Amar'e Stoudemire And My Jewish Problem

by Bethlehem Shoals

A journey of discovery

Pish 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.

Yet I’m not laughing. Instead, there’s a disjointed, uneasy pride. And then immediately after, again with the guilt.

Here, though, the problem isn’t that I’m letting down some part of the “cultural Jew” core curriculum. It’s that I’ve stuck myself with it, and on a daily basis, feel okay about it. What kind of self-respecting Jew can listen to someone make a mockery of a religious tradition-you can decide whether its appropriation or just stupidity-and come out feeling better about his background for it? Why will I never tire of Amar’e Stoudemire’s quest for my faith? Because in many ways, I’m no less of a tourist than he is. Just with the right genes and kinship diagram.

At breakfast the other day I sat next to some older women discussing their Yiddish singing club. I wanted to shoot them a knowing glance, or drop something into my own conversation to indicate I was down. I bet Amar’e probably would have felt the same way.

It’s this wounded, over-eager part of me that wanted to believe Amar’e in the first place. Still-life of me with Jews; Jews raining down every time Stoudemire scores. The circle is complete and the logic irrefutable. Then, we rest.

Except there’s another key difference here-that is, aside from the circumcision, bar mitzvah, and whatever other bare essentials mark me as a member of the Tribe. When I wail like this about who I am and where I came from, it’s understood as private gone public. You can say it’s an act; I would rather think of it as an enactment of some internal peril that belongs not only to me. I’m not sure I feel this terrible about my special heritage all the time; it’s not all burden, caricature, and thinly-veiled conservatism. I almost feel like I’ve stumbled into this pickle, much like Amar’e in his interview.

Oh, and if you were worried, I’m fine with “Jewish-ness” even as “cultural Jew” makes me cringe.

Amar’e, though, is growing up in public with only the slightest twinge of self-awareness. I realize that there’s something odd, even disturbing, about my willingness to play along (in fits and starts) with his fantasy. That’s the tension that leads to stuff like writing. Stoudemire, on the other hand, is just out there without a net, hardly schooled as to how silly he seems. Does he take Judaism serious? It would seem. But no one’s done him the service of showing him how Serious 2.0 actually looks.

(That is, if any of us know. Is Twitter hopelessly raw and confessive or the ultimate means of cheapening legitimate introspection?)

That’s the problem with Amar’e. He believes entirely too much in his crackpot talking points. To me, his overseas venture is nothing but object, designed to make me feel both better and worse about my place in Jewry. As for the man himself? Until he starts to feel that pull of insufficiency, even foolhardiness, he remains worlds away from me. My culture inspires him; for me, more often than not, it serves-yes, you guessed it-as a source of guilt.

Or, if you’re sick of that refrain, it’s as much about critique as it is affirmation. Maybe someone should throw a good zinger at Amar’e, some kind of stinging, unanswerable retort that makes him feel like a schmuck for the rest of the day. Without undermining his interest in Hebrew and Israel, it would at least give him a window into what a fraught, endless statement “I am a Jew” really is.

Bethlehem Shoals, a regular contributor to NBA FanHouse, is a founding member of, whose Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History will be published by Bloomsbury, USA in November.