Naomi Kutin is a 16-year-old teenager from New Jersey. She looks like just another nice suburban Orthodox Jewish girl. But looks can be deceptive. True, she is a junior at an all-girls yeshiva high school in Teaneck, New Jersey – but she is also a world-record holder in powerlifting, a competitive form of weight lifting.
Kutin is also the star of a new documentary to be aired on PBS in the United States on December 18, appropriately titled: “Supergirl,” by award-winning filmmaker Jesse Auritt. “This intimate portrait follows her unique coming-of-age story as she fights to hold on to her title while navigating the perils of adolescence — from strict religious obligations to cyberbullying to health issues that could jeopardize her future in powerlifting,” says Auritt.
But Kutin, who earned the Supergirl nickname when she was just beginning, didn’t just start weight lifting out of the blue: She was a karate champion too when she was young and only began lifting when she was eight. She set her first world record – for adult women – at age 10 in the 97-pound weight class. Today she competes at a weight of about 134 pounds.
But the weight lifting part of the story isn’t quite as off the wall as it sounds: Her father Ed – who is also her coach – has been a competitive weight lifter, too, since college at MIT; as is her 14-year-old brother Ari, one of the five siblings. She started lifting in her father’s makeshift gym in their basement because she was too young to join a gym.
Naomi’s mother Neshama is the “team manager” for their Modern Orthodox family. Her parents just assumed it would be a passing fad: “My husband and I figured she would last about six months before she lost interest,” Neshama told the Jewish Press last year. “Lo and behold, that wasn’t the case.”
They are almost always the only Orthodox Jews at the meets where Naomi competes, bringing their own Kosher food. It goes without saying that she does not compete on the Jewish Sabbath, from sundown Friday evening to after sundown Saturday night. This can put her at a disadvantage, but sometimes she has received permission to lift with the men on Sundays at competitions. This usually means she cannot compete with the other women for medals, but it still counts for setting U.S. national and world records.
“Most women and kids don’t do that,” she told The New York Times. “But men get more physically psyched, so I actually prefer lifting with the men.”
“Normally, my mind is on school, friends, my phone, social media, stuff like that,” she told the Times. “But when I lift, I put it all to the side, and all I care about is that bar in front of me.”
“Contests on Shabbos are a non-starter; like everything else it is really about balancing our observant lifestyle,” Neshama told the Jewish Press. Powerlifting also has to take a backseat to schoolwork for the two children, they say.
Next, she is preparing to run in the Jerusalem Marathon in March and raising money for Shalva, the Israel Association for the Care and Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities.
Naomi’s personal bests for the lifts are now: Squats, 321 pounds (145.6 kilograms); bench press, 132 pounds and deadlift, 365 pounds. Her best in a competition is a total of 800 pounds for the three lifts. The winners are ranked by their totals for all three lifts together.
Powerlifting is a different, though similar looking, sport from the weight lifting you see at the Olympics. Powerlifters compete in three separate lifts: Squats, bench press, and deadlifts.
Squatting is just what it sounds like: You put a barbell with heavy weights on it on your upper back and squat all the way down, so your hips are at least as low as your knees – and then the hard part is standing all the way back up with the weight. Bench pressing is lying on your back on a flat bench and lowering a bar with weights down to your chest – and then pressing it all the way back up again. It’s harder than it looks.
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And finally, deadlifts are “just” bending down to lift a barbell with weights off the floor until you are standing straight with the bar in your hands. Deadlifts are usually the heaviest of the three.
Auritt writes that she discovered Kutin in January 2013 after reading an article about her in The Forward, calling her “the strongest girl in the word” was an Orthodox Jew from New Jersey. “But what fascinated me more than the fact that this little girl had superhuman strength, was the fact that she was even powerlifting at all. To me, ‘Orthodox Jewish girl powerlifter’ was an oxymoron and frankly unfathomable. While I’m not a weightlifter, I am Jewish, although not Orthodox. From my knowledge of Jewish law, I didn’t understand how an Orthodox Jewish girl could be competing in the male-dominated sport of powerlifting, particularly because of the dress code requirements (powerlifters must wear a formfitting wrestling singlet when competing). While I didn’t quite comprehend how this was possible, I found it awe-inspiring and was compelled to dig deeper and explore what life actually looked like for this barrier-breaking young girl.”
The film, which premiered last year, follows Kutin over a three-year period from 11 to 14. It includes many powerlifting contests, her Bat Mitzvah and “the trials and tribulations of both a child star athlete and a typical adolescent Jewish girl,” wrote Auritt as part of her Kickstarter campaign.
“Supergirl” is being broadcast as part of PBS’ Independent Lens series of independent documentaries and will be available for streaming on December 19.