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The Sages and Senseis of “Cobra Chai”

There's a famous Yiddish expression: “Ir shluft in bet ir ligt,” which loosely translates as: “You made the bed, you sleep in it.” In the Talmud it is likewise taught: B’Mida she’Adam moded bah, modidin lo.” According to the measure that a person relates to the world, the world relates back by the same measure. A more common corollary from the iconic 1980’s The Karate Kid: “What goes around comes around!”

To the delight of fans around the world, “Cobra Kai” came around in 2018, emerging after a three decade long hiatus. More than just another remake, Cobra Kai successfully flips the script of its popular predecessor by inverting the original hero/anti-hero storyline.

The 21st century remake showcases the tough yet tender side of one-time bully Johnny Lawrence. Hated in the role of high school villain, Lawrence's more mature character is undeniably likable as he exudes qualities such as authenticity and vulnerability. Real life actor William Zabka portrays a broken, yet hopeful sensei seeking redemption from his troubled past while stumbling through “Life-After-No Mercy.”

I know what you’re thinking: messing with the magic of Mr. Miyagi is indeed a risky endeavor. It requires focus, balance, breathing, and more focus. Not to mention a charming new high school protagonist like Miguel Diaz. But is that really enough? Zabka and the other actors had declined reboot offers for decades. With the exception of his cousin “Vinny,” Ralph Machio has effectively been in Hollywood hibernation for thirty years. What convinced him and the other cast members to return from retirement? The Karate Kid was such a classic that it was feared that any changes now would risk ridicule and sully the cinematic sacrosanct. Yes, unfortunately there are some unrefined conversations and uncouth behavior from this iteration. However, lurking under the show’s rough exterior are writers like Schlossberg and Hurwitz - can you guess if they like bagels and lox? They pitched the new/old premise to the former cast members and the rest is Okinawan history.

I must admit, though, I initially thought that the whole Cobra Kai concept was nothing more than an elaborate spoof. The teaser trailer seemed more like a parody of a parody - a clever joke orbiting the blogosphere but nothing real. To my delight, not only did the series strike hard, it somehow managed to recapture hearts and imaginations across the globe. While other shows pander to the millennial monopoly, Cobra Kai appeals to both millennials and Generation X’ers as it unabashedly eviscerates the politically correct caricatures of contemporary youth, bespeaking their overconfident yet fragile foray into the pool of cultural hypersensitivity. Simultaneously, the writers enjoy poking fun at their own antiquated 20th century simplicity. How exactly did the talented trio of writers pull off such an international success? Are they simply riding on the coattails of Daniel's worn out prom suit, or is there something uniquely appealing about Cobra Kai?

A Nafshi participant wistfully confided in me, stating: “I wish I had a Mr. Miyagi when I was growing up.” He longed for a real-life “wax on/wax off” training from a wise and father-like mentor during adolescence. It is worth each of us asking ourselves who are our mentors?

The key to unraveling the mysterious affection of the original "Karate Kid," as well as the renewed success and popularity of Cobra Kai is the tenderness of the relationships put forward between sensei and student, father and son. What we watch deeply affects our consciousness and subconscious mind expectations. The fictional Mr. Miyagi was, to many of us, a holistic mentor. He was small in stature, yet enormous in virtue. He was a tour de force, standing up for the downtrodden and for an overall sense of honor and goodness. He represented inner strength, self-control, patience, wisdom and dignity. He embodied sage-like values yet exhibited a playful spirit and did not take himself too seriously. In short, he was the father-figure that Daniel LaRusso (and many audience members) never had.

Flash forward, Cobra Kai capitalized on these elements by honing in on the father-figure motif. For instance, we learned that without his biological father present young Johnny experienced emotional abuse from his bully step-father as well as verbal and physical abuse from his mentor and sensei Kreese (played by longtime Jewish actor Martin Kove). He repeats the verbally abusive pattern with his own son, Robbie, with whom he is estranged. All Valley Champion Miguel Diaz and his sidekick Eli "Hawk" Moskowitz, (it had to be Moskowitz!) are also depicted without having fathers in their families-of-origin. In Season 2 as Daniel renews his focus on the Miyagi dojo, his relationship with his children begins to be adversely affected. Father themes abound.

The major difference between the old and new plotlines is that unlike the noble Mr. Miyagi of yesteryear, Johnny is a complicated hero. Plagued by alcohol abuse, he experiences emotional distress with his ex-wife and son, and financial distress regarding his unsteady employment. Johnny somehow transcends his circumstances with a new hope and commitment to the Cobra Kai dojo. “Everyone deserves a second chance.” While attempting to redeem himself and make amends for his parenting mistakes, he cultivates an unplanned father-like mentorship with the fatherless Miguel, his prime disciple.

Dare I say, though, that Cobra Kai may even have a (crane) leg up on its predecessor? True, Mr. Miyagi embodied virtue, but that was no great surprise. We expect as much from an Okinawan karate master, channeling generations of tradition. But a Johnny Lawrence emerging as one who can emerge as virtuous later in life - this is totally new and different. Viewers tuning in and expecting a middle-aged Mr. LaRusso to be a neo-Miyagi will be sorely disappointed and pedantically vocal online. The series’ surprise is not that Daniel falls short of Miyagi mentor status, but it is that Johnny exceeds Miyagi status in some surprising ways. His brokenness actually makes him more human, more real, more... like us. The audience senses that he is also on his own journey of self-development, climbing his own bonsai tree mountain. He may not be the noble sage, but it is the element of his brokenness and perseverance against all odds that endears us to Johnny. It is precisely his ability to take control of his own destiny despite not having that loving father which illustrates his profound resilience and inner fortitude. If Johnny B. Good, we can be too. Even when we stumble off the dojo mat, our ability to get up again signals that our choices ultimately lie in our own hands (or fists). Seen in this context, what makes Cobra Kai so successful and what makes Johnny so likable is precisely his non-Miyagi-ness.

As Brene Brown, the famed counselor and author of “The Gifts of Imperfection” has observed: “There is no innovation and creativity without failure. Period.”

When faced with challenges in our own lives, we may conceive of the following false dichotomy: Either we will rise to the occasion like a noble Mr. Miyagi or descend into darkness like a sordid Sensei Kreese. The middle option, the authentic option, is to view ourselves and others as more complicated personages, with good hearts, who are not demoralized by our mistakes and missteps, but view them as opportunities to grow stronger. As Rosh HaShana approaches, we have a spiritual opportunity to turn life’s stumbling blocks into stepping stones. A personal relationship with a loving God awaits, if we make the first move.

So who is your spiritual sensei for this coming year? It has been asserted that if you are looking for the perfect spouse, you will never get married. If you are looking for the perfect job you will never find it. If you are waiting for your parents to turn into perfect caregivers and supporters, you will wait forever. Likewise, if you are looking for the perfect Rabbi or Rebbetzen, like a fictional Miyagi, you may miss out on the spiritual sensei that is right for you this year.


Michael Friedman, M.Ed, LPC Licensed Mental Health Therapist