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Yes, ladies, you too can be Wonder Woman

Touching the power at El Halev

The brochure of El Halev, Israel's only martial arts center run by women, trumpets its motto in big, bold letters: THE POWER WITHIN YOU. And one minute with Yudit Sidikman, CEO and senior instructor of the outfit, is enough to see why.

A pretty blonde with sparkling blue eyes, Sidikman is power personified. Not only can she break bricks with a touch of her hand, she also reinvented herself from wild thing to wonder woman. And she can teach you the tools to do the same.

It wasn't always so. Sidikman is the first to admit her journey to this point wound through a rocky road – at a time when she had no means of pulverizing the rocks.

Abused for six years by a religious official from when she was only twelve, by her late teens she was a mess. Tiring of drugs and alcohol and all the unhealthy accoutrements, Sidikman left the States and enrolled herself in a Jerusalem yeshiva for girls.

"Neve Yerushalaim saved my life, although I came to religion from an unhealthy place," she admits. But seminary life comes with its own issues. "The only degree you aim for there is a ketuba," explains Sidikman, "and by the age of twenty-one, I was married."

Nine years and five kids later, Sidikman found herself back in a dark place. Her religious, tyrannical husband was dragging her into the world of substance abuse again; she felt that she "had donated her brain to science. It was as though I had given my decision-making cells over to my husband, my rabbi and my rebbetzin," she explains, "and I wanted them back."

Fortuitously, a friend invited her to a judo class which, she says, helped her reclaim her life. That was the one thing that was sacrosanct in her day; she did not allow her husband to interfere with practice schedules or exercise routines.

"Then I realized that if I could do judo without him, I could do anything," she recalls. In short order Sidikman put an end to her emotionally and financially abusive marriage, got her black belt in judo and formed "El Halev" with partner Jill Shames (another black belt) to help other women reconnect with their own inner voices.

El Halev (literally "to the heart"), situated in the heart of Jerusalem's industrial zone, is a hub of bodies of all shapes and sizes, stretching and crouching and jumping in synch.

Grannies practice their Gyaku-zuki reverse punches next to young girls perfecting the Fumikomi-shuto-uke, which you might like to learn too. That's the knife-hand block stepping-in; it could well save your life.

In fact, a young El Halev camp counselor from Gush Etzion, recently hitching a lift with a man whom she recognized from her town, was accosted by the driver during the ride.

She summoned up the knowledge that she herself had learned with her campers, assertively demanded that the driver get his hands off her "right this very second", and got out of the car. By immediately turning to the police she then got the guy arrested. He turned out to be a serial abuser of young girls.

The nonprofit organization, created by and for women, aims to effect social change through empowering all women. Young and old, religious and secular, right-wing and left – all are welcome, and all learn the skills to protect themselves and feel confident.

And if all the kicking and lunging makes you peckish, a great coffee shop is on hand right next to the jacuzzi spa that welcomes tired torsos for a well-earned soak.

Mums can plonk their kids in a cheerful games room for toddlers, and a soothing library space has comfortable armchairs for added relaxation.

El Halev reaches out to all women, including the cognitively challenged and those who are battered. The organization also helps recovering drug addicts and sex workers escape from lives of pain.

In addition to the work at the center, El Halev's more than 40 certified instructors, many of them English-speaking new immigrants, teach martial arts techniques and empowerment programs throughout Israel – from Eilat to Katzrin.

Of course, the underprivileged population groups who participate cannot pay top prices; the center subsidizes many of the programs so that they are accessible to all. 

Yudit Sidikman...reinventing herself

Whereas each woman needs basic tools to defend herself from threats, specific groups need specialized skills. Older people, for example, need to know how to fall without fear, and how to minimize the risk of cracking hips or shins. Children need to know how to act when they're lost, or when someone admonishes them not to tell "our little secret".

At-risk kids, who are all too often involved in violent confrontations, are taught how to de-escalate situations and prevent physical attacks.

In Monty Python's classic sketch one of the merry gang teaches the other hapless band how to protect themselves against a man armed with a banana. Remember? You wait for him to charge you, and then whip out your gun and shoot him dead.

The same technique is good for an assailant with a strawberry or a cucumber. That movie made millions for the Pythons, but it won't get you very far on a dark night in an empty alley if someone armed with drug-fueled blood wants your purse. Knowing how to kick an attacker where it'll hurt the most is a better way to go.

All women, according to Sidikman, should know how to defend themselves. "If we compare being proficient in martial arts to becoming a doctor," she explains, "where one knows every cell in the body, then self-defense is like being a paramedic – where you know what to do in a crisis."

Whether you choose to be an expert, or simply good enough to ward off abuse, it might be a good idea to check out a course near you.

And, promises Sidikman, breaking a brick is far easier than it looks. It doesn't hurt. It doesn't ruin your nail polish. It will astonish your friends.

And it might well save your life. 



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Saturday, 02 March 2024

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