Today was the yahrtzeit - the anniversary of the death of - Sensei Leon (Yehuda) Pantonovitz, one of the great martial artists of the 20th century. I've been writing my karate story in order but today I will deviate from this plan to tell you about this great man and the influence he had on my life.
I met Sensei Pantanovitz at the WUKO (World Union of Karate Organizations) World Championships in Madrid, Spain in November of 1980. He was sitting with the Israeli team, being their coach, wearing a traditional Jewish yarmulke and sporting a wild beard. Being Jewish and being interested in Israel it was only natural that I spotted the team, went over, introduced myself and spent most of the rest of the tournament - when I wasn't competing - sitting with them.
Sensei Pantonovitz was very friendly. He invited me out for dinner and we went to a Chinese restaurant. I was, at the time, a vegetarian and when my host insisted I order I chose only vegetable and tofu dishes. The food came, it looked great, but Sensei didn't take a bite. Unbeknownst to me, he kept kosher and since the restaurant wasn't under kosher supervision he wouldn't eat even a vegetable. It was a struggle, but I managed to finish most of the food.
I looked forward to seeing him and the guys at the WUKO World Championships in Taiwan in 1982 - especially since I had quite a story to tell him - but he wasn't there. The entire Israeli team had been denied visas. I wanted to be Israeli, too! It wasn't fair that as an American Jew I was permitted to enter Taiwan when my Israeli counterparts were forbidden.
The next time we met up was the Maccabea Games in 1985 in Israel. This time Sensei was a judge and not a coach. He was on the panel for the women's kata competition. He played a part in a story that would last almost 20 years.
I took a silver medal in kata at that competition. I lost to a woman named Kathy Jones, a former professional ballerina who took up Shito-Ryu karate and quickly became an excellent kata performer. After Kathy's kata the judges conferred quickly before giving her score. She beat me by a very slight margin - I believe it was 2/10ths of a point - but she got the gold.
I was very upset by this loss for reasons I won't go into - but will become clear later. I left the gym quickly and hid under a bush where I sobbed for about 20 minutes. I had lost other tournaments and quickly forgot about them but this one stuck with me and from time to time, every few years, something would remind me of it and the hurt came stinging back.
In 2003 I was sitting in a Netanya coffee shop with Sensei Pantanovitz and a few of his black belts when the subject of this tournament arose. I admitted somewhat sheepishly how I'd never forgotten losing that day and how it still bothered me. It was then that Sensei revealed what went on during that judges' conference.
Kathy Jones had learned her winning kata, Superenpei, from her teacher, Julius Thiry, who, in turn, had learned it from Sensei Pantanovitz. It's the highest kata in the Goju-Ryu system and apparently none of Sensei Thiry's teachers had been willing to teach it to him. Thiry's Shito-Ryu dojo was on the west coast of the US, the two men didn't meet often and somewhere along the line Kathy had gotten the idea that a certain move which was performed to the north, east, south and west was to be done to the angels, north-east, north-west, etc.
At the end of her kata - which was lovely, a truly beautiful kata - Sensei Pantanovitz moved to disqualify her because of the mix-up in angles. The other judges out-voted him and she went on to win. "You won that tournament," he said. If, in his eyes I had won, there was no doubt in my mind and heart that I truly had, and 18 years of disappointment and hurt melted away as if they had never been. That's how important to me his opinion was.
Sensei Pantanovitz was honest, a man of integrity, highly principled, loving, kind, a phenominal teacher, an amazingly talented martial artist, intelligent, diligent and one of the most special people I've ever known. I was privileged to be his student for almost four years. They were four of the best years of my life.