‘Supergirl’ to the rescue

An upcoming documentary on PBS tells the story of Naomi Kutin, a young Orthodox girl who has shattered powerlifting world records

Naomi Kutin in competition. (photo credit: CARMEN DELANEY/SUPERGIRL FILM LLC)
Naomi Kutin in competition.
Naomi Kutin can’t quite decide what she wants to wear to her bat mitzva. Sequins are a bit too much, too girly. But a marbled blue satin number is too boring. She eventually settles on a swingy peach dress – which she’ll pair with a white 3/4-sleeve shell underneath, for modesty. “I’m becoming a part of the Jewish nation,” she says, “and I’ll have a really awesome party.”
When we meet Kutin at the start of the documentary Supergirl, she’s 11 years old, and she has already broken world records in powerlifting.
That’s right, powerlifting – not the average hobby for any preteen, let alone one from an Orthodox Jewish family in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. But Kutin isn’t average. She started lifting competitively at age eight, and by nine she was squatting 215 pounds, breaking a world record previously held by a 44-year-old woman. Today, Kutin is 16, a junior in high school (my alma mater, in fact), and can squat 321 pounds and deadlift 363. Supergirl, directed and produced by Jessie Auritt, has made the rounds of film festivals throughout the US. On December 18, it will come to US broadcast television, airing on PBS at 10 p.m. (check local listing). Viewers can watch Kutin grow, from celebrating her bat mitzva with friends and family through finishing high school, all the while working out, competing and breaking records. It would be easy to watch and lament the pressure and demands on Kutin at such a young age. But it’s easy as well to draw similarities between her and gymnasts, child actors, even academic prodigies who uncover talents early in life and are encouraged to pursue them. Kutin herself is surprised at the difference between her everyday persona and her weightlifting one. “That’s the strange me that I don’t recognize,” she says, watching a clip of herself psyching herself up and then competing. “That’s my powerlifting alterego.”
Kutin didn’t exactly stumble into the world of competitive lifting – her dad, Ed, has been doing it for decades. When Kutin showed athletic aptitude at a young age, he asked her if she wanted to try some lifting. The rest, as they say, is history. Even her younger brother, Ari, has taken it up as well. The film portrays the struggles of the Kutin family, between pushing Naomi to do her best while allowing her to choose her path, and handling the health issues that come her way, including debilitating migraines. Many may walk away from the documentary feeling that it was too much for a young girl to handle, while others will be impressed by her fortitude and strong familial support.
Oddly enough, the documentary makes it seem like Naomi has just one sibling, Ari, as opposed to four total. While the others likely asked not to be involved, the seeming insistence that they don’t exist is a touch bizarre. Otherwise, the filmmakers are sensitive in telling the story of a young girl and have created a quietly dramatic, captivating storyline. When Kutin started competing, Ed opened social media accounts for “Supergirl,” as she quickly became known, posting videos and status updates on her adventures. She can therefore see negative comments people have posted online. “That’s not very nice!” she exclaims, walking away from the screen. Naomi, Ari and their parents, Ed and Neshama, regularly traveled the country in order for Naomi to compete, balancing their Orthodox lifestyle with the world of competitive lifting. As Ed puts on a tallit and tefillin in the airport, Naomi sits and plays with her phone. They check into the hotel and request a low floor, since they can’t use the elevator on Shabbat. On Saturday night, after making havdala, they set out for the competition. While privately they balance the seeming contradictions, the Kutins are aware that they are skirting the norms of Orthodox Jewish behavior. “It could be very controversial in some circles,” said Neshama. “We might be shunned... much more strict Orthodox families would never in a million years put their girls in sports – period.” There is no mention of approval or disapproval from her school, Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, New Jersey.
But allowing the documentary to be filmed inside school grounds is a tacit blessing. Despite missing class for migraines and health issues as well as competitions, we get to watch Kutin graduate from eighth grade, head held high with her cap and gown in place. In the years the documentary covers, we see Kutin grow not just in height and strength, but also in patience and understanding of her limitations. “I think everything does happen for a reason,” she says. “It has to. There is a saying in Judaism – gam zu letova, which means, everything is for the better. You have to always look for the little hints of good that are in the bad things.”