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.”