Growing up, I never liked playing sports. Activities such as running and push-ups seemed like the only way I could keep in shape. And although these activities felt good, nothing I tried was really enjoyable.
In the spring of 2019, my friend Ari told me that he had started taking jiu-jitsu – a martial art developed in Brazil by the Gracie family. Ari encouraged me to give it a try, saying that I could take two classes for free before signing up.
At first, I hemmed and hawed at the idea. But Ari kept insisting, so I decided to at least give it a shot.
The classes are led by Roi Walther, who grew up in Kiryat Tiv’on, a town in Israel near Haifa. At the age of 4, his parents enrolled him in karate classes, which he stuck with until joining the Israeli army 15 years later. He won several Israeli competitions, including the Aluf Hatzafon (Northern Israel Championship).
While in college, after his army service, Walther wanted to further develop his martial arts skills. Near his college he discovered a Gracie Jiu Jitsu academy. The fact that he – a then 23-year-old who had been studying martial arts since the age of 4 – kept getting bested by a 16-year-old, showed him how effective it was. He loved it.
After five years of training, Walther moved to Jerusalem for a job. There was no place in the city for him to practice Gracie Jiu Jitsu at the time. His instructor, David Binyamin, encouraged Walther to become a certified instructor himself.
Walther worked hard and received his certification at Israel’s famous Wingate Institute, a sports training facility. Although he began teaching jiu-jitsu just so he’d have someone to practice with, his lessons became popular and people began asking him to give classes for women and children.
Then, without warning after four years of employment, Walther got laid-off from his regular job. He knew he could either look for a new job or start teaching jiu-jitsu full time. He decided on the latter. Now, six years later, Walther offers beginner and advanced classes for men, women and children. He also gives private lessons.
So, in 2019, I gave in to my friend Ari’s encouragement and tried out Walther’s two free classes. Each class includes a warmup, practice with a partner, lessons on the maneuvers that Walther teaches, and sparring. The maneuvers can be used for competition, self-defense or both.
For lack of a better term, suffice it to say that at the beginning, I got my butt kicked. What impressed me, however, was how kind and patient the other students were with me. No one was there to hurt or beat up each other – we were there to support one another and help one another become better and stronger.
Still, I was uncertain if this was for me.
While Ari was the one who encouraged me to give it a try, it was my friend Witty who convinced me to sign up. At a barbecue, Witty, who attends the women’s classes, spent 30 minutes convincing me that I had to enroll. She said that sometimes “adults just need to play” and that jiu-jitsu is like chess – with the various parts of you being the pieces.
So, thanks to Ari and Witty, I caved in and signed up. And I don’t regret it for a moment. It took a lot of work, but I could see myself becoming stronger and better. I was taking on people bigger and smaller. Some people had more experience, some less. Sometimes I even found myself as the translator for those whose Hebrew wasn’t that great.
And an added bonus that I had not expected was the friendships and camaraderie that developed; I found a group of people to have fun with, and who helped make me stronger, and vice versa.
The experience peaked for me when attending practice became like an addiction, and the only people I invited to my birthday meal were my roommates and my jiu-jitsu friends.
Then, just a few days after that meal this past March, the first COVID-19 lockdown began in Israel.
Walther, a husband and the father of two young boys, was forced to cancel our practices, his only source of income, for an indefinite period of time. It is just one example of how COVID-19 has not only disrupted our lives, but has harmed small businesses. If not for the virus, I, a man in his late 30s, would have competed in my very first tournament and become a blue belt by now.
Now, more than ever, we should make sure not to take small business owners such as Walther for granted. He not only provides an incredible, fun workout that teaches valuable skills, but he also provides an environment where men, women and children can come together and strengthen one another. If there was ever a time we need experiences such as this one, it is now.
I can’t wait to go back!
DANIEL STIEGLITZ (email@example.com) lives in Jerusalem, where he works as a Life Coach. His collection of short stories, “Tavern of the Mind,” is available for paperback and Kindle purchase on Amazon at www.amzn.to/2Izssrz.