Does Rusty Kanokogi sound like name of the Jewish mother next door? Only if it’s the mom who mastered Judo in Japan, convinced Congress to pass Title IX in sports and secured women’s Judo’s spot in the Olympics.
The woman who received the Order of the Rising Sun, Japan’s highest honor for a foreigner, was born Rena Glickman in 1935.
Writer Wendy Lewellen chronicled Rusty’s life and says it happened this way:
Living in Coney Island, she befriended the hawkers, the barkers and the social misfists of the colorful boardwalk. By age 13, she had formed her own girl gang, The Apaches, which fought neighborhood injustice.
In the 1950s, she worked out with weights: her brother’s, at home, since the YMCA wouldn’t allow her to do so there. One day, a male friend showed her a Judo throwing move he had learned, and she found her sport. In 1962 she traveled to Tokyo to study in the female section of Kudokan, Judo’s home. Once she had pulverized her female opponents, she moved on to the men. She even met her husband there.
After their return to the States, she had two kids and devoted herself to teaching Judo in the New York area while advocating on behalf of the sport’s girls and women. She and her friend Billie Jean King pushed Congress to pass Title IX, bringing a new era of sports equality. Her single-minded determination then garnered a spot for women’s Judo as an Olympic demonstration sport in 1988 and a full-fledged, medal-earning sport in 1992.
Rusty died in 2009. Her ashes are entombed in Kumamoto prefecture, in a tomb reserved for samurais, with the inscription “American Samurai.” Chutzpah could have been her middle name.
As part of our month-long series dedicated to Jewish American Heritage Month, Kveller and the Jewish Women’s Archive bring to light little-known stories of inspiring, intriguing Jewish American women whose legacies still change our lives today. To explore even more, visit jwa.org.