Orthodox girl from Fair Lawn subject of documentary on power lifting

Naomi Kutin carries her weight.
Naomi Kutin carries her weight.

It’s not every bat mitzvah girl whose rabbi compares her physical strength to that of biblical Jacob, who singlehandedly rolled a weighty stone off the top of a well.

Then again, Naomi Kutin wasn’t a typical bat mitzvah girl.

Now a sophomore at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, Naomi has been setting adult powerlifting records since her first contest, at the tender age of 8.

Her bat mitzvah party at Fair Lawn’s Congregation Shomrei Torah in 2013 is one of many scenes in the documentary “Supergirl,” to be screened at the DOC NYC Festival on November 13 at the School of Visual Arts Theatre in Manhattan.

When filmmaker Jessie Auritt of Brooklyn read about Naomi in the Forward in January 2013, she was intrigued. “Not only was Naomi doing this predominantly male sport, and beating women three or four times her age, but she was Orthodox Jewish,” Ms. Auritt said. “I was interested in delving deeper.”

With the cooperation of Naomi’s parents, Ed and Neshama Kutin, Ms. Auritt started filming the family in the spring of 2013. Naomi was simultaneously on the cusp of her religious coming of age and her attempt to break a new world record in the 97-pound weight class. Those are two transitions fraught with equal parts excitement and stress.

“Supergirl,” the 79-minute culmination of Auritt’s three-year project, premiered October 9 at the Hamptons International Film Festival.

The documentary affords an intimate look at this Fair Lawn family of four. The loving parents sport the typical accouterments of suburban modern Orthodoxy — he with a kippah on his head, she with a jeans skirt and a sheitel worn to shul — yet their encouragement of their daughter (and more recently, their younger son) in an unusual competitive area of athletics clearly is outside the box.

And that makes for interesting cinema.

Scenes of Naomi in shul or in school (Yeshivat Noam in Paramus) juxtapose jarringly with scenes of her decked out in a singlet over a t-shirt, grunting and red-faced as she lifts close to three times her body weight.

“It’s really cool being the best at something,” Naomi tells Auritt, who filmed together with producer-cinematographer Carmen Delaney.

There’s a scene of Ed making Havdalah for the family in a hotel room before heading to a Saturday night competition full of tattooed power lifters somewhere in Middle America.

There’s a touching moment when Naomi talks about feeling protective of her younger brother, Ari, whom she describes as “on the autistic spectrum.”

There’s a frank conversation with Neshama about growing up as a Pentecostal Christian on a farm in Colorado. Her childhood was marred by sexual abuse. “It’s really important to me that Naomi is empowered to make choices for herself because I didn’t have that when I was growing up,” she says emotionally.

The family appears comfortable under such close scrutiny, and indeed Ms. Auritt said that she found the Kutins “pretty open to the documentary right off the bat.

“Any parent is a little skeptical about letting a film crew into their lives, and we talked about what the process would look like. Throughout, we tried to be very sensitive and stay on the same page. It was important that we had to have mutual trust.”

Naomi Kutin is dwarfed by another weight lifter.
Naomi Kutin is dwarfed by another weight lifter.

The articulate star of the show seems unselfconscious in front of the camera.

“At the beginning of this whole process, it was super weird to have cameras follow me and my family around everywhere,” Naomi said. “I have been in front of cameras before, with TV shows, but for only a few hours, so this was totally different. However, after a few months of filming, it was much easier to be myself and forget the cameras were even there.”

Naomi said she is “extremely happy with the outcome of the film. I had expected to cringe at my younger self; however, I was pleasantly surprised. I think the documentary really portrayed that part of my life very accurately while also being tremendously entertaining.”

Ms. Auritt said the film ultimately shows Naomi’s journey of self-discovery at an unusually early age.

“At the start I was interested in exploring what life was like for this girl growing up in the spotlight, with the pressure of having to set world records. I loved that this young girl was doing something really unexpected and exceptional and I wanted to highlight that in a way that sends a positive message of inspiration and empowerment,” she said.

“Seeing Naomi could be an inspiration for anyone who doubts themselves to just go after their dreams,” she added.

Pursuing this particular dream can present difficulties for Jews operating within an Orthodox framework, yet Ms. Auritt — who describes herself as culturally Jewish — found the Kutins and the wider community willing to embrace this unusual situation.

“Once Naomi had her bat mitzvah, I had thought that there would be controversy in terms of the dress code in powerlifting,” Ms. Auritt said. “More conservative Orthodox Jewish girls would not be comfortable with wearing a Spandex singlet. It was surprising to me, in a positive way, that there was flexibility and room for interpretation within modern Orthodoxy. Everyone we came across was really supportive of Naomi and her family, including the rabbi.” That’s Rabbi Benjamin Yudin of Shomrei Torah.

Though the Jewish and athletic parts of Naomi’s life don’t intersect much, Supergirl and yeshiva girl have some mutuality.

“One of the things I learned about powerlifting is that it’s a very mental sport, and Naomi having that sort of drive and devotion parallels being really committed to her faith,” Ms. Auritt said. “But I don’t necessarily think she sees them as connected directly.”

Indeed, Naomi said, “I don’t usually make a connection to powerlifting and my Jewish values; I usually keep them as separate parts of my life. However, I do realize that it is God that has given me this strength, and that I have only Him to thank. In that way, I guess I do have a connection between the two.”

In addition to her double load of Judaic and secular studies at high school, and frequent physical training and meets, Naomi makes time for activities with NCSY, the Orthodox Union’s youth movement, and regularly visits a child with special needs as part of the Chabad-Lubavitch Friendship Circle program. Last year she traveled to Houston with an NCSY delegation to help rebuild communities damaged by severe flooding.

“My mom is very helpful in teaching me how to balance all the different activities I do,” said Naomi, who enjoys the sciences and hopes to make a career in the fitness field.

Meantime, at 15, Naomi continues setting national records for her weight class.

“I’m hoping that viewers see that stereotypes are just that — stereotypes,” she said. “As long as you set your mind to what you are doing, and are safe, you can accomplish just about anything.”

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