Jews & Sports

from Big Mo's Sports Desk

The Flying Breslav Chasid

"I am really quite a harmless soul," says Yehoshua Sofer, stirring honey into his herbal tea. And he looks it - with his slender physique and his Breslaver collar-length sidelocks. Potentially, though, Sofer is capable of wreaking considerable damage. He's a master of one of the world's most complex martial arts, the Korean Kuk Sool Won, which incorporates ancient tribal and royal court fighting techniques - 3,608 of them, to be exact. Sofer, 42 (now 50 - ed, holds a sixth-degree black belt in the art, one of very few non-Asians to have achieved such prowess.

The soft-spoken chasid, who stresses that his discipline is about self-defense rather than initiated violence, is also the only person in Israel authorized to teach Kuk Sool Won - which he does in afternoon and evening classes at a dojang (the Korean term for a martial arts arena) in the gym at Jerusalem's international Convention Center. He gets all sorts at his $600 a year courses (reductions readily available to those of limited means) - male and female, ultra-Orthodox to secular, And he says he sees himself, and the skill he teaches, as "a bridge between people and a way of trying to serve G-d."

Yehoshua Sofer was born into the Breslaver sect, but his childhood was atypical. He spent his early years in Jamaica, where his father was an ombudsman for aluminum and bauxite workers. Jews have been on the island for centuries, but the Sofers' Orthodoxy contrasted with the more assimilated local Jews. Community leaders, Sofer recalls in English that still bears a Caribbean lilt, were "incensed that my dad wore a yarmulke and that he insisted on a kosher meal when he met with the governor general" on work matters.

Sofer learned his first Eastern fighting skills, at age 4, from an elderly Chinese gentleman in a Kingston parking lot. He and his friends would play there under grandfatherly supervision. The Chinese pensioner, a bench regular, got talking to him. Opined that the Jews "were all from Asia anyway and were "good and decent people," and showed him some Chinese boxing moves.

In 1963, the family moved to Los Angeles, and the young Sofer, appetite whetted, took classes in Tang Soo Do, a Korean version of Karate. His father - who had evidently concluded that he wasn't rearing an outstanding Torah scholar - reluctantly allowed him to attend, provided he still found time for Jewish study. "On Shabbat," he says, "I had to study extra Gemarah, Mishnah and Chasidism."

Sofer was a natural. He got his black belt at the age of 10, after just 5 years of study, and started looking for a more challenging discipline. When Kuk Sool Won came to the U.S. in 1974, introduced by it's Korean founder, Suh In Hyuk, he began taking lessons, and never looked back. What's unique about Kuk Sool Won, he enthuses, "is that it includes meditation and breathing techniques, kicking, joint locks, throwing and grappling, as well as traditional Asian medicine."

As Sofer perfected his martial arts skills in the 70s and 80s, he worked as a bodyguard and a sparring partner for kickboxers. He moved to Israel in 1989, and has been running his unique school for the past two years, still leaving his mornings free for Torah study.

[Excerpted from an article in the Jerusalem Report of 4/24/00 by Erik Schechter]

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