The strongest girl in the world is an Orthodox Jewish 10-year-old from Fair Lawn, N.J.
Naomi Kutin, a soon-to-be sixth-grader at the Yeshivat Noam day school in Paramus, can lift more than twice her own 99 pounds. In January she set a world record for women in her weight class (then 97 pounds), beating competitors decades older than her to squat 214.9 pounds at a meet in Corpus Christi, Texas. On the first Sunday in July, she established two regional records for her age group, with a 199.5-pound squat and a 209.4-pound deadlift.
But ask Naomi about her powerlifting prowess — unusual for a 10-year-old and virtually unheard of for an Orthodox girl — and she’ll just say this: “It’s kind of weird being stronger than an adult.”
Naomi, who is 4 feet 9 inches tall with a sturdy figure and a sandy blond pageboy haircut, practices lifting in the basement of her family’s two-story home, where a handwritten “No Fear” sign hangs next to a white porcelain mezuza. A recent practice session there provided a tableau of a Sunday afternoon in the life of an observant Jewish family surely like no other:
Naomi’s father, Ed Kutin, wearing a yarmulke and a gray shirt with a picture of an eagle grasping a barbell, prepared Naomi for a squat, rubbing a cylinder of white chalk across her back. She dipped her hands into a cardboard box of loose chalk powder.
“The chalk is getting into my nose!” she squealed. “Well, you’re not lifting with your nose,” said her mother, Neshama Kutin, crouched in a long jeans skirt in the corner of the room to spot the lift.
Naomi then steadied herself in a wide leg stance in front of the barbell, propped at chest-height on a metal stand. Her father loaded several discs onto the 45-pound bar — a total of 205 pounds. Naomi gripped the bar, glancing back and forth between her hands and making “shush” noises to focus. She rolled her head under the bar, placing it on top of her upper back. Face red, eyes bulging to the ceiling, she lifted the bar from its stand and then lowered herself onto her haunches.
“Take it low. Come on, Supergirl,” her mother said. “You can do this. No fear.”
Naomi first started lifting two years ago. Her father introduced her to it after watching her outshine the boys in her karate class. Ed Kutin bears the formidable mustache of a circus strongman. He became acquainted with the sport in the campus gym of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he went to college. He now holds several national records in the deadlift, a maneuver that entails hoisting a weighted bar off the ground with both hands. Powerlifting — a derivative form of Olympic weightlifting — has three movements: the deadlift, the squat and the bench press.
Ed and Neshama Kutin proceeded with caution as they trained Naomi, researching the health effects of child weightlifting. But Ed Kutin said he found that the typical warnings — stunted growth or injuries — were nothing but “old wives’ tales.” Even so, Naomi started slowly, using a 14-pound bar instead of the typical 45-pound one. Soon it became apparent that she excelled at squatting, which is a pose in which the athlete crouches and then stands up, grasping a barbell across her upper back. The Kutin family competes “raw” — that is, without supportive clothes.
When Naomi was 8 years old, her parents brought her to her first meet, in Clearfield, Pa. She lifted 148 pounds, setting her first national record. Today, her purple-painted bedroom is dotted with medals; a shelf of trophies overflows onto a pile of stuffed animals.
The Kutins are Modern Orthodox Jews — he became religious as an adult, while she converted from Christianity. They refrain from competing or practicing on the Sabbath. First, there is the problem of driving to a meet. But even if the Kutins found a competition close enough to walk to, they still might encounter halachic quandaries. At powerlifting events, for instance, judges gauge the quality of each lift by blinking a white or red light to indicate that the maneuver either passed technical muster or didn’t. If a person judging a Saturday meet happens to be Jewish, then the Kutins would be violating Halacha by asking him or her to blink lights on the Sabbath on their behalf.
Another problem has to do with the physical act of weightlifting. The Torah prohibits carrying objects on the Sabbath to a public area from a private home. Technically, Ed Kutin said, the family could still lift weights in their basement gym. But this would interfere with the restful spirit of the Sabbath. “We try to avoid it,” he said.
At most two-day powerlifting meets, women and adolescents compete on Saturdays and men compete on Sundays. Because the Kutins won’t participate on the Sabbath, Naomi must lift at the Sunday meets, which are typically filled with muscle-bound, tattooed men. But she isn’t intimidated. “They are an unusual look for us,” Neshama Kutin said. “It’s not like you go to synagogue and see that.”
At Yeshivat Noam, Naomi, like all the girls there, wears a long, dark skirt that covers her knees, as well as shirts with sleeves that extend to just above her elbows. Naomi’s powerlifting outfit — typically a spandex onesie with a white T-shirt underneath — is a very different look. When she’s at home practicing, she augments the outfit with a 10-year-old’s flair: turquoise striped knee socks and candy-red ankle boots.
According to Neshama, Naomi’s teachers have cheered on her powerlifting, placing a newspaper clipping of one of her record-setting competitions in the hallway trophy case and playing video recordings of her competitions in school for the girls’ classes. Linda Stock, the assistant principal at Yeshivat Noam’s elementary school, said that Naomi’s athleticism has earned her the admiration of her peers. The powerlifting apparel, she added, does not clash with the school’s modesty standards.
“I don’t think it plays into anything,” she said. “We have plenty of kids who wear pants outside of school, or sleeveless shirts. When they come in, they are dressed appropriately.”
Though Naomi might be the only young Modern Orthodox female powerlifter, she is certainly not the only Jew involved in the sport. Scot Mendelson, who grew up in Brooklyn and lives in Glen Valley, Calif., holds several world records for bench pressing. In one competition, he lifted 1,030 pounds. Mendelson is the grandson of Morris Reif, the Jewish boxer known as the “Bronxville Bomber,” according to a 2005 article in the Jewish Journal.
Doug Heifetz, a rabbi at Oseh Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Laurel, Md., is another prizewinning powerlifter. He has broken local records in deadlifting, and he said his hobby makes him more approachable to congregants.
“I think our tradition calls us to balance and to wholeness, and the body is part of that,” Heifetz said. “There are a lot of references to strength and body movements as part of our spirituality.”
Powerlifting has caused Naomi to compromise one aspect of her Jewish life: summer camp. While the rest of her classmates went to sleep-away camps in the Poconos and upstate New York, Naomi chose to attend a day camp in Monsey, N.Y., so that she could compete during the summer.
Like every 10-year-old, Naomi can use some encouragement now and then. Next to the “No Fear” sign in the family gym, she has hung a list of rewards for her powerlifting goals: a cup of pudding, a bubble bath, ice cream and a visit to the aquarium store. She’s motivated, too, by a little healthy competition. Last November, the family — Naomi has a younger brother and an older sister at home — tried to best each other in a bench pressing competition.
Naturally, Naomi came in first.
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.