Joseph Greenstein stood only 5 feet 4, but he could bend iron bars with his bare hands, bite through chains with his teeth and pull an airplane tied to his long hair. Known as The Mighty Atom, the pint-sized Samson was a Polish-Jewish immigrant who nearly died from tuberculosis as well as poverty and pogroms in the old country. But in the United States in the 1920s and ‘30s, he found fame as a strongman and later worked as a an advocate for his product line of herbal remedies.
Forever the entertainer, at age 84 in 1974 he was bending spikes in front of fellow hospital patients just before his death from bladder cancer. His grandson, Steven Greenstein, was only 5 years old at that time, but in a recent telephone interview from his home in Washington, D.C., he told the Journal that Joseph Greenstein “had a personality that loomed large, and his presence was felt in my house and is to this day.”
“Forty years after his death, he still holds several records.” — Jerry Greenstein
Steven Greenstein has now released a documentary, “The Mighty Atom,” that pays tribute to both the showman and the man. It is available for streaming on iTunes, Amazon and Google Play.
Over 20 years, Steven, a television and TV commercials director, collected photos and stories from relatives and other sources until he had enough to begin making the film in early 2015. A year into the project, he found an audiocassette of a 1967 radio interview with his grandfather, which he then used it as a narrative thread throughout the film.
The story includes biographical points, anecdotes and elements of the Jewish immigrant experience that, Steven said, made his grandfather “hungry and made him want to be special. Nothing was given to him. He had to be spectacular to break out of that and make a living.”
The documentary also features interviews with physiology experts and modern-day strongmen who put The Mighty Atom’s abilities into context. It tells of the filmmaker’s late uncle, Mike, who at age 93 appeared on “America’s Got Talent,” pulling a loaded station wagon with his teeth.
Joseph was a devout, proud Jew who grew a beard and wore the Star of David on his costume after he witnessed the beating of a rabbi in Brooklyn in 1928.
“It was important that his Jewish identity was recognizable,” his grandson said.
In the documentary, the filmmaker suggests that The Mighty Atom might have inspired Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to create Superman. He can’t prove it, but he is more convinced about other connections, including the comic book hero The Atom (of whom there are several incarnations) and Michael Chabon’s novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.”
In the novel, “There’s a Jewish strongman … named the Mighty Molecule, who bends steel. It’s clearly my grandfather,” Steven said.
He believes his grandfather deserves as much recognition as other renowned Jewish athletes such as baseball players Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg, and swimmer Mark Spitz. “There’s no reason what he did is any less of an athletic achievement,” he said. “Part of why I wanted to make the film is he should be on that list.”
Joseph had five sons and five daughters, and the boys became part of his strongman act. “We never made a big fuss about it. It was our norm,” Jerry Greenstein, Joseph’s youngest and only living son and Steven’s father, said in a telephone interview. But there was always competition among the sons to top each other and break their father’s records.
Having segued from the strongman act to stand-up comedy and a career in paper products sales, Jerry at 88 still has some skills. He hopes to replicate his brother Mike’s stunt when he turns 94, he said.
Both Greensteins believe that Joseph would love the documentary. “He liked being the center of attention,” Jerry said. “And he’d be proud that people are recognizing him for what he accomplished. Forty years after his death, he still holds several records.”
Steven hopes his grandfather’s example will illustrate that “we’re all capable of a lot more than we think,” he said. “I’m proud of him as a human being and for what he’s shown the world you can do.”
“The Mighty Atom” is available for streaming on iTunes, Amazon and Google Play.