June 30, 2005
Menches You Don’t Want to Mess With
When Scot Mendelson was a kid in Brooklyn and Emil Farkas a youngster in Budapest and Toronto, some Jew-baiting neighborhood boys used to pick on them -- but not for long.
As Mendelson got bigger, the local bullies "showed some respect," and he kept right on growing until today he has been crowned by fellow weightlifters as the strongest man in the world.
Farkas' tormentors hung around his yeshiva in Toronto and grabbed his yarmulke. That is until Farkas picked up one of the lads, tossed him over his shoulder and watched the others run away.
Meeting Mendelson for the first time at his F.I.T. (Fitness Individualized Training) gym in Sherman Oaks, one hopes he is in a good mood.
At age 36, Mendelson stands 6-foot-1, weighs 330 pounds, has a 63-inch chest and a bald pate. Powerlifting USA magazine described one of his attempts at a new record in these words: "Scot Mendelson began his assault. He came out for his big opener looking like a monster ... carrying a mere 14 percent body fat. So intent and focused, the only sound he heard was the adrenaline rushing through his veins."
He is a three-times national and three-times world champion in the bench press, with an incredible best of 1,005 pounds. He comes by his 22.5-inch biceps both by arduous training and heredity. His maternal grandfather, Morris Reif, known as the "Bronxville Bomber," was Rocky Marciano's stable mate and scored 75 knockouts in 115 fights.
For the past nine years, Scot and his wife, Marcielle, herself a kung fu and weightlifting champ, have run F.I.T., first out of their home and now at a fully equipped gym. Their clients range from 40-85 years, about half men, half women, and some 90 percent are Jewish, Mendelson estimates.
The high Jewish proportion, he explains, comes from being located in an area with lots of Jews, and "I'm Jewish, so I click well with the community. Jewish people have always taken care of themselves," he adds, "and they realize that you need more than makeup and nice clothes to look good. You have to stay in shape physically and mentally."
Among his longtime satisfied customers is Dr. Uri Herscher, founder and head of the Skirball Cultural Center, who, with his wife, Myna, has a weekly training session with Mendelson.
"Scot is proud to identify as a Jew and he understands the core values," said Herscher. "It's clear that he intends never to become a victim. Scot is a taskmaster, but a gentle one."
The Mendelsons have three children, two girls and a boy. Scot Mendelson is teaching the oldest, 8-year old Jade, the rudiments of boxing, but with their father's and mother's genes, it's unlikely that the kids will ever be pushed around by bullies.
Emil Farkas learned early on that in this world, a Jew had better learn how to fight back.
Both his parents were Holocaust survivors, and young Emil was born in the Hungarian town of Munkacz right after World War II, and grew up in an Orthodox home.
When he was 7, young Emil started getting into fights with some of his Hungarian classmates and he decided that it would be a good idea to learn judo at the local sports club.
In 1956, after Soviet tanks crushed a short-lived uprising, the family fled and ended up in Toronto. Farkas quickly learned that anti-Semitism had preceded him across the ocean. His response was to pick up the pace of his judo classes, working out at the YMHA judo club almost every night.
A few years later, the first karate instructors arrived from Japan and Okinawa and Farkas was immediately taken by the kick and punch athleticism of the Oriental import. He became so proficient that he earned his first black belt in judo at 17, and in karate at 18.
In the mid-1960s, the Farkas family moved to Los Angeles and 19-year-old Emil looked for a job to support himself while studying at CSUN. The position he found was as bodyguard for Phil Spector.
Farkas' career started to take off in 1970. He founded, and still runs, his own school, the Beverly Hills Karate Academy. The timing was good to attract Jewish parents and their kids.
"After the Israeli victory ion 1967, tough was in, and karate started to boom," said Farkas.
At the same time, through Spector, Farkas met actors and screenwriters in Hollywood, and in short order he wrote his first ninja script. No one in Hollywood had heard of ninjas, and the deal fell through. However, as martial arts movies gained popularity, Farkas found himself in demand as a stunt and fight coordinator, training stunt doubles, and working with cinematographers on "choreographed action."
Often bored with the long waits on movie sets, Farkas broadened out into yet another direction, writing books on the martial arts, He has co-authored five books, including the authoritative "The Original Martial Arts Encyclopedia: Tradition, History, Pioneers."
As a martial arts instructor, Farkas now focuses mainly on "street-effective self defense" through Shotoka, a branch of karate that Farkas developed. His current goals are to expand the teaching of martial arts at Jewish day schools and to form an American Jewish Karate Federation.
"There's still a lot of anti-Semitism out there, and what happened in Europe can happen again," he warned. "As a Jew, you must be able to defend yourself."