11-Year-Old Japanese Orthodox Jew Wrestles His Way To The Top
An Israeli Olympic judo hopeful is on the rise.
Except that he’s a Japanese Orthodox Jewish wrestler named Noah Leibowitz.
The 11-year-old prodigy took the wrestling world by storm this week when he won the All-Japan youth championship on his first try, going head-to-head with two defending champions.
“I was very nervous and everybody was watching. The mats are on the floor and all the people sit around the mats. It was a crazy environment. It looked like David and Goliath,” Leibowitz told The Jerusalem Post.
But he didn’t flinch, and in fact, he hardly gave up a point on his way to winning his first national title.
“Noah is wrestling with the SWAT team police wrestling club, one of the most elite clubs. All the guys who are coaches are former Olympians,” said Leibowitz’s New York-born father, David, who moved to Japan 25 years ago.
An ardent Zionist who has brought his son to Israel for long visits five times, the elder Leibowitz is already projecting how his son can represent Israel in the future as the family contemplates aliyah.
“We kind of decided more or less that he should do judo in Israel when he is there and do wrestling when he comes back. They think that he can do judo and wrestling in the Olympics. They’re calling him a prodigy,” he said.
Leibowitz only began to take wrestling seriously a year ago, after returning to Japan with his family after spending four years in Atlanta, Georgia. He credits the inspiration to his 16-year-old brother, Levi. An impressive athlete in his own right, Levi was one of the top wrestlers in Japan prior to injuring his neck. Now, he trains with the judo team in Israel, and hopes to represent the blue-and-white in the 2020 Olympics.
“My brother is a hero. If he didn’t exist, I wouldn’t even try to be an All-Japan champ. I would not even know that wrestling even existed,” said Leibowitz, who said he considers Israel his second home.
“There’s a lot of Jewish warmth and Jewish neshama (soul) in that country. It’s incredible. The closest place you can get to connect to Hashem (God) is the Kotel. It’s an incredible place,” said Leibowitz.
Leibowitz’s mother said the impetus to compete and devote himself to wrestling came from Leibowitz, and that the family’s Jewish faith played a big role in his success.
“He wasn’t really into it, but I didn’t really want to push him. For him to do something that he really wanted to do, he has to determine to do it. But he decided and I think that’s Judaism. We had Judaism with us the whole time and we didn’t want to do anything different. I’m just proud of him. It’s all him,” said Mayumi Hannah, who converted to Judaism in Israel and was tutored there.
David Leibowitz is the president of Tokyo’s Orthodox synagogue, and the family is passionate about their Jewish identity and growing the connection between Japan and Israel.
“Japanese society overall is very respectful and understands the benefit that the Jewish community brings worldwide. The Japanese and Jewish communities are very similar in their love of learning and family and social cohesion. The cultures are very similar, and when we get together we can bring a lot to humanity,” said David.
For Leibowitz, he believes that many more big moments await him on the world stage.
“My huge dream is to be five-time wrestling and judo champion in the Olympics,” said Leibowitz.
I think to be a five-time champion, you have to wrestle like a mad person. You have to wrestle every day. You have to wrestle if you’re tired. No matter if you’re depressed. Just keep on trying to improve yourself. But of course, on Shabbes (the Sabbath), I will not wrestle.”