The ‘yetzer hara warrior’

Jacob Lunon’s incredible life story from the Civil Rights-era American South to Jerusalem.

Jacob Lunon and his students  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Jacob Lunon and his students
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
When one thinks of kung fu, the images the mind conjures up are often Bruce Lee, shirtless, winding his body in preparation to kick some serious tuchus. The image that one does not necessarily conjure up, is an African-American man with shoulder-length, salt and pepper dreadlocks and a diamond smile. But it is an authentic one, and it belongs to Jacob Lunon. Born in 1954 during the Jim Crow era, Lunon was adopted when he was a baby through a Lutheran agency. His birth mother was 14 at the time, and he never met her.
“Growing up, we were geared toward either the ministry or the army,” Lunon says. “That was the only way that a young African-American male could have any way of breaking out of the racism that was pervasive, even though both the army and the churches were still segregated.”
On his third birthday, he and his adoptive family were in Eagle Lake, Michigan, on a picnic. The Ku Klux Klan came and threw rocks at his father while he was swimming. One hit him in the head and he drowned right in front of Lunon’s eyes. A few years later, the Kaplans, a Jewish family, took in him and his mother. Lunon’s mother became a domestic worker, which Lunon emphasizes was the only respectable position for an African-American woman in the late 1950s. She learned about kashrut and Lunon began learning about Shabbat.
At six years old, he remembers asking about lighting Shabbat candles. He was told that it’s the job of the Jewish people to uphold and protect the world.
“I totally did not understand, but then Mrs. Kaplan showed me a globe and said that there are Jews living all over and every Friday night, they light candles so that there’s a flame that goes all the way around the world,” Lunon recalls.
That conversation lit a spark for Lunon.
“Then I learned that the Jews were all studying and reading the same Torah portion every week all around the world, and that got me hooked,” he said. “You could go to any church of the same denomination and they were all saying something different – there was no unity, except for that of survival. Because in the African-American churches, that was the only place you could congregate to talk about politics.”
The Kaplans began taking Lunon to synagogue with their own children on Saturdays. On Sundays, Lunon would accompany his mother to church.
“The synagogue was not segregated, but I was the only African-American. There were some people who didn’t like me being there, but I didn’t know because I was too young,” Lunon recalled.
Shortly thereafter, Lunon and his mother moved to Englewood, New Jersey. His routine of going to synagogue on Shabbat and church on Sunday continued. When the church wanted to confirm him, Lunon told his mother he wanted to be Jewish and she accepted it.
“She told me I could choose whichever religion I wanted, so I chose to be Jewish, but I wasn’t yet converted and it wasn’t easy for African-Americans at that time,” Lunon explained. “There was a lot of racism in the Jewish world. Things started to change in the mid-60s and then in the 70s, with the Falasha [Ethiopian] Jews and figuring out how to bring them home to Israel. In every Conservative synagogue, there were pictures of them, which really inspired me.”
Lunon says he had a hard time in school because other African-American students didn’t like him, since he was staying after to do band and music, which was what Jewish students typically did. The white, non-Jewish students didn’t like him because he was African-American.
Lunon had to learn how to defend himself. When he was 12, he met a Chinese friend who introduced him to kung fu.
“Kung fu was not known at the time, unless you lived near Chinatown and woke up at 4 a.m. to see everyone practicing kung fu and tai chi,” Lunon said. “I got hooked on it immediately.”
Lunon’s extended family was still living in Little Rock, Arkansas, at the time. When his grandfather died, he went for the funeral and was at the bus station picking up his cousins. He remembers seeing two water fountains: one was very dirty and marked “Colored.” The other was clean with a refrigerator box and was marked “White.”
He went over to the cleaner one, but before he could even touch it, his mother had grabbed him and slapped him across the face, which she had never done before. He was shocked and embarrassed. All the white people were laughing. Then a white family came in – a mother, her daughter and a grandmother. The grandmother was clearly from the South, but Lunon could tell that the mother and the girl weren’t by the way they dressed. The little girl made a beeline for the water fountain marked “Colored” and turned it on. She looked up at her grandmother and said, “Grandma, there ain’t no colored water coming out of this water fountain.” At that moment, Lunon realized there was something so big going on that he couldn’t fix it.
AFTER THAT trip, Lunon swore that he was never going back to the South – a promise he made good on until about 12 years ago.
“I had dyslexia and had trouble reading in school, but I could play music beautifully,” Lunon recalled. “My mother put me in a drama group, which was performing Shakespeare’s The Tempest. This forced me to read in such a way that essentially cured my dyslexia. It slowed the process of my brain. I was hooked on acting.”
In his 20s, Lunon graduated from the acclaimed Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York City. He taught kung fu to drama students and saw the connections between the two disciplines in breath control and self-mastery.
“What kung fu taught me was ‘derech eretz’ – manners, respect, and honor,” Lunon said. “I got it, and kids that didn’t have it, I didn’t associate with.”
Lunon then opened his first kung fu school at the Hackensack Recreation Department in New Jersey. It quickly became hugely successful, with kids joining in droves, necessitating a waiting list. The classes were three hours long. During the first hour, everybody would work out together. In the second hour, the class would do their school homework. In the last half-hour, everyone would come and work out together again.
Lunon says that this way he knew, at least twice a week, the kids in his class were going to get an A. That was his method of teaching. Traditionally, a Chinese kung fu class is three hours long. Thus, Lunon was drawing on a long tradition. In the 1980s, Lunon was second in the nation and seventh in the world in the Amateur Athletic Union’s welterweight division of Kung Fu/Karate Championship.
Around that time, Lunon completed a Conservative Jewish conversion and married a Jewish woman. Together, they had two beautiful children. But the marriage didn’t last, as his wife wanted to stay Conservative and Lunon felt he was searching for something more.
The next chapter of his life saw Lunon become the chief acting teacher for the Afro American Studio for Voice and Speech. His first play was called Tabernacle, which was based on a true story about two boys who were thrown off a roof by police. His second leading role was an African-American adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, called It's Showdown Time.
“It was one of the funniest plays I have ever encountered,” Lunon recounted. “In between shows, I was always dedicated to kung fu. I was either scheduled at tournaments, waking up at 5 a.m. every day to run three miles and train, or I was teaching. Kung fu was always my passion, but they fed each other.”
Lunon’s most influential kung fu sifu (instructor in Chinese) was a quiet man named Bill Chung. He was a scientist for Colgate during the day and at night, was the 13th descendant from the hung ga (southern Shaolin style of kung fu). He had also been a drill sergeant in the army. He was tough and incredibly humble.
Chung was thrown out of NYC’s Chinatown for training Lunon and some Puerto Rican boys, so they started training in midtown at the Aaron Banks Academy, hosted by the first world-renowned martial arts promoter.
Lunon’s other main influence was a man named Danny Pai. He was a phenomenal teacher of pai lum (the White Dragon system of kung fu), which originated from his grandfather Po Pai, who learned on the island of Okinawa in a temple called White Lotus. It is these two systems that Lunon, now a black belt many times over in kung fu and Japanese Shudokan karate, continues to teach today.
“Back when I was coming up in the ranks, the major tournaments were open, so you had to know other people’s styles in order to compete – tae kwon do, kung fu, karate,” Lunon explains. “You had to be versatile. Kung Fu tournaments were even harder because kung fu is very demanding. It’s not about just how to knock a person down – it’s about how to knock down your ego, the way to be humble and flow like water, to develop every aspect of your being like a circle. Whereas karate I look at as a straight line. I never stopped training, ever. I even started learning tai chi as I got older.”
Lunon later moved to Seattle, where he was married a second time and began starring in a one-man show called The Right to Dream, where he played a SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) worker running for town council in Mississippi in 1965. This was the movement that broke away from Martin Luther King Jr.’s SCLC because they thought he was moving too slowly.
He was also sent to companies to do diversity training. After he and his second wife parted ways due to him never being home; he was ready for another change. Lunon began running a home for juvenile delinquent boys and was asked to take them to a religious service. He found a synagogue in the area that he didn’t realize was a Christian Messianic congregation.
“I started noticing things that weren’t right, but I stayed long enough to attend a Passover Seder and meet the love of my life, my wife Talia,” Lunon said. “We got married 18 years ago. She had discovered Aish Hatorah at the time that we met and was also realizing that she wanted something more authentic than the Messianic style of Judaism she had been introduced to.”
Together, they went through an Orthodox conversion. Lunon subsequently opened up a kung fu school in Seattle called Macabee Martial Arts in 2003, which started in a synagogue. The patches on the uniforms read “Yetzer Hara Warrior.”
Lunon is proud to have trained three generations of kids before passing on the torch when he and his wife made aliyah in 2016. They now live in Rehavia, where Lunon is once again doing what he loves most – teaching Kung Fu to about 15 students, offering seven classes per week.
For now, Lunon’s passion project is a TV series about his life called Skin Deep. The first season is already written, and he and his writer, Zach Grashin, are trying to get it produced. Lunon sees Skin Deep as his legacy.
“My ultimate dream is to open up a kung fu yeshiva for kids who can’t sit and learn for eight hours a day,” Lunon said. “They will learn Gemara and Tanach, but they’ll learn for five hours a day and train for five hours a day. This will promote physical, mental and spiritual health. I’ve found that this way works. Kung fu creates a harmony and balance between the spiritual and the physical, just like Judaism.”
Lunon says the kung fu yeshiva could “produce some Jews who will open the floodgates” for the messiah.
“My whole purpose in life is to do that, but I can’t do it alone,” Lunon said. “I need support and help from anyone else who shares this vision. In my school, if you stay long enough and become advanced, I give everybody a challenge. I say there are 248 positive commandments, pick one. You can’t do everything. But you can do one thing really well. I tell them to study it and really live it – wrap your whole life around it and it will change your life.”
To learn more about Macabee Martial Arts International: Jacob Lunon can be reached