Moshe Feldenkrais – A Biography

Feldenkrais was born in the small Russian town of Baranovitz in 1904, in the Ukraine. He was born the great grandson of Rabbi Pincus of Corritz, the famous Polish Rabbi, who was secretary to the Bal Shom Tov, and the founder of Hassidism. When Moshe was just 14 years old, at the time of the Balfour Declaration (a 1917 British document supporting a free Jewish state in Palestine), he immigrated, by himself, to the then British territory of Palestine. Along with many other Russian Jews, he made this long overland trek on foot. Once in Palestine, he lived in Tel Aviv, at that time a relatively small community of pioneering Jewish settlers. As a young man, he studied, pursued his love of sports, and supported himself mainly as a laborer and surveyor in construction, also finding time to tutor students having problems in school. From the age of 16, Moshe was also very involved with the Haganah, the Jewish self-defense force, which was originally made up of 300 young people who not only wanted a free Jewish state, but also the return of peace with the Arabs and freedom from British rule in Palestine.

Always driven by his innate intellectual interests, he enrolled in school at the age of 23, studying mathematics, and then served 5 years in the state’s Surveying Department doing the math for the department’s map makers. Moshe had learned jiu-jitsu from a young German boy on his arrival to Palestine, and eventually came to write and finally to publish a self-defense book of his own based on this work, which was distributed to all members of the Haganah. However, he was fearful that if the book fell into the hands of the British, and they found out it was his work, he would be arrested. It was 1928, and this seemed like a good time to pursue his studies elsewhere. He had saved some money (and he was paid very well for his book, too), and decided to go to France to complete his education. He took an engineering degree in mechanics and electricity from the l’Ecole des Travaux Publiques de Paris. He then proceeded to the Sorbonne where he received a doctorate of science in Physics. It was during this time Moshe was invited to work with Frederic Joliot-Curie, director of the Curie Institute, as the principal research assistant in his laboratory, doing pioneer research in nuclear physics. Here Moshe helped design and build several Van de Graaff generators and equipment to study radioactivity. This was the same Joliot-Curie who, in 1935, received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Dr. Feldenkrais had diverse interests. He studied, among other things, neurophysiology, ethology (animal behavior), psychology, cybernetics (human control functions and how to reproduce them mechanically), and child development. He was an excellent athlete, excelling in soccer and gymnastics, and was enamored with understanding the process of human learning. He was very interested in spiritual and psychological practices, both Western and Eastern. This prewar period in Paris coincided with a visit to Paris by Professor Jigoro Kano, the then minister of Education of Japan, who was promoting his creation, modern judo. Moshe, always interested in martial arts, managed to attend this demonstration. Professor Kano had actually seen Moshe’s book, and even though it was written in Hebrew, he was very intrigued by the pictures and impressed how a white man could know so much about self defense. This was a significant event in Dr. Feldenkrais life because he was chosen by Kano to be trained in the art of Judo, and, in 1936, became the first European to be granted a black belt. Moshe went on to open the first Judo Club of Paris which is still open today. He also went on to write two books on Judo, the first of which included a forward written by Kano.

In 1940, when the Germans invaded France, Dr. Feldenkrais escaped to England. He was on one of the last boats that escaped, leaving with only a suitcase Joliot-Curie had entrusted to him. That suitcase supposedly contained laboratory notes describing research on nuclear fission, plans for an incendiary bomb, and two quarts of “heavy water” that were later used in the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. Once in England, he was recruited by the British Admiralty and served as a scientific officer. He did antisubmarine research until the end of the war, developing sonar and underwater detection devices for the allies. He also continued to practice and teach judo. Throughout those years, he became increasingly interested in human development and how children learned to move, inspired in part by observing the babies and children in the office of his wife, Yona Rubenstein, a pediatrician.

When still a young man, Moshe had injured his left knee playing soccer. He tore the ligaments and cartilage so severely his knee was swollen and painful for many months. When a bus accident aggravated his old knee injury, Moshe found himself bed-ridden. Doctors said he needed surgery or would never walk again. The best surgeon in England gave him only a 50-50 chance of a successful outcome (this was well before the time of the arthroscope). Feldenkrais thought the idea of surgery with a prognosis no better than chance was idiotic and irresponsible. “I told the doctors”, he said, “that in my laboratory, we would only undertake an experiment when we were 98% certain of our hypothesis.” He studied everything that was known then about health and healing, both Western and Eastern ideas. He began to experiment with tiny movements for hours at a time with vigilant self-observation, refining his awareness until he could feel subtle neuromuscular connections between the various parts himself becoming functional again. The key to healing, he found, is to become more aware of what one is doing, to get to know that functional environment which activates the inherent capacity for the body to heal itself.

Sometime after Moshe had recovered much of the function in his knee, friends and colleagues began to ask him for similar help with their ailments. With one person at a time, Feldenkrais developed ways to facilitate healing and learning, nonverbally, through touch and movement, later to be called Functional Integration. He also developed ways to communicate these insights verbally, later to be called Awareness through Movement.

In 1950, Feldenkrais returned to Tel Aviv to become the first director of the Electronics Department of the Israeli Defense Force. Soon after, Feldenkrais was invited to work with Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, who’d been plagued for years with back trouble, breathing difficulties, and other problems. When Ben-Gurion’s health improved dramatically, Feldenkrais became a national treasure in Israel. After working for years in relative anonymity, Feldenkrais became internationally known and respected in the late 1960’s for his work in the fields of chronic pain relief, rehabilitation, and athletic and performing arts training. He began to give trainings in Tel Aviv and Europe through the 50’s and 60’s, and eventually came to give trainings in the United States in 1971. Feldenkrais returned to the United States many times over the next 11 years, training large groups of people both in San Francisco and in Amherst, MA. His immediate group of about 2 or 3 dozen students are now master teachers, organizing and teaching trainings of their own all over the world. In July of 1984, after a series of illnesses, Moshe died peacefully at the age of 80 in Tel-Aviv.

Clients were all “students” to Dr. Feldenkrais; his goal was to help us all learn to be better at whatever we endeavored toward. Discover more about how the Feldenkrais Method can help you.

Lori L. Malkoff, MD attended the University of California at Irvine, earning her Bachelor of Science degree in 1980 with cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa honors. She completed her Medical Degree at UCIrvine, earned a Master of Public Health degree at SDSU, and completed post-graduate training in Family Medicine at UCLA. Lori Malkoff has been in private practice for 24 years.

Dr. Malkoff has taken additional post-doctoral training in the fields of physical medicine, rehabilitation, neuroscience, psychology, and nutrition. She is one of fewer than 10 Medical Doctors in the U.S. to be certified as a Feldenkrais Practitioner, and currently owns and operates The Feldenkrais Center of San Diego.

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