Fists of Jewry
When State Farm Insurance dubbed the crossroads of Pines Boulevard and Flamingo Road in Pembroke Pines "The Most Dangerous Intersection in America," the company was referring to traffic accidents. But at 7 p.m. on a recent Monday, a shopping-center storefront at that same intersection reverberates with a different kind of dangerous collision.
Under a sign that reads "Nee's Kung Fu," the sounds of human grunts and nylon on leather seeps through the plate-glass windows. Occasionally, customers doing their grocery shopping at the adjacent Publix Supermarket shuffle up to the window to see what the commotion is all about. The windows fog from the moisture of 25 hard-working bodies, sweat gushing from their pores, their breath coming in labored huffs.
They look like a Special Forces unit in their uniform of black workout pants and T-shirts, their white, green, and pink hand wraps adding the only hint of color to the ensemble. They dance around the room as an instructor barks orders at them. It's not the dance of high kicks or flailing hand chops typical of a kung fu school. The actions are simple, direct punches: not sweeping roundhouses, not exaggerated stances -- just flat-out, full-throttle aggression.
The teacher also confounds expectations. While the school itself is run by the kind of guy one would expect to see in such a place -- Nee Touisithiphonexay, a compact Laotian-American with a winning smile and bulging biceps -- he is not teaching this class. He's standing in the wings, arms crossed, as his wife, Amy, instructs her pupils in the Israeli-made self-defense system known as krav maga.
At five-foot-three and maybe 120 pounds, Amy doesn't look very threatening. With her curly, shoulder-length brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, the 37-year-old mother of two looks more like a fit soccer mom than a tough-as-nails, smash-mouth martial arts instructor.
Then she goes to work.
As Amy demonstrates how to block face and body shots on student Waymon Byrd Jr., her tone goes from conversational to demanding, the inflections emphasized as Byrd, who has a good 100 pounds on her, tries to punch her in the head. The class hangs on her words as she shifts intonations.
"It's my voice that gets their attention," she says later. "I'm just so pumped up about what I'm doing that everybody just feeds off my energy. It's spur of the moment; none of my actions are planned."
Many of the male students have mustaches -- a testament to the high concentration of law-enforcement officers on hand. And many of the women are as petite as their instructor. The ages run from teens to late middle age. Despite her pupils' differences, Amy works them all the same way: hard.
The students pair off. The first exercise teaches a basic block of a straight punch. "Put your guard up," Amy barks. "Keep your hands loosely balled, and as the shot comes, a short 45-degree flick of the hand redirects the blow. You're not committing your entire arm or using a long, blocking motion to block your adversary's left jab -- that would leave your face open for a hard right."
At first the students sort of go through the motions of punching their drill partners in the face. They're not making contact, just waving their fists.
"Don't pull that punch," Amy yells. "Hit them in the head. You don't have to knock them out, but you're not doing yourself or your partner any good if you don't get the feel for the motion."
That is the essence of krav maga: real fighting for real conflict. "Many of the pretty martial arts are for show," Amy asserts. "Krav maga is definitely not pretty to watch."
Krav maga teaches its practitioners how to confront an aggressor and then quickly eliminate that aggressor -- a philosophy born of its founder's experience as a Jew in Nazi-dominated Europe and as an officer in the Israeli army.
"I'm Jewish," Amy says, "and I thought it was very interesting that [krav maga] was formed for Israeli soldiers. It's challenging. American Tae Kwon Do Association President William Clark told me a girl couldn't do it and become an instructor because of how physical it is. I said I could."
And she did. Amy is the only female krav maga instructor in South Florida and one of only three in the state. She is relentless, however, in that she wants her students not only to learn the physical techniques but to develop confidence in themselves.
"As you learn and you realize that you don't necessarily have to be the victim of an assault, you start to walk differently," she says. "And it shows. People can see the difference."
krav maga is unlikely to replace kung fu or karate in popularity, and it certainly isn't as attractive as Bruce Lee's flying feet or even Daniel LaRusso's crane technique. But if you want to kick ass, it can sure come in handy.
"krav maga isn't about beautiful kicks and memorizing forms," Amy says in one of her quieter moments. "It's about throwing keys at someone to distract them or hitting them with a book. Or putting your fingers in someone's eyes or punching them in the groin."
The name Imi Lichtenfeld doesn't inspire the same fear as that of, say, legendary kung fu bad boy Tiger Chung Li, but Lichtenfeld was the founding father of krav maga. While hundreds of Americans currently practice the art as either a form of self-defense or use its rigorous training regimen to tone their bodies, the Czechoslovakian-born Lichtenfeld developed these quick-hitting, no-frills skills with the elite units of the Israel Defense Force, or IDF, in mind.
Lichtenfeld grew up tough on the thuggish streets of Bratislava in the 1930s. Fascism was sweeping through Eastern Europe, and Jews of all ages were being persecuted for no reason other than their religion. A student of boxing and wrestling, Lichtenfeld honed his skills confronting the taunts of Slovak anti-Semites. In so doing Lichtenfeld began to take note of his own fights, using each confrontation as a learning experience and studying the differences between boxing and street fighting.
In 1940, having become a thorn in the side of the anti-Semitic local authorities because of violent confrontations (which he usually won), Lichtenfeld left his home, family, and friends and boarded the last emigrant ship that succeeded in escaping the Nazis' clutches. An old riverboat, Pentcho, had been converted to carry hundreds of refugees from Central and Eastern Europe to the land of Israel, then called Palestine.
Back then, as today, Jewish settlers faced aggressors from all sides and were constantly battling Arab enemies. Lichtenfeld trained all who were willing to learn how to wrestle, use knives, and defend against knife attacks. During this period he schooled several elite units of the Hagana (the frontline troops of the early struggle for Israeli statehood) and Palmach (the elite striking force of the Hagana and forerunner of the special units of the IDF), as well as groups of police officers. These special-forces groups would later pave the way for the Mossad, or the Israeli secret service.
When Israel became a state in 1948 (and the Hagana was incorporated into the IDF), the fledgling government implored Lichtenfeld to develop an effective system of self-defense and fighting. He served in the IDF for about 20 years, during which time he developed and refined krav maga, which is simply the Hebrew term for hand-to-hand combat. When his duty ended, Lichtenfeld modified krav maga for civilian needs. As Israel's government strengthened throughout the 1950s and '60s, the surrounding Arab countries grew increasingly hostile; by June 1967 a combined force of more than 400,000 troops had hemmed in Israel's borders. Israel decided to strike first: The Six-Day War was a resounding victory for the young nation, and the IDF's success caused the popularity of krav maga to blossom.
The combat style is widespread in Israel today; because of a man named Darren Levine, it's catching on in America. Levine went to an international clinic that Lichtenfeld held in Israel in 1981. An accomplished martial artist in the Korean style of tang soo do, Levine brought back the old man's system and opened a school in Los Angeles.
The popularity of martial arts is at least partially celebrity driven: Chuck Norris knows karate; Bruce Lee mastered and redefined kung fu. Jean-Claude Van Damme was a dancer who learned karate and later filmed a movie, Kickboxer, that made the Thai fighting art a craze here in America. Steven Seagal cracks skulls aikido-style. In the 1990s, with the advent of such family programming as the Ultimate Fighting Championship, grappling and shoot-fighting were in. But Hollywood is run by the unbridled potential of the next big thing, and krav maga, with its couch potato-to-bad ass metamorphosis, is now center stage.
Charlie Sheen's bodyguards are trained in its brutal ways, as are Arnold's and Sly's people. Sharon Stone is hip, J. Lo learned it for a recent movie, and even Ivan Drago (also known as actor Dolph Lundgren), the man who killed Apollo Creed, has been known to frequent the L.A. krav maga training center.
"It is the hot thing in L.A. right now, and I hate to use that word, because it implies that we're not going to be hot one day," says John Whitman, president of Krav Maga International, "that we're a flash in the pan. The truth is we're not hot because some guy won the Ultimate Fighting Championship a few times; people are interested in us because we provide realistic training and because it's a system that everybody can do."
Whitman recognizes that many other combat styles out there are effective, but he says they require more training and a fuller devotion. krav maga was specifically designed, he says, to work for every type of physical build and every age. "When the Israeli army was formed, everybody was trained and put into the battlefield," he says, "so a system had to be designed to be usable by all of them."
Following in the footsteps of those on the Israeli government's payroll, various law-enforcement and military outfits worldwide are adopting krav maga for their troops. It has become the lethal form of choice of the French Foreign Legion, the Spanish riot police, Italian anti-terrorism units, and, ironically, the German Special Forces. Stateside, many of Southern California's finest are adopting the program for their forces.
The system has been adopted by over 150 agencies, including the Burbank, Santa Monica, and Beverly Hills police departments. Outside California the Illinois State Police and Lubbock, Texas, police use krav maga as standard issue. In South Florida its study by law-enforcement officers is strictly voluntary.
Al (who requests that his last name be withheld) is one of Amy's cop students. He's a 15-year veteran narcotics officer for Miami-Dade County and says that krav maga is far and away a better system for self-defense than what his agency teaches its officers. "Our system is very, very basic," he says. "On a scale of one to ten, it's like a point-one. For you to be proficient in anything, you have to practice it on a regular basis. And we just don't." Al has been in many hand-to-hand situations over the years. In one particular incident, during a routine traffic stop, a six-foot-two, 230-pounder started trouble. He tried to grab Al's gun and gave the five-foot-seven, 175-pound cop the fight of his life. It was about that time that Al decided to step up his street restraint techniques.
"I can see a practical use for this for anybody," he says. "Anybody. I don't care if you're a housewife or if you're the postman or if you're an editor. Down here, you honk your horn at the wrong person and they may confront you. You can defend yourself and hopefully, God willing, not get hurt and terminate the incident and control it. It's better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it."
Indeed, civilians have come to appreciate krav maga as well. Student Waymon Byrd had a martial arts background before coming to Amy. But this is a new sort of art, he says. "In other martial arts, there's more style and tradition to it," he says. "With krav maga, there's not as much technique involved. It's easy to learn; it's not as hard to remember. And it's more practical on the streets."
He offers as proof an instance a couple of months ago when he was jumped by seven people after a pickup basketball game. "I walked out without a mark on me," he boasts. He's learned to flip the proverbial switch. He went from passive to aggressive and reacted. His victims didn't have a chance to rally against him.
"I was able to defend myself; I was not harmed at all," he says. "I had on white pants, and they weren't even dirty. A lot of stuff I learned in krav maga was a lot of stuff I used. I got hit, but they didn't get my face. Let's just say I made contact with quite a few people, too."
Currently, about 100 krav maga instructors are certified nationwide, up from 40 just a year ago, and of that number, only about 15 are women. Amy Touisithiphonexay wasn't always that kind of hard-hittin', in-your-face type. Fourteen years ago, while she was living in Miami, Amy Losek got into martial arts for her health. It toned her body, but even more, it sharpened her mind. "In the beginning it was a way of looking good in Coconut Grove," Amy says, now in street clothes and looking like a put-together mom again. "But now I have a love of kicking ass."
She was taking a tai chi class from her future husband, who at the time was living on a shrimp boat and moonlighting by teaching martial arts.
"I was so good at tai chi that Nee recommended I start taking kung fu," Amy says. She wasn't too shabby at kung fu either, earning a second-degree black belt before venturing to Los Angeles to become certified as a krav magainstructor.
That, she says, was probably the biggest obstacle of her life. While her classes involve contact, they pale in comparison to the wringer she was put through at the Krav Maga National Training Center on Olympic Boulevard.
"I had black eyes, finger marks around my neck," she says. "One guy was six-seven, and he beat me up pretty good. I was a mess. It was very, very hard." She considers herself American to the core, but her Jewish identity is important to her -- and Israel represents a key touchstone of that identity. "Growing up as a child," she says, "when things were bad, like when America was talking about getting a new President, my father would always say, "We're moving to Israel.' We were a very traditional Jewish family but not religious."
When she was 22 years old, she broke up with her boyfriend (she swears she hurt only his feelings) and decided to go on hiatus for a while. She didn't have to think too hard about her destination: "I was real independent already, but going to Israel made me even more so," she says. "It didn't bother me that men were walking around with machine guns, because that is what they need to do to keep it safe. Israel is the only place we can call our own."
These days she still feels a tie to her Jewish roots. krav maga is, in a way, a connection to her heritage and a reminder of that great trip she had when she was 22. Her toughness has increased dramatically over the years, but it hasn't left her hardened.
"I'm really a pinky girl," she offers while wearing a tight-fitting T-shirt printed with the warning "Don't judge a girl by her T-shirt." "I'm a girlie-girl, and I think I'm really feminine. But I'll stand up for myself. I'm not Wonder Woman, but I'm tough when I have to be tough."
September 11, 2001, is already etched into American history books only a month after the attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. Yet from the sickening reports of that fateful day have emerged tales of some phenomenal acts of heroism. Case in point: United Airlines Flight 93, a nonstop trip aboard a 767 that departed Newark for San Francisco at 8:01 a.m. only to crash into a rural western Pennsylvania field.
The hijackers' planned destination for that flight is unknown. Some analysts believe it was headed for the Capitol or perhaps the White House. But because of some extremely courageous Americans, the casualties were limited to those 45 brave souls aboard the plane, perhaps sparing the lives of hundreds of unsuspecting people in D.C.
The story of the passengers who fought their hijackers is already legendary. The most widely reported act of heroism surrounds the group of athletic men who phoned their families and said they planned to fight the men who had taken over the plane. Since those first reports, other victims' families have come forward with similar reports. At least one flight attendant told her husband she was boiling water to use as a weapon.
That is the sort of thinking that krav maga instructors try to instill in their pupils: Anything is a weapon; always be ready.
The U.S. government seems to realize the practical applications of this kind of training. Krav Maga International President Whitman says that nothing is official yet because the government is weighing all its options but that representatives of the Federal Air Marshal program have already contacted him about possibly providing training for their forces.
"krav maga has a lot of experience working with security teams moving through crowds, working in confined spaces, especially if they can't get to their firearm immediately," Whitman says. "For civilians it teaches how to go from a passive, normal, everyday state to aggressive quickly."
One solution for air safety that came up in recent weeks was the arming of pilots. Another alternative, though, would be to train them in hand-to-hand combat. Many pilots of Israeli airline El Al study krav maga for situations like those that doomed United Airlines flights 93 and 175 and American Airlines flights 11 and 77.
Amy Touisithiphonexay hesitates to talk about the terrorist attacks; like most people she's still reeling from the shock, the sheer enormity of the attacks, the ongoing war in Afghanistan, and the incidents of bioterrorism. She does see a practical use for krav maga on airplanes. "I think it would be so beneficial to pilots and flight attendants," she says. "But that's not all -- every girl that goes away to college even."
Though Amy tries to steer the discussion away from current events and toward the many health and self-defense benefits of her art, she can't ignore history. Like many martial arts, krav maga was born of warfare. Okinawans developed their brand of karate in their fight against Japanese oppression. Chinese secret societies trained their members in various styles of kung fu in their battles with both the invading Manchus and, later, European imperialist powers. Afro-Brazilian slaves disguised the devastating fighting system of capoeira as simple folk dancing to fool their masters. Yet those conflicts are far in the past. krav maga is still employed, every day, against the people it was developed to fight: Arabs.
As relations between Israelis and Palestinians continue to deteriorate in a hail of bullets, guided missiles, and suicide bombs, how does Amy feel about teaching an art the very existence of which is so politically charged?
"There's always been political strife there," she allows. "But I didn't start teaching this because of what it represented politically. I'll continue teaching it because it's good stuff and not because of any one political statement."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss New Times Broward-Palm Beach's biggest stories.