US-born bodybuilder Effi Kivelevitz says that his life as an observant Jew prepared him for the rigorous training regimen that helped him win the title.



Working hard, and working out: Israel’s new body building champion Effi Kivelevitz.

Israel may be known as a land of farmers, soldiers and scholars – and of course, high-tech entrepreneurs – but not bodybuilders. And yet musclemen flex their stuff in Israel too and last August 34-year-old American immigrant Effi Kivelevitz was crowned “Mr. Israel,” making him Israel’s bodybuilding champion.

According to Kivelevitz, being a champ means working hard – and working out – to stay healthy. “The truth is, I didn’t start out aiming to be a champion,” says the muscleman with movie star looks. “I enjoy working out and being fit and it happens that the gym where I work out is the same one where Amit Sapir, who is a former Mr. Israel, also works out.”

Sapir thought Kivelevitz had it in him to win the Mr. Israel title and helped him create an exercise and diet regimen. After coming close to winning last year’s competition, this year Kivelevitz walked away with the title, and can now boast of being Israel’s top muscleman.

Growing up in an Orthodox Jewish community in New York City and attending yeshiva and Jewish day schools, Kivelevitz says that bodybuilding came naturally to him.

“I was always a restless kid, and I found I could release a lot of energy at the gym,” he tells ISRAEL21c. “I worked out, did some martial arts, and sort of just took to weightlifting.” While his parents were a bit surprised at his choice of recreational pastime, today he is the toast of his family. “I recently went to a family wedding, and everyone thought it was very cool having a champion bodybuilder at the party,” he says.

Rules and structure

The new Mr. Israel says that being observant has enhanced his ability to develop his body. “When you’re observant, you need to follow rules and a structure, especially when it comes to actions that are forbidden, such as eating certain foods,” he explains.

Having “trained” as a Jew for his entire life, he says, keeping away from foods forbidden to bodybuilders in training – junk food, excessive carbs, etc. – may have been easier for him than it is for those who aren’t used to following a set of rules.

On the other hand, the Sabbath can be rough for him when he’s in training. “Shabbat is a day for being social, with the socializing centering on meals. But because I have to cut out most carbs and fats while training, sitting with people who are enjoying challah [a braided bread often eaten by Jewish people on the eve of the Sabbath] and cholent [a traditional Jewish stew simmered overnight and served for Shabbat lunch] is just too difficult,” he says.

During the weeks before a show, he says, he often spends Shabbat alone, which helps with his training but can leave him feeling lonely.

But the regimen is worth it, says Kivelevitz, for whom bodybuilding is a labor of love. And it’s a good thing that he’s not in it for the money. Bodybuilding is a little-known sport in Israel, so there are few professional opportunities for him as a bodybuilder.

Sales by day, bodybuilding by night

“Bodybuilding isn’t an Olympic sport in Israel, so there’s no real international venue to compete in, other than in shows organized by bodybuilding groups around the world, which Israeli bodybuilders participate in. Most Israeli bodybuilders who are serious about it work as personal trainers and compete at shows in Europe,” he says.

When at home, they do what Kivelevitz does. He has a day job (in sales for a US design company) and in the evening he trains students in the art of bodybuilding. Kivelevitz is also considering competing in the US, in several shows scheduled for the spring.

Despite the rarity of Jewish bodybuilders, Jewish strongmen have occasionally come to the fore. One example is the original Jewish strongman, Siegmund “Zishe” Breitbart. He was known as the “20th Century Samson” who performed around the world, titillating audiences with feats of strength and standing up for his people in the face of anti-Semitism.

The subject of the 2001 film Invincible Breitbart eventually became so famous that he once performed for an audience of 85,000 people in 1923. But he never forgot his roots, and organized courses to train young Jews whom he hoped would be part of an army that would liberate Palestine from the British.

Since 2003, when he immigrated to Israel, Kivelevitz has been a part of Israel’s bodybuilding scene. He’s the only American immigrant on the “circuit,” which comprises a melting pot of Israeli archetypes, including native-born descendants of Moroccan immigrants, bodybuilders from the FSU and Israeli Arabs.

The secret to having a good body

“There is a bit of a culture gap between the different groups, but we all speak the same language – the language of bodybuilding – and that helps resolve most issues,” Kivelevitz says.

A Tel Aviv resident, he says that he loves living in Israel. “Living in New York, I always seemed to be rushing about, never enjoying life. But here in Tel Aviv, it’s like a non-stop party,” he enthuses. “There’s always something to do and someplace to go, and I’ve got a lot of great friends here.”

One thing that worries him is the aspiration of many young people around to have sculpted bodies without making any effort to achieve them. “Unfortunately, steroid use is a major problem in the US,” he laments, adding that it is much less of an issue in Israel. He says that many steroid users may be unaware that although they may work for awhile, steroids often permanently damage the health of long-term users: “Believe me, I have lots of stories I could tell you – and none of them have a happy ending.”

So what’s the secret to having a good body? “Exactly what the experts have been saying all these years,” Mr. Israel replies. “Cut out the fat, try to get six hours of sleep each night, eat a balanced diet. It’s hard, but as you move forward, you’ll look and feel better – and that’s a huge reward, right there.”

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