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Deep dive into Rocky

By Jacob Gurvis

PHILADELPHIA — 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.

Paul Farber is the creator and host of a new podcast about the Rocky Balboa statue in Philadelphia. (Gene Smirnov)

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.

Now Farber is 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.

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 do, and should, play.

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.

What really inspired this project is a conversation I had with my mother. My mother is a lifelong Philadelphian. Her parents were Jewish immigrants in South Philadelphia. 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” she gave me this look that I think a lot of us know: “How could you.”

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.

“Rocky” is obviously not a Jewish story, but there are some nuggets. What do you think about the little Jewish pieces you can pull out of this story, and what do 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. It 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.”

We never hear about Mickey’s Judaism. We never hear about Rocky’s bond across culture.

There is another famous grave 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. 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.

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.

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.

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 a significant site of memory in the city, but ask questions about it.

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 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.

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 should it take for an athlete to reach that status?

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. A statue outside of a stadium is like a particular kind of professional accolade. But the other forms are really meaningful.

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