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Farewell to ‘Finky’, fighter and second father to many



Mark Finkelstein, a lawyer much admired for his teaching of self-defence and voluntary efforts in the Jewish community, died of cancer on 27 December in Johannesburg. His death came a few weeks before what would have been his 58th birthday.

Finkelstein was first diagnosed with cancer nearly four years ago, and in spite of pain, continued to work and maintained his good humour.

He often said he was a lawyer by profession, but his passion was teaching Krav Maga, Hebrew for close combat, an Israeli developed self-defence system. As a lawyer he advised a number of business clients and wrote contracts. His brother, Oscar, says in pursuing law, “he might not have been following his true calling” of teaching.

Finkelstein had a passion for teaching, was devoted to his students, and they were to him. One of those he helped with substance-abuse issues was so grateful to him, he flew in from London for the funeral. Mothers often said how grateful they were to Finkelstein for helping their youngsters become more confident.

What Finkelstein loved about Krav Maga was that it’s about a real fight and not restricted by the rules of any martial art. Other Krav Maga instructors rated him as a fifth dan, which is five notches above a black belt, reflecting immense technical and teaching expertise. Rather than showy moves, Finkelstein favoured the simple and effective.

For more than 20 years, he volunteered for the Community Security Organisation (CSO). He taught Krav Maga to CSO volunteers and held various supervisory positions.

For the past few years, he has been in charge of security at Yeshiva College campus, which required him to rise at dawn every day. Steve Goldberg, the chairperson of the Johannesburg CSO, said everyone found him, “open and approachable with a great depth of experience. He taught with a true passion for Jewish people to defend themselves. It’s a terrible loss for the CSO to be without Finky.”

Finkelstein was born and grew up in Johannesburg, did his matric at Highlands North Boys’ High School, and then went on to do a Bachelor of Commerce and Bachelor of Laws at the University of the Witwatersrand. As estate agents, his parents often found new houses and moved with Finkelstein, his older brother, Oscar, and sisters, Lani and Aviva.

One of the greatest influences on the brothers’ lives was the late Mickey Davidow, their Judo sensei. “Mickey was like a second father to us,” says Oscar.

When Finkelstein was five, his parents sent him to Davidow’s dojo in Glenhazel, where Oscar was already a pupil. At the first class, Finkelstein was pinned down by an older and more skilled opponent. To release himself, he punched the boy in the face. When his mother came to collect him from the dojo, Davidow told her that he had the right amount of aggression, but it would be best if he started Judo in a year’s time.

He went on to train with Davidow for many years, and regularly went to see him until he passed away two years ago. Finkelstein represented Transvaal and won a number of national titles in Judo.

In a tribute to Davidow published in Soul Sport, a local Jewish sports magazine, Finkelstein wrote, “In my martial arts instruction, I have attempted to follow Mickey’s kind and calm encouragement of students while being specific in any criticism.

“Mickey always made us feel good about ourselves and sought honour for his students ahead of himself. His dojo was the place to feel good about life, about who you are, and your skills as a fighter. Above all, Mickey wanted us to enjoy ourselves, something that he stressed to children and their parents.”

For nearly five years, Finkelstein was my Krav Maga instructor and I could see the influence of Davidow. Until November last year, when his medical needs interfered with training, I would look forward to our two training sessions a week like a young child does a treat. Seeing him arrive in his dark red Ford Ranger, wearing his favourite black security guard boots, jeans, and a T-shirt gave me an energy boost.

Finkelstein had Davidow’s calm teaching style and ensured his students developed good form, but he also spent time sparring with them to give them the feel of a fight. One of his guiding principles in teaching was Davidow’s Yo rule, which stresses bringing together the key elements of earth – balance, wind, speed, fire, aggression, and water-flow, in a fight. The ultimate praise from Finkelstein was that one had brought together the elements well.

He saw the basics of physical fighting as applicable to other fights. He also taught Krav Maga as a means for fighting addiction in substance-abuse treatment centres.

His teaching went beyond physical fighting, and he lectured on how The Art of War written by Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese general, could be used as a tool for fighting addiction, in thinking about business, and daily life. He had begun to write a book on The Art of War and fighting addiction.

Finkelstein also spoke to individuals and groups about his fight against cancer.

Although he often had a hectic schedule, he always found time to give of himself. He regularly visited the elderly parents of friends who had emigrated.

Finkelstein was proud of his Jewish identity and loved Yiddishkeit, but was tolerant of those who were not as observant. Though he didn’t grow up in a highly religious home, he became observant after his marriage to Cheryl.

He paid immense attention to his children in teaching them, exercising with them, and taking up their interests. He frequently took the family for hikes in nature reserves, and on holiday at his favourite places in Mozambique. The Finkelstein Shabbos evenings were always filled with good food, lively conversation, and argument. His other great enjoyments were baking bread and taking his beloved schnauzer, Zuko, for walks.

Mark leaves his wife, Cheryl, and children Dan, Aaron, Yigal, Judah, and Estee Rivka.

  • Jonathan Katzenellenbogen was taught Krav Maga by Mark Finkelstein for nearly five years. Jonathan is a weekly columnist for The Daily Friend and has worked for a number of publications including Business Day.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Larry Aronson

    Jan 25, 2024 at 11:58 am

    May his memory be a blessing.This kind of dedication and commitment doesn’t come around often. Wishing the family long life.

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