The martial art of personal growth

A look at how judo links East and West, past and future, man and his universe.

Judo in Jerusalem 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Judo in Jerusalem 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Judo has been in the headlines recently due to the London Olympic Games. Against all odds, we didn’t bring back a gold for the performance of Arik Ze’evi.
Nevertheless, Israel is part of the pantheon of judo’s 138 Olympic countries today. The first time we brought home Olympic medals was in 1992 from Barcelona, when two judokas, Yael Arad and Oren Smadja, won silver and bronze medals respectively.
This inspired throngs of youngsters and won over many disciples to the sport. One of them is Ori Sasson, 22, who has been practicing judo since he was eight and will be participating in the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
“Since I was 12 years old, my dream has been to go to Rio de Janeiro,” says Sasson. However, there is more to judo than just competing, as he is delighted to divulge.
“Judo is a system of education,” says Sasson. “To be a true judoka you have to be a complete person, to be selfassured, you have to develop your character.
Without judo I would have been very different.”
Sasson, his brother Alon and Timna Nelson Levy are currently the three “truly outstanding athletes” at the Meitav Judo Center in Jerusalem, says Yoel Libster, who runs the center, which was established in 2000 and teaches more than 500 children and young adults in eight branches at local community centers in the capital.
Students include at-risk youth, individuals with special needs and those from single-parent families. “No child is turned away for any reason, financial or otherwise,” says Libster.
“At the center, students learn judo in an environment that promotes values such as honor, tolerance and respect for others,” he says. “They also improve their coordination, motor skills and ability to concentrate, and develop selfdiscipline and increased self-esteem.
Children from disadvantaged families receive large discounts.
“For some of the students, who attend the dojo [training facility] up to five times a week, judo keeps them off the streets and out of trouble.
It also helps reduce violence in schools because it teaches children about limits.
“Every year, the center’s most talented athletes participate in national and international training and competitions, where they have won a number of gold, silver and bronze medals. I often have to personally subsidize flights and training for athletes who lack the financial means, so that they can compete in international competitions.”
ANOTHER JUDOKA, a self-defined “judo fan” and member of the board of directors of the Israel Judo Association since 2011, is Soluto chief product officer Roee Adler. He says the success of Soluto’s remote PC management web service, which he calls “one of the most interesting startups on the Web today,” derives from a combination of Israel being a “start-up nation” and the skills learned since age six, when he followed his 12-year-old idol – his uncle – into judo. This uncle just happens to be Shani Hershko, national coach of the women’s Olympic judo team and olympian Ze’evi’s coach.
For Adler, “judo is a constant battle of wits, each tries to imagine the behavior of the other and bring him to the ground.” He compares it to a chess match, “although whereas in chess you have to think six or seven moves ahead in order to bring your opponent down, in judo you have less than a second to plan the future. Physics is involved.”
At 15, Adler became a Wingate Institute- certified trainer and joined his uncle in dojos of pupils aged five to 15.
This is where he learned management skills. “As a judo trainer you have to develop an amazing skill: to motivate five-, six- and seven-year-olds towards a goal,” he says. “Judo gives a sense of self-confidence, you feel smart, you get into shape, you learn the value of exercise, the meaning of discipline and selfdiscipline; understanding there is a goal that needs to be achieved and pushing yourself to achieve it.”
Some of the children Adler trained have become judo champions. “Young kids who practice judo start to exhibit adult behavior,” he says.
In judo, when the fight is over, we shake hands, says Adler. “Everyone respects each other. One of the most horrifying events in judo for me occurred in the past year, when an Egyptian opponent of Arik [Ze’evi]’s would not shake his hand.”
In the spirit of handshaking and promoting world peace, Olympic gold medalist judoka Yasuhiro Yamashita in 2010 held local workshops for 32 Israeli and 25 Palestinian young judokas, and then invited them to a one-day tournament in Japan. “One of the most important things in the spirit of judo is to respect an opponent, who is not an enemy but someone who helps you improve yourself,” Yamashita said at a press conference at the time.
“In judo you need to constantly decide what is most important and what you can you can do without,” says Adler’s uncle, Hershko. “That is the point. When someone tries to get you, use his strength. The first thing children learn when they start judo is ukemi, the correct way of falling in judo – tucking in the head to protect it and using arms or legs to slap down on the tatami [mat] in order to mitigate the impact on one’s body and organs.
The secret of falling correctly is physics, not technique.”
“Judo means the gentle way – ‘ju’ is gentle and ‘do’ is way or principle,” says Hershko. “This gentle way was first introduced in Israel by a man named Moshe Feldenkrais, he explains. “This same man developed Krav Maga, the Israeli self-defense program that has been packaged and is being sold abroad, and has a strong judo basis.”
MOSHE PINCHAS FELDENKRAIS, born in the Russia in 1904, met former Japanese education minister Jigaro Kano, the founder of judo, in Paris in 1933. Kano had adapted jiu-jitsu – once an ancient art of warfare, then a martial art – to allow practitioners safety and realism at the same time.
According to David Kaetz’s work, Making Connections: Hasidic Roots and Resonance in the Teachings of Moshe Feldenkrais, Feldenkrais was a descendant of Rabbi Pinchas Shapiro of Koretz. Shapiro was a colleague of the Ba’al Shem Tov and one of the founding fathers of Hassidism, and he studied Hebrew grammar as well as sciences and mathematics. He was described by one contemporary, Rabbi Leib Sarah, the Shpoler Zeide, as “the brain of the world,” while another contemporary, Rabbi Ze’ev of Zhitomir, said that his words came “from a part of the brain yet to be discovered.”
Feldenkrais came to Israel in 1919 after his bar mitzva, speaking Hebrew and full of Zionist ardor. He worked as a laborer until 1923 and then returned to school, ultimately becoming a scientist.
In 1933 he graduated from the Sorbonne with a concentration in mechanical and electrical engineering.
Shapiro had been “brilliant and humble but a fierce individualist… intent on finding his own path rather than following a Master – any Master,” says Elie Wiesel in Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hassidic Masters. The rabbi’s philosophy was that “the world is the place, and now is the time, that man must labor diligently and unremittingly to perfect himself,” according to Abraham J. Heschel in The Circle of the Baal Shem Tov: Studies in Hassidism.
Feldenkrais’s own life was devoted “not to repeating the same answers as his forefathers, but to answering as freshly and concretely as possible the same questions,” says Kaetz.
As a Jew in British Mandate Palestine, “it was not uncommon for [him] to be facing life-and-death situations,” says Kaetz.
“Feldenkrais learned jiu-jitsu, from which he developed a series of self-defense movements and wrote a booklet on how to defend oneself against a knife attack. This booklet led to his meeting Kano, and he became the first European to get a black belt in judo.
“At Kano’s request, Feldenkrais founded the first judo club in Paris and wrote several books on the subject,” Kaetz adds.
In 1940, Feldenkrais escaped Paris for London just ahead of the Nazis, and worked in sonar research in the British Admiralty until 1945, also teaching judo and self-defense. In 1942 he published a self-defense manual titled Practical Unarmed Combat and Judo. Feldenkrais was also a member of the International Judo Committee in the UK and dedicated himself to the scientific analysis of the principles of judo. In 1946 he enrolled at the London Budokwai (judo center), and in 1949 published Body and Mature Behavior.
Back in Israel, he became director of the IDF Electronics Department (1951- 53) and taught physics at the Weizmann Institute. He also taught his own method to David Ben-Gurion and managed to get him to stand on his head. At that time, he wrote Higher Judo, his last book on the subject.
In the book, Feldenkrais wrote that “it is bad in judo to try for anything with such determination as not to be able to change your mind if necessary,” and that “the struggle with an opponent is secondary to the struggle within one’s self. Winning the inner battle is knowing how to play the game. It is not ‘what’ we do but ‘how’ we do it that matters.”
Feldenkrais’s study of the interaction between movement and thought, and feeling and action, as well as his definition of health as the capacity for impact a person can develop without compromising his life, came from judo and eventually gave birth to the “Feldenkrais Method” of somatic education, to which he was to dedicate the rest of his life. Today there are over 3,000 Feldenkrais practitioners in the world, helping people improve their health and quality of life.
There are approximately 5,000 judokas registered with the Israel Judo Association today, but double this number practice judo in our country.
There are over 100 yudanshas (black belts of various grades) and 300 clubs registered with associations such as Meitav, Judokan, Maccabi, Hapoel, Elitzur and ASSA.
In Higher Judo, Feldenkrais quotes Koizumi Sensei, 7th Dan black belt: “As an art and a philosophy, the ultimate object of Judo is the attainment of harmonious unity of opposites in tune with life’s realities; in short unity of Man and God or Nature.”
“There are no age limits to judo,” concludes Sasson, “and it is possible not only to start as early as four but also at 30, 40 or 50, and achieve a black belt.”