Appreciation: Yehuda Leon Pantanowitz, 1938-2006

The renowned karate teacher and referee died during Succot. He is survived by his wife, three children, his mother and a sister.

pantanowitz 88 (photo credit: )
pantanowitz 88
(photo credit: )
Just over four years ago, five members of our family, among them my cousin Leon, went to Lithuania to trace our roots and to find, if possible, the graves of those in our family who were murdered there in 1941. After an extraordinary day in the tiny village of Inturke, we were led by a local resident, who remembered our family and spoke Yiddish, deep into the forest to the pit where 137 Jews of the village had been slaughtered. At the sickeningly small gravesite, marked only by a chain-link fence, we said Kaddish. In the evening, both saddened and elated by the day's events, we decided to mark our "victory" at a joint supper. Leon came too, of course. But he wouldn't eat a thing - a fast day had begun - the 17th of Tamuz. He attended the supper, but kept faith with his belief. Another story: Once, he told me, he visited Ireland, among his professional visits abroad. In a pub that night two "heavies," recognizing his kippa and his ready admission that he was from Israel, began taunting him and making anti-Semitic remarks. They challenged him to "come outside and settle everything there." Leon, slight of frame and a little stooped, looked like an easy mark. He held up an arm, bent at a right-angle at the elbow, and said to the two: "If you can straighten my arm we'll go outside and finish things, as you say. If you can't, I advise you to drop it." They couldn't, and they dropped it, sharing a pint afterwards, and perhaps a different view of Israel and the Jewish people. These two stories illustrate some of Leon's outstanding traits: his devotion to his people, country and faith, and his fearlessness, fed no doubt by his abilities, and his passion for karate. He trained to a ferocious schedule, and reached the top: Last year he was awarded an 8th Dan by his teacher, Sensei Morio Hiagonna, head of the IOGKF karate system based in Okinawa, Japan. Leon was also International Vice Chairman and the Israeli Chief Instructor of IOGKF, the only Israeli authorized to referee international competition fighting and kata - the basic training sequences in karate. SINCE HIS sudden illness - he succumbed to an incurable cancer which had crept up on him - his home has been inundated with visitors, letters, phone calls and E-mails from Israel and abroad, surprising even his close family, who were not always aware of how far and wide his teaching and other skills had reached. Praise came also from the pharmaceutical field - a second career where he worked as an industrial pharmacist, and where his ability to find innovative solutions to problems came to the fore. But his first love was clearly karate: He was known to be an exacting teacher who could temper his comments with a wry joke or smile. Above all, he was hardest on himself. A scattering of comments, picked up from the Web site established by friends, just hint at his story. Firstly, from Japan itself - his 9th Dan Master, Higaonna: "Sensei Pantanowitz was a great man, a great leader, an outstanding karate-ka, a friend and a confidant." John Whitby, New Zealand, wrote: "It has been an honor to train with such a man. He was tough but fair, with a heart of gold." Torben Svendsen, Denmark: "Sensei Leon Pantanowitz was much more than a karate instructor. He was a spring that would never stop giving me, and I believe everyone else, inspiration to new angles from which to view a technique, a kata or a training method." David Rodriguez of Israel: "Few people have impressed me so much in my lifetime… his integrity, modesty, non-materialistic philosophy of life, knowledge… and more than anything his willingness to help. "I was the witness to some of the many good deeds that both he and Norma did to help needy students and their families even at their own economical risk. As for the Martial Arts, Sensei lived and breathed it every moment. He has left a stamp worldwide and lifted our flag way high, a thing that all Israeli martial artists should be proud of." WE WERE often poles apart on political issues and would argue loudly and fiercely about Israel and Jewish life in general - and then the fire dropped suddenly into a special smile that lit up his face and those around him. In all, Leon was a brave, sweet man who set himself uncompromising standards, loved life and fought to live it to the full. He was born nearly 68 years ago in the then small town of Klerksdorp, South Africa, and I remember the day of his birth. We grew up, together with my brother, as brothers. And so he remained for me.