Gadi Skornik: A Samurai with French chic

Skornik was the greatest warrior of them all, the masters’ master.

flowers (photo credit: Reuters)
(photo credit: Reuters)
In the last photo of Gadi Skornik, taken a few days before his death on March 31, he is lying in a hospital bed, hooked up to an oxygen supply and a blood pressure monitor. But his expression is as sharp and provocative as ever, and he’s giving the finger. He knew he was about to die and didn’t give a damn.
Skornik was the greatest warrior of them all, the masters’ master, Israel’s judo champion for many years, an expert in karate and jiu jitsu, and an authority on ninja swords. “I deal in deconstruction and reconstruction,” he liked to say, although as far as I can tell, he took many more people apart than he put back together.
“I don’t give a Jean Claude,” he used to say to his students during training at the dojo, the mattress-covered studio that was invariably suffused with an acrid odor. The words were uttered in the French accent he hadn’t lost even after 60 years in Israel. “It’s not my fault,” he’d say. “After my first ulpan lesson, the teacher and I connected, and I started teaching her French.”
No child protection agency would ever approve of the way he raised his children. They had their first swimming lesson when they were very little. He took them out in a rubber dinghy, stopped in midocean, and let the air out. “Start swimming,” he ordered. He used to demonstrate karate moves on his son, Guy, who trained with him like any other kid. “Go wash the blood from your nose,” he’d say at the end of the exercise.
But there were mitigating circumstances. Skornik was born in France in 1940. His mother died in childbirth, a short time later his father passed away, and he lost two of his brothers in the Holocaust. He grew up in a French orphanage, fighting to survive almost from infancy. It was only at the age of 14, when he crossed himself one day, that they told him he was Jewish. That was just one more excuse for a fistfight.
Skornik loved women, and women loved him. One day at the beach, a student teased him, saying, “Gadi, do you want me to tell your wife that that lady’s your lover?”
“Simone,” Gadi called to his wife, “Yankele has something to tell you.”
“Please, Gadi, no. I was just kidding,” Yankele begged.
“He says she’s my lover,” Gadi went on, ignoring him and pointing to the woman who had come to the beach with them and was indeed his lover.
“You and your nonsense,” Simone said, going back to whatever she was doing.
Skornik was awarded the rank of lieutenant colonel and worked with the army’s most elite units. He could take a man down with the speed of a predatory animal, a vital skill for those soldiers. It was no chance that Amiram Levin, a former commander of the special forces unit, attended the funeral. Everyone involved in any way with martial arts in Israel came to pay their respects. Quite a few of them had had an arm or leg broken by Gadi. I share that honor – he cracked my ribs.
Afterwards, he stuck me with his huge needles to ease the pain of every breath I took – deconstruction and reconstruction.
He developed and taught the method called Skornik Israeli Combat, and then passed the torch to his son, Guy. There wasn’t an ounce of nepotism in that choice. Guy is simply the best. And if anyone has any doubts, they’re invited to take him on. No one raised any objections, and rightly so. Guy is as lethal as his father, and that skill is now being passed on to the third generation.
The funeral ended with a unanimous cry of “oss,” the traditional expression of respect for the master at the end of a class.
Translated from Hebrew by Sara Kitai,