Issue 5 - Summer 2007 - The Healthy Issue
CHAI OF THE TIGER
After inheriting the secrets of a biblical martial art, the Abir Aluf unveils his Fists of Fury
BY MARK SCHWARTZ
Yehoshuah Sofer is probably the toughest Jew alive. Even in the relatively small field of physically imposing Jews, it’s easy to pick him out. He’s the one with the payess.
For nearly all of his forty-five years, Sofer has been immersed in the seemingly disparate worlds of ultra-Orthodox Judaism and martial arts. Pious Hasid in the synagogue, powerhouse wrecking machine in the dojo. (He’s also made time for a sideline as a reggae artist, but more on that later.) Unlike any other Hebrew tough guy, from Louis Lepke to Steven Seagal to wrestler Bill Goldberg, Sofer has been able to reconcile an observant lifestyle with physical prowess, without diluting either one. And he has devoted himself to teaching a martial arts system that is steeped in the Torah.
This is no mean feat. For Jews, toughness exists in inverse proportion to learned traditions and the lineage of rabbis and peacemakers — to the Torah, in other words. The whole philosopher-king, warrior-poet side of Judaism went out with the Second Temple. In exile, Jews had to choose: bind themselves to ritual, observance, and a lifetime wracked with poor eyesight and halitosis, or become a warrior. Radicals, Zionists, gangsters, wrestlers — all have counseled that the best way for Jews to earn respect in the modern world is to free themselves of shtetl tradition and embrace physicality. The founding of the Jewish state on the heels of the Holocaust enshrined tough-guy secularism as the preferred Semitic survival strategy.
Not so for Sofer. His rigorous combat technique, which he calls “Abir,” is based on what he purports to be the ancestral martial art of biblical Israelites. The only devoutly religious Jew to be named a grand master of a Korean martial art, Sofer is a seventh-degree black belt in Kuk Sool Won and proficient in a host of Asian fighting styles, from karate to hapkido. Sofer has also offered his services to Israel’s security forces.
He teaches Abir — Hebrew for “warrior” — to classes of men and women, Jews and gentiles, in Jerusalem and at the Maccabee Sports Club in Tel Aviv, and he is hoping to expand his operation to incorporate a yeshiva and training complex. Sofer is at pains to make it clear that his discipline is a world away from the martial arts taught by the Israeli military, popularly known as krav maga, which he dismisses as “warmed-over jujitsu” developed by “New Jews who felt that the key to survival and acclimation to the global community was to cast off its weak and primitive Jewish beliefs — i.e., religion.” As a Breslover Hasid, an ultra-Orthodox adherent to the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, Sofer took it upon himself to heal this particular breach and “uncover” a Torah-true fighting technique. “Many people want to express their Judaism in this way ... in a physical way, or at least in a physical manner that complements the spiritual side of Torah Judaism,” he says.
By e-mail from Jerusalem, Sofer, who is also known as the Abir Aluf (champion knight), outlined for me the purpose of Abir and fleshed out a mythology of Israelite warriors whose techniques, he explained, have been passed down through 100 generations of his Yemenite family. It’s a heady genesis story that’s part Hasidic fable and part Bruce Lee: his ancestor Saraiah Sofer was royal scribe to King David, and his lineage enfolds a Nazirite sect of Samson-like long-haired strongmen who holed up in Haban, Yemen, preserving ancient swordsmanship and fighting styles until the settling of Israel. (Along the way, these skills were discovered by traders from Asia, influencing their combat practices: the Japanese word samurai, Sofer explains, is awfully close to the Hebrew shomrei [“the king’s guard”].)
Sofer’s immediate family were merchants, however, and he was actually raised in Jamaica, where, he says, he befriended a Chinese master who awakened him to his ancient warrior legacy. Sofer explains that his grandfather had been secretly instructing him in Abir, Pat Morita–like, through weed-pulling and other menial tasks, since he had been a child. At some point, Sofer’s family relocated to Los Angeles, where he trained in Kuk Sool, rising to the level of master. Traveling between the U.S., Korea, Israel, and Jamaica, Sofer also took the time to record a minor dance hall reggae hit in Hebrew, “Humus Metamtem,” (“Humus Makes You Stupid”) under the name Nigel Ha’Admor. (He can be seen performing in the film Arise Zion, about Jews and Rastafarians.)
Whatever you think of his bio, Sofer’s fighting technique and the Torah study with which he backs it up are real (visit his website, Abirwarriorarts.com, for a video). In Hasidic fashion, Sofer sees his practice as a way of drawing closer to God through physical, mental, and spiritual exercises. “Martial combat study, as practiced by other peoples, has no complementary relation to Torah study,” he says. “Abir, on the other hand, is itself an aspect of Torah study.” For example, the combat forms that in Asian martial arts might correspond to nature or animals are, in Abir, related to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the symbols of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Abir, he explains, requires a specialized reading of the Torah, the esoteric corners of which reveal the warrior past of Israel. The military exploits of Abraham, whose victories over the people of Canaan are alluded to in Genesis and expounded upon in the Gemara, is a particular inspiration. Kabbalistic readings of holy text comprise many of Sofer’s teachings, as do gematria (Hebrew numerology) and the wisdom of Hasidic sages. Backed by rigorous physical discipline, the Abir system has proven to be an exciting way for Israelis to re-engage with their faith. “Many ‘lost’ youth have found in Abir training a vehicle to see the wealth in studying Torah,” Sofer says. “First, they ask for the sources where Abir is mentioned and battles fought … they see that Torah study can be fun as well as a requirement of Jewish life.”
One might think that his violent calling would put Sofer at odds with his ultra-Orthodox brethren. Not so, he explains. “A man with a lone opinion that goes against the nerve or core of his people without any basis in the Torah must seek approval from a great rabbi of his generation …. This is not at all the case here. Abir has been preserved miraculously. If anything, I believe that those who are against Abir returning to its rightful place among the Jewish people will have to give account in a heavenly court.” In fact, Sofer’s sect of Hasidism meshes well with the demands of Abir: one of the signature practices of Breslovers is hisbodedus — a daily period of solitary meditation; they are also fond of mantras to aid them in their devotions.
The source of pleasure in Abir, Sofer makes clear, comes from this interaction with the Torah and in performing God’s will. “A Jew takes no pleasure in the taking of human lives,” he instructs. “There is joy in foiling terror when one thinks of the innocent lives that have been spared.” But at the same time, his system has a clear application in hardening practitioners as it draws them closer to the Torah. “Abir students are taught that we are never the victim. Never!”
With a new Abir center opening soon in France, the start of an international effort by the Abir Aluf, the small man in a funny hat has a challenge for those who thought that study and studliness were mutually exclusive: “When the time is zero hour and you’re caught between a chain saw and a steamroller, you’ve got a job to do. You’ve got to get your Abir on!” &