Between fight and flight

Sometimes a teacher, always a student – an Israeli martial artist’s journey home.

krav to the face_521 (photo credit: Ronen Shnidman)
krav to the face_521
(photo credit: Ronen Shnidman)
Imagine embarking on a bullet-speed journey from Tokyo to Bangkok to Haifa with your 14-year-old son over the course of a little over a week. It would be enough if the trip were just a vacation, but say you had to take everything you could carry along with you and leave the place you called home for the past 25 years. What if you were leaving to escape the disastrous aftermath of a terrifying series of earthquakes, a lethal tsunami and subsequent radioactive fallout caused by several leaking nuclear reactors? It sounds like the plot of a blockbuster thriller, but it is just another mercurial year in the life of Israeli martial arts expert Avry Gottesmann and his Japanese-born son, Ness.
Gottesmann began his long and fateful sojourn in the Far East over 40 years ago, when the then-six-year-old son of Hungarian Holocaust survivors living in Haifa began studying karate and judo with local martial artist Avichai Cohen. Even then, the training and discipline of the Asian-style martial arts appealed greatly to Gottesmann. With the encouragement of his late teacher, Gottesmann hoped to learn one day from the Japanese masters.
“It was my dream to go to east to learn Japanese martial arts,” Gottesmann says.
At the age of 23, Gottesmann decided to make his dream a reality and set off for Japan with only the $1,000 he had received from his elder sister as a parting gift.
Upon his arrival in Japan, Gottesmann went straight to work on what became a decades-long quest for martial arts knowledge, learning numerous fighting techniques ranging from Kyokushin karate to Muay Thai and Russian Systema, to name just a few. Along the way, Gottesmann made a living working in stints as a prizefighter in Thailand and a bodyguard to celebrities and traveling businessmen, eventually opening up his own Tokyo dojo. In recent years, Gottesmann came to specifically embrace the teaching techniques advocated by fellow Israeli KAPAP practitioner Maj. (res.) Avi Nardia, and he began training his Japanese students as a licensed level-four (the highest level) KAPAP instructor.
According to Nardia’s and Gottesmann’s website, KAPAP (krav panim el panim, or “face-to-face combat”) “is the original hand-to-hand combat system employed by special operations and anti-terrorist units in the IDF and Israel Police.” Among those listed by Japan KAPAP as practitioners of the discipline are current and former members of IDF special forces such as Sayeret Matkal and the Egoz Reconnaissance Unit.
During his two and a half decades in the country, Gottesmann became acclimated to life in Japan, marrying a local girl, starting a family and teaching martial arts students out of his dojo in a two-story building he rented in Tokyo’s Kyabakura neighborhood.
Gottesmann and his family had every reason to feel optimistic about the future. As late as March 6 of this year Gottesmann and Nardia ran a KAPAP seminar for Japanese martial arts students that, as Gottesmann tells it, drew significant attention from the Japanese press and martial arts community.
Yet on March 11, the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck Japan.
Despite the tsunami, repeated post-quake tremors and the initial news of the radioactive leaks at the nuclear power plants in Fukushima, the Gottesmann family decided to remain in Tokyo immediately following the quake. Yet Avry began noticing over the course of several days small details that gradually began to add up to a picture he found more and more unsettling.
“I didn’t see any panic in the streets, but when I went to any 7-11, a convenience store or a grocery store I couldn’t find even one bottle of water or a loaf of bread to buy,” says Gottesmann.
“One of my friends even posted on his blog that he couldn’t find toilet paper at his local store!” he exclaims in disbelief. “I realized that something was going on, and I don’t know and I will never entirely know what is going on because I am an outsider.”
Both Avry and Ness describe listening to the discrepancies between Japanese and foreign media reports describing the spread of radioactive fallout and the progress of the containment effort at the nuclear power plants. Avry particularly points to the government’s decision to begin evacuating the less-populated municipalities surrounding Tokyo due to radiation concerns while steadfastly maintaining that Japan’s largest metropolis was not itself in any danger.
“I started to worry because I can fight any person, I can fight many people. Gun, knife, it doesn’t matter. But radiation is not something I know how to fight,” says Gottesmann.
Consulting among the three of them, the family decided to split up and get Ness to someplace safe outside of Japan. Just barely, Ness and Avry were able to purchase some last-minute tickets on a 12:30 a.m.
Thai Airlines flight to Bangkok, from where they would proceed to Israel. In the meantime, Gottesmann’s wife remains in Tokyo to take care of her ailing father, who was in a hospital before the March 11 earthquake struck the region and threw his care into jeopardy.
After spending a week in Bangkok destressing after their sudden departure from Japan, Avry and Ness arrived in Haifa three weeks ago, and are trying to reorient themselves.
A lot of work lies ahead of them. Ness just finished eighth grade in Japan and must register in an Israeli high school for the beginning of the next academic year, even though he speaks and understands only a few words in Hebrew.
Avry, in the meantime, is picking up his life in Israel where he left off almost 25 years ago. Currently operating out of his boyhood home in Haifa, he is looking to train some new martial arts students in Muay Thai, Kyokushin karate and other fighting forms, as well as continue his previous work as a bodyguard and security trainer for VIPs.
While life has certainly thrown his family an unexpected punch, Avry Gottesmann has made a life out of adapting to the facts on the ground. In fact, his experience fits nicely within his fighting motto: “Sometimes a teacher, always a student.”
Those who want to learn more about KAPAP and Gottesmann’s martial arts teaching methods can visit his website at Gottesmann can be reached by email at