Throwing Off the Old "Pushover" Stereotype

“Upper block, punch, knife hand to the head, front kick…. Upper block….”

The stiff white uniforms rustle and snap as the young Jewish women inside them strain to respond to their teacher’s calls. Their faces are rapt with concentration, their bodies drip sweat. “Upper block, punch….”

These women are students of the Tora Dojo Association, a Jewish Karate system, which holds classes at synagogues and yeshivas in the New York metropolitan area and Israel. Many belonged last year to an all-female club run by the Association at Stern College, Yeshiva University’s undergraduate school for Orthodox Jewish women, in New York.

When the club was discontinued this semester for technical reasons, many students continued learning Karate at the Upper West Side Dojo (school) of the Association, located at the Jewish Center on West 86th Street. Other women, some quite advanced in their study of this martial art, have been studying Karate at the West Side Dojo alongside men for several years.

Karate, which originated centuries ago in the Orient, is a demanding discipline. Classes at the Tora Dojo on the West Side are held twice a week for three hours at a stretch, and students are expected to practice at home. Most of the women are white belts, (which roughly translates as beginners) and yellow belts (the next grade). There are nine women green belts, two purple belts, and one brown belt (one step away from the black belt worn by an expert Karateist), Lillian Andron.

Lillian, who was the teacher at the Stern College Dojo, is 4’10” tall and weighs 90 pounds. She is the smallest woman in the room, yet two brown-belt men could not lift her off her feet when she demonstrated the technique called “rooting.” Nobody in the Dojo doubts her capacity to throw to the floor a man twice her weight. Lillian is married to her Karate teacher, Michael Andron, a fifth-degree Black Belt in the Tora Dojo Association and the Sensei (teacher) at the West Side Dojo. Lillian and Michael have a one-year son, Benjy, who often attends Karate classes as an observer.

Lillian first began studying Karate when, as an actress, she felt the need to gain control over her body. A closer look at her life reveals that she is the daughter of a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and was born 30 years ago in a D.P. camp; she was brought to New York at the age of three. Lillian explained about the Jewish Karate style and the TDA:

“We’re training Jews to realize that they are capable of actively defending themselves in the face of violent attack.” The TDA, which has no political affiliations, is the largest Jewish Karate organization. It is under the direction of Master H.I. Sober, a First Level Grandmaster in the Kempo system with 20 years’ experience (equivalent of Eighth Degree Black Belt). The TDA, said Lillian, “merges the highest training standards with a vigorous Jewish spirit,” teaching Karate as both an art and science and “stressing physical and mental discipline.”

When Lillian first began studying Karate five years ago, she made few of the spiritual connections to the discipline which excite her so much today. “Judaism and Karate live together quite well,” she said. “The Torah wants us to lead healthy and disciplined lives. Karate teaches us the dynamics of safety…. And both emphasize hard work as the route to understanding.”

When Lillian taught the women at Stern, she often held rap sessions during class. At one session, the students discussed with her how Karate relates to their being female. 

“Being a woman is like wearing a yarmulkah,” said Lillian. “You’re constantly being stereotyped as a pushover. As Jewish women, we find it difficult to see ourselves as capable of being aggressive on the street if it becomes necessary, because our traditional role is more family-oriented and sheltered. But Judaism gives women a positive self-image, and the role of educating the children. This affirmation of our importance is an attitude we can take with us onto the street.”

Like other brown belts, Lillian often teaches white belts at the West Side Dojo, under Michael’s direction. She is one of few brown belts allowed to teach kata, a dance like sequence of blocks, punches and kicks, a “moving meditation” which is the soul of Karate. Lillian said that her method of teaching Karate to women is the same as for men. She does, however, place particular emphasis on using the hips for power, and added that “one of women’s best street defenses is the surprise element: men don’t expect women to be able to fight.”

What prompted the women at the Tora Dojo to study Karate? Most of the women, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, had difficulty in articulating what had drawn them to the discipline and some attempted to dismiss it as stemming from a desire to lose weight or become better coordinated. One Orthodox woman said:

“Our bodies are on loan to us. What will the Almighty say if we return them in lousy shape, when we received them in good condition?” Said another: “I came to this class to learn about middat gevurah, the attribute of strength in the world. The prayers describing G-d as a warrior Who gives us strength suddenly became meaningful in Karate when I began to feel strength and energy course through my body…. I’m learning how to channel that energy to help myself and others, and I’m recognizing more and more what it means to be a vessel for the Life of the Universe.”

While few of the women students discussed their feelings about being vulnerable or of becoming assertive, one confided that she was “terrified” of the streets and subways of New York and “sick of being so totally defenseless, of always being a potential victim.” She continued:

“Several years ago, when I became a feminist, I took a self-defense class, but I realized that if I really wanted to defend myself I’d have to study Karate seriously. Now I see women in the Dojo who leave no doubt in my mind about their ability to take care of themselves, and I have hopes of emulating them.

“All the talk about controlling our bodies—it’s just empty talk if we cannot prevent ourselves from being attacked or hurt, or worse,” she continued. “As I begin to get some control over my body, I begin to control my own life.

“Karate has changed my perception of what is possible.”

Chana Forse is Assistant Editor of the Women’ s American ORT Reporter.