Israeli goes kung fu fighting

Pursuing a passion: Shmuel Shoshtari, a former krav maga student, is representing Israel in an international kung fu competition in China.

Kung Fu fighting 521 (photo credit: Courtesy of ShaolinUK)
Kung Fu fighting 521
(photo credit: Courtesy of ShaolinUK)
Shmuel Shoshtari proudly carried the Israeli flag at the world’s largest international kung fu competition in China last October. He did so while marching alongside fellow students from Kyrgyzstan, Germany, Iran and numerous other places around the world.
He enjoyed the privilege, he said, not because he is a master of the martial art, but because he was the only Israeli the organizers could locate among China’s thousands of kung fu students.
Modest about his ability and limited experience, 22- year-old Shoshtari admitted that, “I am not good enough to compete against these people,” in an interview via Skype from the Shaolin Wushu School of Kung Fu in Deng Feng, where he has been living, studying and training since January 2010. “They have all been training for years while I have been training for just a few months. It would be like asking you to compete at the Pan Pacifics against Michael Phelps because you know how to swim or because you own a bathing suit.”
Since Israel hadn’t actually sent an official delegation and the competition planners wanted representation from as many countries as possible, they made inquiries at the 60 kung fu schools in Deng Feng. Seeking an Israeli, they eventually found Shoshtari.
He describes the event, held in Zhengzhou, as, "the kung fu equivalent of the World Cup or Olympics," taking place every four years. Martial artists of all ages and abilities arrived from across the globe, including Japan, Tanzania, India, Spain, Macau, China, Singapore and Argentina. Even the prince of Trinidad and Tobago came to take part in a sparring contest.
“Both the school and I knew I wasn't good enough to compete,” Shoshtari insisted. “There were people there from the Chinese National Team and others who’ve been training since childhood. A week before I went, I trained with a competition group at my school, which includes the best of the 5,000 students here, ranging from eight to 17 years old. You see these ten-year-olds fighting who look so small but they have unbelievable power and skill.”
For a person who has been training for only a few months, he acclimatized himself quite well. “In open fist form competition, I came in ninth place out of 12. In the spear form competition I placed 10th out of 16. I was lucky, because you can make very small mistakes; for example, your leg can slip a bit on the carpet and they take away points.”
Shoshtari was born to an American mother and an Israeli father. He grew up in a small agricultural village, called Moshav Haniel, in central Israel. When he was about five years old, his parents sent him to go learn krav maga, the Israeli self-defense system, which is also considered the Israeli martial art. Years later, he took an interest in kung fu, which is one of the oldest martial art forms in the world.
“Kung fu has so much precision and power in the moves - that's what it's all about. It's like classical music," he explained.
Shoshtari eventually met an older student who'd studied in China and found the notion of spending a year at such a school irresistible. He went and learned some Chinese, saved some money, quit his job in software development, packed his bags went at the end of December 2009. "My father thought I was out of my mind," he recounted. "But I knew I just had to go, so I did." Living in a dorm in fairly stark conditions with two 12-year-old Korean roommates, Shoshtari wakes at sunrise every day for intense power training - sprinting, running upstairs, jumping - to increase his stamina and muscle development. After breakfast and a break, there is another long session on techniques and forms, then more training followed by a break and lunch. Twice a week, night sessions are added to the schedule. “I could barely run before I came here,” he said with a smile. “I was totally out of shape. This place has really changed my body and has been such a great experience.”
Fortunately for Shoshtari, who tries to observe the Sabbath, the schedule is more easygoing on Saturdays. He spends and observes Jewish holidays in Shanghai, where there is an organized Jewish community and synagogue.
“As a Jew and as an Israeli, it's amazing to come to a place where the perception of Jews and Israelis is phenomenal," he said. "They all want to take pictures with me. They consider us very clever and they respect us. I've met people here from all over the world who had never met religious Jews, or any Jews really, and they're all very nice and interested in our culture.”
At the opening ceremony of the Wushu competition, national flag-bearers stood in alphabetical order. That put Shoshtari next to the athlete from Iran. Though Israel and Iran are not on good diplomatic terms, Shoshtari has found that such tension is irrelevant on an individual level, and he gets along just fine with an Iranian student at Shaolin Wushu.
Shoshtari plans to return to Israel soon and is looking to pursue studies in electronic engineering. He expects to return to his former krav maga roots as well, while keeping up with kung fu informally. "I think I'll be reviewing what I learned here for years," he said. "Like playing a piece of classical music, you can always improve your speed, power, and precision. No matter what, there's always room for improvement. This has been an experience I will never forget.”
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