006.
Growing up in Belarus and later Israel, Foreman was not religious. As a Russian Jew, he said he was considered an outcast in Israel.
About five years ago, Leidecker suggested they study kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism. In an Internet search, she stumbled upon Rabbi Pinson’s classes at IYYUN.
Foreman said the first class went over his head. But he stuck with it, attending dinners with the rabbi and beginning to observe the Sabbath and other Jewish laws. He now wears tefillin — scrolls of Scripture attached to his arms and head during prayer — and tassels under his clothes.
“God gave me opportunities,” Foreman said. “I feel like I have to do something in return.”
Eighteen months ago, Rabbi Pinson sent an e-mail message to his students about the prospect of rabbinical studies. Foreman said he seized the opportunity out of a thirst for knowledge and a desire to help others. He said he hoped to one day return to Israel to share what he learned, although he is at least three years from being ordained as a rabbi.
“I can have my own community to help Russian kids,” he said.
His wife said she was not surprised by his commitment to studying his faith. “He was without his family, trying to get back to his roots, trying to belong somewhere,” Leidecker said.
Foreman’s endeavor has led to debate among some Jewish leaders.
Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, said Jewish principles would seem to put Foreman’s professional career at odds with his religious education. It is forbidden, the rabbi said, to injure yourself or another person. Rabbinic law also asks individuals to avoid situations of potential danger.
“He has to recognize there are certain issues he has to confront,” Potasnik said. “Doing what he’s doing is problematic, but all of life is problematic. That’s something he has to resolve, and I respect him for his commitment.”
But Rabbi Benjamin Blech, an assistant professor of the Talmud at Yeshiva University, said Foreman could help fight the belief that Jews were weak or could be bullied. When asked how he would react to the notion of a world champion boxing rabbi, Blech said, “I would be proud.”
He added: “Everything has a risk-and-reward factor. Does that mean he can’t go bungee jumping, get in a car or a plane?”
Foreman said his goal was not to injure himself or his opponent, but to win by outscoring competitors. And Arum, who described himself as an observant Jew, said rabbis have told him that Foreman’s studies and boxing were not in conflict.
Rabbi Pinson said that if Foreman had approached him as a young man, he would not have suggested a boxing career. Because Foreman was already accomplished in the sport, however, he said he would not dissuade him.
Foreman attempts to restrict his fights to weekdays.
If a bout lands on a Saturday, as was the case in June, he observes the Sabbath by remaining within walking distance of the arena. Wilson, his manager, said the sun had yet to set when HBO officials called for Foreman to make his way to the ring. He refused to do so.
“He pulled me into the corner,” Wilson recalled, “and said, ‘Please, let’s pray for five minutes.’ ”
Orthodox boxer! It's about time!