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A Jewish expert on monuments on what Philly’s famous Rocky Balboa statue can teach us about memory

(JTA) — Paul Farber was shocked when he first watched “Rocky” and saw a Star of David on the grave of Rocky Balboa’s coach, Mickey Goldmill.

As a Jew and as the founder of the Philadelphia-based Monument Lab, which has explored collective memory through art installations across the country for over a decade, Farber was well positioned to think about the deeper meaning of that brief shot.

“Anytime I see a Jewish funeral in a film, there’s some kind of call to attention. And I always want to know what that means, especially for a Hollywood production, especially when it may not be branded as a Jewish story,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

“We’re not there in a prolonged series of mourning, but in a split second, seeing a Jewish site of a memory is really fascinating,” he added.

That outlook lies behind Farber’s work as the host of the new NPR podcast “The Statue,” a deep dive into Philadelphia’s famed  statue of Rocky Balboa, the fictional prizefighter at the center of “Rocky.” The series delves into what sports and society can convey about memory, and in his research, Farber discovered a few Jewish nuggets found in the film series — including the fact that Rocky’s love interest was originally supposed to be Jewish.

“They made an actual gravestone [for her character] and it’s in Philadelphia’s most famous cemetery, Laurel Hill. And you can go there and see this gravestone where a movie character is ‘buried,’” he said. “People leave offerings on the gravestone, including small pebbles as if it’s a Jewish site of memory.”

In an interview with JTA, Farber shared his inspiration for the series, how his Jewish upbringing informed his life’s work and the role statues — such as that of Jewish baseball legend Sandy Koufax — do, and should, play.

This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Jewish Telegraphic Agency: To start off, I’d love to hear about how you first got interested in studying monuments.

Paul Farber: I’m really interested in the ways that, in cities, we innovate toward the future, and also come to terms with our past, and it happens often in the same exact places. That could be a statue, a street, a corner store. And so that’s a big part for me.

What really inspired this project is a conversation I had with my mother, quite a few years ago. My mother is a lifelong Philadelphian. Her parents were Jewish immigrants in South Philadelphia. And when I told her I was teaching a class at the University of Pennsylvania about Philly neighborhoods, she asked me if I was covering Rocky. When I said, “Oh, it’s not on the syllabus” — and I may have said it in a way that felt dismissive — she gave me this look that I think a lot of us know: “How could you.” So for her birthday, we watched “Rocky” and we went to see “Creed.” My grandfather went to South Philly High and was in the boxing club. He shared stories in our family about what it meant to have sport and culture and belonging go together in South Philly. I started to see that across generations, from long before “Rocky” to this moment now, almost 50 years after the release of the film, many people’s family stories could be channeled through this statue, including my own, and that was enough of a prompt to go dive in.

“Rocky” is obviously not a Jewish story, but there are some nuggets. There’s the funeral scene, and you mentioned something about Adrian almost being Jewish. I’m curious what you think about the little Jewish pieces you can pull out of this famous story, and what those mean to you as a Philly sports fan.

It blew me away that Rocky’s coach, Mick, passes away and the character Rocky goes to his funeral, and you see a Star of David. Anytime I see a Jewish funeral in a film, there’s some kind of call to attention. And I always want to know what that means, especially for a Hollywood production, especially when it may not be branded as a Jewish story. And it just opened up a whole set of questions for me that blurred between art and life, between the film series and the city of Philadelphia.

In episode two, we showcase this monumental art book that Sylvester Stallone [who played Rocky] created. There was this passage in it that just blew me away, about the first draft of “Rocky,” where he says, “As for Adrian, she was Jewish in the first draft.” And he got feedback and cut that character. We never hear about Mickey’s Judaism. We never hear about Rocky’s bond across culture. But the fact that the first scene in the “Rocky” series is in a place called Resurrection Gym — that is obvious Christian iconography — and to put Jewish characters in is really fascinating to me.

There is another famous grave that is involved in the series. The character Adrian eventually passes away, and like the statue, which was made as a bronze sculpture, for the “Rocky” film series they made an actual gravestone and it’s in Philadelphia’s most famous cemetery, Laurel Hill. And you can go there and see this gravestone where a movie character is “buried.” People leave offerings on the gravestone, including small pebbles as if it’s a Jewish site of memory.

People talk about representation on screen, and I’m not sure a Jewish funeral necessarily does that, but I would imagine for some people, seeing Rocky Balboa say the “Mourner’s Kaddish was maybe their first interaction with Judaism in some way. What do you make of that?

Every shot is deliberate. And it’s actually that kind of attitude and outlook that created the Rocky statue, because Sylvester Stallone was the director of that film, and they could have made a styrofoam version or a temporary one, but they spent over a year making a bronze version so that when the camera faced it, it would make contact. I think very similarly, this is part of the artistry of Stallone that plays out in our podcast series. We’re not with him when he sits shiva. We’re not there in a prolonged series of mourning, but in a split second, seeing a Jewish site of a memory is really fascinating. And to see the coach Mickey, to have his Wikipedia page say he’s Jewish, all that we have is mourning.

I think about how for immigrant Jewish communities, there are gaps in our narratives. Throughout the series, and one of the reasons I wanted to share my perspective as a queer Jewish person who grew up loving sports in Philly, I’ve been informed by my own family’s history, and what we’re able to recall and what gaps there are. And I see that being echoed for so many people in the Rocky story.

It’s clearly a very personal story for you. Why did you think it was important to start the podcast with your own identity, and to include your Jewish mother?

I think it’s important that when we talk about sites of memory, we understand that there are shared and collective ways that we bring the past forward, and there are others that are incredibly personal. My hope was to find, in this case, to spotlight, a significant site of memory in the city, but ask questions about it. And I think it was important to note what position I would take, because I don’t believe there’s one story to the Rocky statue. To tell a biography of a statue, you actually have to tell it of the people who make meaning from it. So in the series, we do a lot of work where we want to know other people’s stories and backgrounds, whether they are refugees from Afghanistan, or community organizers in Kensington [a neighborhood of Philadelphia]. My hope was by positioning this from my perspective, almost as a memoir in a way, that it opened up space for others to have their experiences be valued and made meaning of.

Podcast cover art

The official artwork for Farber’s podcast. (Courtesy)

Both with the podcast and in your work with the Monument Lab, how do you feel that your Jewish identity informs what you do? Do you see overlap between your Jewish values and the values you work on in your organization?

I absolutely think so. I grew up in a Jewish community in Philadelphia, and tikkun olam was a constant refrain. The work of tikkun olam meant a worldview that necessitated building coalitions and understanding across divides, to not diminish or under-emphasize them, but to appreciate how we work in solidarity, whether that’s around racial justice, gender justice, in various struggles. I am a co-founder and director of an organization that focuses on memory, and that I really get from the stories of growing up in a Jewish household, in a Jewish community, where memory lived in different ways. We were always aware of the stories of trauma and loss, as well as reconciliation and transformation, and how you work with the gaps that you have, and you listen, and you learn and you carry the story with you. Because that is the way to bond generations. Jewish memory really grounds what I do, and I seek to use it as a tool to learn more and to feed connection across divides.

Rocky takes on this almost mythical, godlike status, and his statue in Philadelphia is a bit of a pilgrimage site. Do you see any tension there as a Jew, given the prohibition against idol worship?

I think about the importance of memory, against forces of violence and erasure. I also understand that, in a world that is full of pain and difficulty and loss, we seek places to release that. And so I understand the pull to monuments. What I would like to see, and what we try to do through this series, “The Statue,” and also with the work of Monument Lab, is to look on and off the pedestal, and really think about how history lives with us. As we say in the series and other places, history doesn’t live inside of statues, it lives with people who steward them, who create other kinds of sites of memory, who are vigilant in their modes of commemoration. What I try to do in this work is understand the ambivalence around monuments, the pull to try to remember and be enduring through time, and just that constant reminder that whenever you try to freeze the past, or freeze an image of power, you cut out the potential to find connection and empowerment, and thus forms of survival.

In sports, there are so many ways to honor people, especially different ways that, like a statue, take on the idea of permanence. When Bill Russell died, the NBA retired his number 6 across the league. On Jackie Robinson Day, every April 15, the whole MLB honors Jackie Robinson by wearing his uniform number. But statues just have a different level of oomph. Sandy Koufax has a new statue in Los Angeles that was unveiled last year; Hank Greenberg has one. What do you think it should take for an athlete to reach that status?

The pinnacle in sports is to have a statue dedicated to you outside of the stadium. And I do believe the cultures of social media have amplified that, because we grew up with the story of Sandy Koufax not pitching in the World Series during the High Holy Days, and that wasn’t because we learned it from a statue or a plaque. We learned it because it was carried forward and put into different forms of remembering and recalling its importance. I went to several Maccabi Games in the U.S. — I used to be a sprinter. And the culture of memory and sport, they were one in the same.

In professional sports, the pinnacle is the statue, but I think you brought up other really important ways of remembering that operate in non-statue forms that feel like they are living memorials. The idea of retiring someone’s number, and keeping their number up, is a way to acknowledge, in this really public of all public spaces, an intimacy and a care, and especially when an athlete passes away, how that transcends the lines of city geography. Jackie Robinson Day is something that did not occur immediately after Jackie Robinson was the first Black player to play in the major leagues, but was a product of a later moment when people around Major League Baseball sought to activate his memory. So yes, a statue outside of a stadium is like a particular kind of professional accolade. But the other forms are really meaningful.

This article originally appeared on JTA.org.

The post A Jewish expert on monuments on what Philly’s famous Rocky Balboa statue can teach us about memory appeared first on The Forward.