Doctor Takes Recreational Activities to the Extreme

By Max Gross

Published February 18, 2005, issue of February 18, 2005.
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At a certain martial arts studio in Canarsie, Brooklyn, Tuesdays are known as “Beat Up the Jew Night.” At least, that’s what the Jew in question calls it.

Every Tuesday at around 8 p.m., Dr. Barry Grossman sheds his yarmulke and ritual fringes, puts a bite plate in his mouth and takes his place with his “extreme fighting” class at the Universal Defense Systems studio. The teacher, Ralph Mitchell, is a former Kung Fu champion; a cop, a fireman and a former boxing champion all take their turns fighting Grossman — and each other.

For those who never have seen extreme fighting, it can be called “fighting” in the same way that a hydrogen bomb can be called a “weapon”; it is the most intense synthesis of boxing, karate, judo and other martial arts imaginable, so violent that it has been banned in several states.

Such a dangerous sport can leave participants needing medical attention, so it’s a good thing Grossman is a doctor. “I’ve stitched up people” after fights, he said.

But Grossman is not intimidated easily. “Barry holds his own,” Mitchell said has he watched the 44-year-old student spar recently with an opponent roughly half his age.

Extreme fighting is not Grossman’s only source of excitement. He surfs and scuba dives, runs marathons and, perhaps more dangerous than anything else, rides a Harley Davidson motorcycle. These are not, he concedes, activities typically associated with Orthodox Jews.

Sporting a dark-brown beard, a black yarmulke and serene brown eyes, he was disarmingly mellow as he spoke to the Forward in his quiet, tidy internal medicine office in Stuyvesant Town, the massive Manhattan apartment complex opposite Beth Israel Hospital. On the wall was a picture of a bearded Orthodox Jew running through a swimming lane that had been parted by Moses.

“I just got back from Micronesia,” Grossman said late one afternoon, after his last patient of the day had left. “It’s one of the scuba hotspots in the world.” He raved about the diving, and explained that he had brought a suitcase filled with kosher food. He also brought his own hot plate and cooking pot.

Growing up in Los Angeles, Grossman began surfing and scuba diving when he was still a kid. “Malibu was the place to surf,” Grossman recalled with a grin. As a diver he would catch lobsters and trade them with non-Jewish divers for kosher fish. He got his junior scuba card when he was 14.

“They all thought I was crazy,” Grossman said of his family’s reaction. “They supported me 100%, [but] they were concerned with my safety.”

Raised in a Conservative household, Grossman opted for an Orthodox education when he was a teenager. He moved east to the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, the Lubavitch Hasidic enclave, where he still lives today. He enrolled in a Lubavitch yeshiva, where he learned to be a scribe and a kosher butcher, but after graduation he stayed at the school and taught biology and math.

At 30, Grossman decided he wanted to be a doctor. He enrolled in Brooklyn College. While working on his degree, Grossman rediscovered athletics. His partner in a chemistry course encouraged him to start running. Three months later she signed him up for the New York City Marathon. He spent the summer training and finished the race in five hours. (In the three marathons he has run since, he has slashed his time by an hour.) A photo of Grossman crossing the finish line hangs proudly in his office.

After medical school, Grossman finally decided to settle down and start a family; today he has 3-year-old twin daughters and an infant son, with his wife of four years, Jackie. But Grossman didn’t want to let a subdued family life make him go soft, so he decided to get back into shape. That’s what drew him to extreme fighting.

Grossman rode to his extreme fighting class last week on his Harley Davidson, with a Forward reporter perched nervously on the back. It was the reporter’s first time on a motorcycle. As they sped through the streets of Crown Heights, past Grossman’s black-hatted Hasidic neighbors, he turned to the reporter and shouted, “You know, if we fell off now we would probably die.” The doctor, the reporter mused, might have to work on his bedside manner.

When they arrived at Mitchell’s class, Grossman said the evening would be limited to training — no serious fighting. But after Grossman stripped down to a blue tank top and black shorts, he sparred with the other members of the class until he was sweaty and exhausted. As Grossman and his partner fought, one of the people in the class approached the Forward reporter and said, pointing to Grossman, “He’s the fighting Doc — that’s what we call him.”

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