Ruth Sofer, born Li Yonhua, teaches tai chi, kung fu and other Chinese martial arts for a living.
By GLORIA DEUTSCH
Ruth Sofer, born Li Yonhua in Tsingtao near Beijing in 1953, came to live here in 1994 with her new Israeli husband whom she met and married in China. She converted to Orthodox Judaism and, now divorced, lives in Netanya with her 28-year-old son from a previous marriage and teaches tai chi, kung fu and other Chinese martial arts for a living. With a bright smile and heavily-accented Hebrew, she told me her story.
LIFE BEFORE ALIYA
She began learning tai chi at seven and has reached the level of sixth master in the graceful martial art, which is said to contribute to the well-being of the soul as well as the body. She studied and taught it for years in China as well as gaining a bachelor's degree is history from Shandong University.
In 1994 she met her husband, an Israeli who was traveling in China and decided he wanted a Chinese wife. They married in a civil ceremony. Since she does not speak any English and did not then know Hebrew, it is not clear in what language they communicated. However, she came back with him to Netanya and began the process of converting.
It took a year of studying about Judaism and she believes she passed the tests thanks to help she received from friends. "I went to the mikve and became Jewish," she says happily. The rabbi in charge of her conversion gave her the name Ruth, a time-honored name for converts.
LIFE SINCE ALIYA
After 10 years of marriage, her husband divorced her. She was very worried at being left to fend for herself but has managed to build a comfortable life, while working hard at what she enjoys doing.
"I thought it would be difficult alone," she says, "but I manage fine and I'm sorry I didn't divorce sooner."
She teaches all over the center of the country, employed by schools and community centers to pass on what she calls the Torah of martial arts to adults and children alike.
Dressed in her trademark scarlet silk exercise suit, she can be seen often on Netanya's beach, or in Hayarkon Park in Tel Aviv, leading her classes in the ancient arts of tai chi and kung fu. Other less exotic locales are in schools in Tel Aviv and Ra'anana.
She also gives demonstrations and is often asked by the Chinese embassy to perform.
She was also asked by the embassy here to go to the Olympic Games in Beijing as a volunteer and found herself cheering on the Israeli athletes. Recently she returned to China for the International Wushu Olympics where 69 countries sent their top wushu athletes and Ruth, the sole Israeli, marched with the Israeli flag at the opening ceremony and came home with two gold medals.
At the moment she rents a four-room apartment where she lives with her son, but she now feels in a position to buy something. Her son, who was 17 when he came, works as Chinese/Hebrew interpreter.
"I have many friends from the Chinese embassy and many good Israelis who have helped me since I came, including my pupils."
"I manage because I work hard. I have a large family in China who also help me and before I came here I had a good business there and managed to save. I go back at least once a year to visit my sister and brothers."
"I believe strongly in God. I went through some very hard times but God sent good people to help me."
"I was born in China and lived there for more than 40 years, but now I'm here and I feel I was born again when I became Jewish. I love both countries but I prefer to live here now."
On her scarlet costume are two small flags, the Israeli and the Chinese.
She went to learn Hebrew in Ulpan Akiva when she arrived and feels she is learning something new all the time. She used to play the violin and feels there is something very musical about the Hebrew language, which she speaks well but with a strong accent. All her classes are conducted in Hebrew.
She will begin working at the Confucius Institute at Tel Aviv University and wants to continue what she is doing now and spread the love of wushu and Chinese culture in general in Israel. She has her own Web site with explanations about the various martial arts, articles about her in the Hebrew press and teaching schedules. The site, "The Chinese Wushu Culture Exchange Center," also features a video of Ruth demonstrating tai chi moves with the sea as backdrop and can be seen at www.chinesewushu.co.il.
"Tai chi is my life," she says.
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