Amar'e Stoudemire And My Jewish Problem

A journey of discoveryPish to the LeBron James television special, or Kevin Durant’s unassuming tweet that he would be keeping his talents in Oklahoma City. At least within my little world, no NBA star has generated more multimedia tailspin this off-season than new Knick Amar’e Stoudemire.

Last week the impossibly sculpted, explosive 28-year-old power forward proclaimed, via Twitter, that he was a Jew headed to Israel to study Hebrew, Yesterday saw the release of a completely baffling sitdown with the Israeli station Sport5, where Stoudemire insists on stumbling through the tough questions that the interviewer is trying to avoid. As much of a professional mistake as this may prove to be, I hereby give up trying to to decipher Amar’e’s Summer Challahday.

Then again, from the beginning my feelings about this have had little or nothing to do with the facts on the ground.

On the face of it, “Amar’e in Israel” remains one of the kookiest sports stories in recent memory. Yet, miraculously, the reaction was one of muted credulity. This despite the fact that Amar’e’s claim sprang up out of thin air and then some. Several days and one candid interview with (kosher) agent Happy Walters later, the jig is up: Stoudemire might have some Jewish blood, is a spiritual dude who loves him some world religions, and like so many other Americans, can’t resist the History Channel.

Now, one would guess, it would be time for all to exhale, put things in perspective, and then go to town on Amar’e-and just as importantly, on ourselves. Against all common sense, we had held back. No irony, sarcasm, or imminent date with catastrophe. We just sat there and waited for the truth.

Naturally, I felt myself overcome with guilt. Not only am I embarrassed by my willingness to suspend disbelief, but I also abandoned my post. During that first day of breathless anticipation, a goyishe friend expressed disappointment and dismay at the lack of snark. He likened the whole thing to a Mel Brooks joint and asked where “the acclaimed Jewish wit” was. To top it all off, he added, “The only person I’ve seen be ‘Jewish Funny’ about this whole thing is Amar’e himself, maybe.”

I’m not including snippets of this email to show that all my relationships are based on self-stereotyping, nor to suggest that, as a non-practicing Jew who regularly forgets what words start with haychet, I’ve somehow reduced my identity to a recognizably ethnic sense of humor. It’s more that, in the absence of any real Jewish knowledge or praxis, I fall back on that murky class of attributes that make for a “cultural” Jew. Failing to capitalize on such golden-and relevant-material was a kind of betrayal. Don’t worry, I’m rectifying the matter as we speak.

At the same time, though, I find myself obsessively re-tweeting Amar’e’s dispatches from the Holy Land. They’re remarkably mundane and relaxed; his observation that Tel Aviv was like Miami was certainly far sharper than intended. Still, here is one of my favorite NBA players juggling around the entry-level signifiers of my fathers, and my fathers’ fathers.

The Sport5 interview doesn’t need any cackling interloper; it practically mocks itself. Stoudemire vows to observe Shabbat, which would make him a greater pioneer for Judaism in pro sports than Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax rolled up in one. Since NBA teams regularly play on Fridays, it’s such an absurd suggestion that the interviewer doesn’t even bother to follow up. It plays like one of Christopher Guest’s opening scenes, or an interlude from one of those lo-fi network comedies I keep hearing about.