Joseph Greenstein’s life isn’t just a rags-to-riches story, but a sick-to-(extra) strong one.
Known as “The Mighty Atom,” Greenstein wasn’t simply strong, he was twist-a-horseshoe-with-his-bare-hands and drag-a-car-by-his-hair strong. He also happened to be small — 5’ 4” and 150 pounds — and proudly Jewish, even wearing a Star of David on his strongman singlet.
Greenstein’s life and feats of strength are the subject of the new documentary, “The Mighty Atom.” It’s a labor of love by his grandson Steven Greenstein, owner of a film production company in Silver Spring.
“When I was very young, a teacher asked me and the other children, ‘What do your dads do for a living?’”
Jerry Greenstein, son of The Mighty Atom and the filmmaker’s father, says in the documentary. “And one said a lawyer, one said an accountant, one said a plumber, one said a carpenter. And I said, ‘My dad bites chains and bends horseshoes.”
Jerry’s teacher, as we all might, assumed these to be the exaggerations of a boy with an overactive imagination and penchant for comic books. That is, until Greenstein himself showed up in his son’s class the next day, grabbed a chain from his pocket, bit it straight through and spit the severed link onto the table.
Greenstein died at 84 in 1977. Watching the film, he seems tailor-made to go viral, a would-be “internet sensation,” as Donald Kuhns Jr., a firsthand witness to a Mighty Atom show who is interviewed in the documentary, says.
Born sickly and in poverty in Suwalki, Poland, just before the turn of the 20th century, Greenstein had the odds stacked against him. As a teenager, he contracted tuberculosis — then known as consumption, a frequently lethal diagnosis that had already taken his father — and doctors told him he wouldn’t live past 18.
Greenstein’s salvation came from an unlikely source: He ran away with the circus.
He was taken under the wing of a wrestler and strongman called Champion Volanko, who also was Jewish, and traveled across much of Eastern Europe and Asia, learning, the film contends, the training regimen and mental control that would help him become The Mighty Atom. Healthy and strengthened, he returned to Poland to marry and start a family before leaving again, this time to immigrate to Galveston, Texas.
According to family lore, Greenstein’s big break came in the form of a customer’s flat tire at the gas station he owned. Greenstein brought over the new tire and proceeded to lift the entire car — including its driver and two passengers — to change it. One of those impressed passengers was renowned escape artist Harry Houdini. Houdini’s manager took on Greenstein as a client and the budding strongman soon took to the vaudeville stage in New York.
It wasn’t just his incredible strength that made Greenstein stand out. He had the creativity and ambition to imagine amazing (and occasionally death-defying) stunts and then the strength — and ego — to execute them. And he brought his family along for the ride.
“For the Greensteins, strength was the family business,” the documentary says, showing a photo of the Mighty Atom and a line of four well-muscled sons.
Just being strong doesn’t pay the bills, so Greenstein toured the country using his strongman act to sell his own line of healthy living products.
The documentary is at its most interesting — and fun — when its namesake is onscreen, either through archive footage or stories of his great feats. One that stands out is a dustup he had with an apartment building’s board who had a sign prohibiting dogs and Jews from attending the meeting. Greenstein wouldn’t stand for the blatant anti-Semitism and took the group of offenders to task with his Hank Greenberg bat — and won.
Though the film runs for only about 75 minutes, it drags most when it leaves its strong subject matter for long digressions about a woman who, in a moment of great distress, lifted a car off her father or how Greenstein maybe — but no one really knows — inspired Superman. Or the unnecessarily long time spent with the owner of Art & Strength in Baltimore, who bends iron rods by hand into art. Watching it, this viewer turned into a demanding circus-goer: Bring back the Mighty Atom!
Undoubtedly, this is the documentary attempting to place him in what it suggests is a long lineage of strongmen inspired by Greenstein. But it would have been better served by putting the Mighty Atom in better context of strongman history or even just letting the fellow strongmen interviewed — the likes of Dennis Rogers, a grand master strongman, Slim “The Hammer Man” Farman and Greenstein’s other son, Mike (aka “Mighty Atom Jr.”), who, at 93, went on “America’s Got Talent” to pull a car with his teeth — talk more about his legacy in the strongman circles of today.
At the end of the day, however, Greenstein’s story is impressive enough to anchor the film. Some of his feats have not only never been replicated, but he showed great Jewish strength in a time of anti-Semitism and prejudice. And Steven Greenstein brings it all back around to his grandfather’s lived philosophy: If you have the will to do it, you can.
“The Mighty Atom” is available on iTunes and Google Play.