Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Defiant Ones

Recently, while I was seated at a class at the Darrell Friedman Institute for Professional Development, the moderator for the seminar began the class with a list of Jewish heroes from the Bible. She then asked, which one do we relate to?

On the list were Moses and Abraham, as well as Sarah and Leah. But there, way down on the bottom, on the boy’s side, was Judah Maccabee.

Having the lingering scent of Chanukah candles still in my sniffer and, truth be told, it being my favorite Jewish holiday due to the lasting emotional connection of receiving presents as a kid, I said, “Judah.”

When asked why, I said, “Because he’s a fighter.

I didn’t grow up in Baltimore. But in many ways New Bedford, Mass., possesses many similarities to the city that bleeds. Both are gritty seaports with tough, edgy peeps in them. While I grew up with peace signs and Peter, Paul and Mary and one set of friends, the reality of hitting the crumbling neglect of the city’s junior high school, with its discordant set of races and cultures, caused conflict and combat.

Like in a Charles Atlas ad in the back of comic books, I set out to get tough. Many Jewish pals, while they respected my desire, stuck to their books and baseball cards and aimed for Brandeis.

Fast forwarding to the present, and witnessing the conflict in Gaza, which intensified right in the middle of Chanukah, I can relate to an Israel that — like that kid that gets tormented one too many times — says “Enough.”

Israel the nation is like the smart Jewish kid many of us were in junior high, who after getting shoved and beaten up, tries to talk reason with the bullies, but realizes there is only one language they’ll understand. Of course, after bulking up and pulverizing the pesky persecutor, the cowards they truly are turn around and cry to the principal (in this case the U.N.).

Rather than being a victim, as Jews have been for centuries, Israel stands defiant and delves into its Judah Maccabee persona.

I hope my kids never have to receive or inflict the kind of damage done in Gaza. But unlike me, who learned the necessity of strength as a teen, I’ve already enrolled my 6- and 8-year-olds in karate. And it’s never too late to learn. At 47, I’ve started karate, too. (All of us are now blue belts.)

While recently stepping into this fight club, I discovered Krav Maga, a self-defense style originated in Czechoslovakia by a Jew in the 1930s and further developed in Israel

According to a recent article in The Forward, it’s gained widespread popularity due to celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez and Leonardo DiCaprio training with it. And as past articles in the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES have reported, it’s become big in Owings Mills, too.

I knew Jews could be tough, but who knew we had our own martial art?

While movies, comic books and even nations go through various incarnations of hero worship, whether the wisdom of Solomon we seek in Obama or the bravado of Bibi, the current Judeo juggernaut is wrestling with the drama inherent in defiance.

And that’s where all of the past month’s actions, from a global scale to a personal one, from Judah to Judaism, were projected and came together for me. From sitting in the DFI to the Senator movie theater to watch “Defiance,” whether Jews are being hunted in the woods of Belarus or bombed by rockets in Ashkelon, we are at a pivotal moment and how we maneuver will result in us getting hurt or standing victorious.

Krav Maga, by definition, shows no quarter (no mercy) and emphasizes threat neutralization. Carrying the fire of Judah means occasionally having to use it. ••

Abe Novick writes monthly for the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES on the intersection of Jewish and popular culture. More of his work is at abenovick.com