Shaq Drops Rosh Hashanah Greeting in Hebrew

In an apparent effort not be outdone by Amar’e Stoudemire’s recent foray into peppering his speech with Hebrew, Shaquille O’Neal (now of the Boston Celtics) offers a Rosh Hashanah greeting to Jews in Hebrew.

“The TMZ website reports that last night at BOA Steakhouse in Hollywood, the 7’1″ superstar became the biggest man on the planet to speak Hebrew!” A TMZ reporter ambushed Shaq and got him to wish all the Jews a “Shanah Tovah” (Happy New Year).

The website suggests calling him “Shaquille O’Nealberg.”

Click here to watch the video.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Amar’e Stoudemire Thinks He’s Jewish… So Is He?

The wedding of the century, starring Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky last Saturday evening, has raised several significant issues for the American Jewish community. Should interfaith weddings with all the Jewish components (chuppah, ketubah, glass smashing, rabbi, and even the unnecessary tallit on the groom) be embraced or rejected? What message is sent when a rabbi co-officiates with a Christian minister? Should rabbis of any denomination perform weddings on Shabbat?

But the question I have yet to hear has to do with Chelsea Clinton. After seeing the groom in a tallit and yarmulke, no one was questioning if he might leave his Judaism behind in this new marriage as Andrew Schiff (great-grandson of the philanthropist Jacob Schiff) did when he married Al and Tipper Gore’s daughter Karenna in 1997. Before the wedding there was some talk on the Web about whether Chelsea might choose to convert to Judaism (which didn’t happen), but never a of Marc Mezvinsky converting to Christianity. So, the question is: What if Chelsea now proclaims herself a Jewish woman without any formal conversion?

There are people out there (the number is probably growing) who were not born into the Jewish faith and have not formally converted, but do consider themselves Jewish. Now, I know that halakhically (according to Jewish law), these individuals are not Jewish, but they can attend just about any synagogue in the world without their status as a “member of the tribe” being questioned. And even if it is questioned, a thorough background check is unlikely. I don’t actually know if Chelsea will proclaim herself a Jew, but it would certainly make for interesting conversation.

And that brings us back to NBA basketball star Amar’e Stoudemire. The newly signed member of the New York Knicks is still traveling through Israel in search of his Jewish roots. So, is he or isn’t he?

As I reported last week, Amar’e was tweeting that he is enjoying Israel and learning Hebrew. When reports surfaced that he was trying to find out if he was actually Jewish, his agent Happy Walters clarified:

He’s not Jewish, it’s all getting blown a little bit out of proportion. His mother says there’s some Jewish blood on her side, but Amar’e is just a total student of history and had been planning a trip to Israel for awhile. Is it possible [that he’s Jewish]? Maybe. We’re going to do some research, but I don’t know where that will go.

But that didn’t end the buzz. Articles in the NY Times and Wall Street Journal both reported on his travels from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea and Eilat and then to Tel Aviv. Early Monday morning, Amar’e had a private shooting session with his personal coach at Nokia Arena with Maccabi Tel Aviv’s chairman of the board Shimon Mizrahi and team manager Gur Shelef observing his skills. Later that day, he met with former player Tal Brody and Mizrahi who invited him to return to Israel to play for Maccabi after his NBA career ends.

Joshua Mitnick writes in the WSJ article: “Sitting poolside at the five-star InterContinental David hotel Monday amid an oppressive Middle Eastern heat wave, the NBA power forward’s head was covered with a knitted white yarmulke, and his words were punctuated with Hebrew. The Jewish skullcap — most often associated with Orthodox Jews when worn outside a synagogue — is “to pay homage to God, Eloheem,” he said. “It’s like praying all day and showing your respect to the creator.”

After reading that I recalled a conversation I had with Amar’e back in 2003 (his rookie year with the Phoenix Suns) when I met him and teammate Joe Johnson at a moped rental location in Miami Beach. My dad and I wound up riding mopeds around South Beach with Stoudemire, Johnson and their friend. Amar’e asked what I did and I replied that I was a student training to become a rabbi. He told me that he’s studied the Torah and that he knew a few Hebrew words. He didn’t mention that he thought he was Jewish, but he showed me a Star of David tattoo that he had on his hand.

Perhaps the most insightful view into Stoudemire’s motivation for coming to Israel and whether he considers himself Jewish is the face-to-face interview conducted by an Israel Sports 5 reporter following Amare’s workout. Wearing a kippah, Stoudemire talks openly about his spirituality and how he’ll observe Jewish customs in the future including celebrating Shabbat, fasting on Yom Kippur, and keeping Passover.

The key point is that Stoudemire explains that Judaism to him is more about belief than actually being Jewish. He talks about his upbringing, love of Scripture study, and his visit to the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem.

So, if Amar’e Stoudemire considers himself Jewish, will he be embraced by a segment of the Jewish community that doesn’t care much of the technicality that he’s not actually Jewish? Does it matter?

Here’s the full video of Amar’e Stoudemire’s interview in Tel Aviv after working out his hotel gym:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Is Amar’e Stoudemire Jewish?

Amar’e Stoudemire’s official Twitter account name is @Amareisreal but it mind as well be AmareIsrael. From his Twitter feed we learn that the basketball star is now in Jerusalem, Israel searching for his Jewish heritage. The 2003 Rookie of the Year has apparently learned that he has Jewish roots (born in Lake Wales, Florida his father died when he was twelve and his mother Carrie was in and out of prison during that time).

I met Amar’e Stoudemire in Miami Beach in January 2003 during his rookie year with the Suns. He was with his teammate and fellow NBA rookie sensation Joe Johnson and another friend riding mopeds around South Beach. My dad and I also rented mopeds and drove around with the three men. Of course, at the time he had no idea about his supposed connection to the Jewish people.

Earlier this month, Stoudemire joined the NBA’s New York Knicks as a free agent. So, perhaps moving to the heavily Jewish populated New York made Amar’e curious about his own Judaism?

According to Haaretz and JTA reports, Stoudemire, a power forward formerly of the Phoenix Suns, was heading to Israel for a voyage of discovery after finding out he has a Jewish mother. According to an Israel Army Radio report, Stoudemire plans to spend time in Israel learning Hebrew.

Stoudemire’s most recent tweet lets us know that he’s eating a late lunch at a cafe and learning a lot of Hebrew. In an earlier tweet he posted, “The holy land. Learn about it. Ze ha’halom sheli” (Hebrew for “this is my dream”).

If Amar’e Stoudemire’s mother is indeed Jewish then he has just become the greatest Jewish NBA player of all time! Good luck on your search Amar’e… or should I say “Behatzlacha!”

UPDATE: Okay, so it turns out that Amar’e Stoudemire is not Jewish. His agent was interviewed for an article on the NBA Fanhouse website. His agent also gets the award for quote of the week:
“I haven’t checked to see if he’s circumcised, but regardless, it’s a stretch to call him Jewish at this point.”
–Happy Walters, Amar’e’s agent

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

LeBron, Circumcisions, Al Kaline, Tisha B’Av & Auschwitz Dancing

Admittedly, the title of this blog post might seem odd and perhaps you’re wondering how I’m going to tie all of these things together. However, this is what has been circling in my head over the past couple days. Allow me to explain.

The other night during a rain delay in the ninth inning of a Detroit Tigers-Cleveland Indians baseball game, I watched a half-hour tribute to Al Kaline. I had the pleasure of meeting this living legend a month ago at a local charity golf outing. Kaline, known throughout Detroit as “Mr. Tiger,” is more than a Hall-of-Famer. He’s a legend and is regarded for his generosity as well as his dedication to the Detroit Tigers’ franchise. He began his baseball career with the Tigers’ ball club on June 25, 1953 as a highly sought after 18-year-old outfielder from Baltimore who bypassed the minor leagues. Fifty-seven years later, Mr. Tiger is still with the organization, working in the front office as a special assistant to the president. He’s never left the team. Now that’s dedication!

I grew up watching Tiger baseball games on television with Al Kaline doing the color commentary to complement George Kell’s play-by-play so I felt nostalgic watching this tribute to him. But what I couldn’t get out of my head — and maybe it was because the Tigers were playing the Cleveland Indians at the time — was Kaline’s long-standing devotion to his team as contrasted to the way LeBron James handled his departure from the Cavaliers only a week prior.

The LeBron controversy continues. Aside from Miami Heat fans, LeBron James has very few fans left. The way he arranged for a one-hour ESPN special to announce his decision to leave Cleveland and sign with the Miami Heat as a free agent has soured his image. It has also led to a more accurate portrayal of LeBron’s on-court and off-court personality. The allegations that he devised a plan a couple years ago for his friends and fellow 2003 draftees Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade to all be on the Miami Heat for the 2010-11 season only highlights his lack of devotion to his former team. In his open letter to the fans, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert accused his star player of tanking it on several occasions (and in the playoffs no less).

Basketball, like baseball, is a team sport. For LeBron it was always about LeBron and not the team. Dan Gilbert is now free to explain that LeBron was difficult to deal with, maintained special privileges, placed demands on team management and the coaching staff, and didn’t return the owner’s phone calls or text messages. Jesse Jackson took issue with Gilbert’s letter and accused him of thinking of himself as a modern day slave master. Jackson’s accusation is laughable since, in actuality, Gilbert was never in charge; LeBron was always calling the shots. (Although, it is funny that LeBron left Gilbert’s team after seven years, which is the mandatory time after which a slave is allowed to leave according to the Torah proving free agency is actually an old concept!)

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, writing about the LeBron James decision, looks to New Orleans Saints quarterback Archie Manning as an example of a pro athlete who was so devoted to his team but never won a championship. Perhaps even better than winning a Super Bowl, Boteach opines, was that Manning got to see each of his sons lead his respective team to a championship. Manning didn’t run from the Saints in search of a team that would be a sure bet to win the ring. When it’s a team sport, the team must take precedence. For LeBron, it was never about the team. Coincidentally, Al Kaline and LeBron James were the same age when they were rookies, but Kaline was (and always has been) a mensch – a gentleman who followed authority and worked as a team player to achieve victory. He allowed his teamates to shine. When he talks about the Tigers’ 1968 championship season, he talks about it in terms of the team effort and the team’s accomplishments.

Yesterday I attended a “bris” – a Jewish ritual circumcision. There is no religious ritual act in Judaism that demonstrates more dedication to the Tradition and to the continuity of the people than a bris. This tribal ritual links hundreds of generations together. The Jewish people are a tribe — like a team — and while there has been some objection to the bris or brit milah from within the tribe, the majority of Jews have held firm and continued this practice which began with Abraham, the first Hebrew thousands of years ago.

At the bris yesterday, I heard my colleague Rabbi Aaron Bergman, say something that truly resonated with me. The bris took place on Erev Tisha B’Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, but he said that the timing was perfect because it demonstrates the eternal optimism of the Jewish people. While Tisha B’Av marks the many calamities that took place on that day including the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem twice, the bris reminds us that the Jewish people have endured. The Babylonians destroyed the first temple, but they are gone. The Romans destroyed the rebuilt temple and they too are no more. The Jewish people, dedicated to the team throughout the generations, has survived. And a baby boy being brought into the covenant of the Jewish people is a sure sign of optimism and continuity.

And this brings us back to the Auschwitz Dancing video that has stirred so much controversy. This video of a Holocaust survivor dancing to Gloria Gaynor’s version of Donna Summer’s song “I Will Survive” is a beautiful expression of Jewish survival. It does not diminish our commemoration or respect for the six million who perished in the Holocaust, but it does remind us that human beings who were marked for death by the Nazis are able to return to those death camps with their grandchildren and proclaim their triumph.

Now that’s true dedication.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

The LeBron Decision From a Jewish Perspective

Aside from NBA star LeBron James leaving one Jewish NBA franchise owner in Cleveland (Quicken Loans and Rock Financial chairman Dan Gilbert) and going to work for another Jewish NBA franchise owner in Miami (Israeli-American CEO of Carnival Corporation Micky Arison), there are several Jewish themes and lessons in “The Decision” of which team the free agent would sign with.

Ne’emanut (Loyalty) – In the last couple of decades there has been very little loyalty among professional athletes. In a bygone era, a city’s fans could expect their star player to stick with the franchise from his rookie season until his retirement when he would be awarded a coaching or front office position. With free agency, loyalty is out the window. High profile athletes in free agency have their agents shop them around to the highest bidding teams. Last night, LeBron James decided he would leave Cleveland sans a championship ring and head down to South Beach, Florida because he wanted to win a championship and figured that the Miami Heat with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh would be his best shot. I’m sure building a Shaq-like estate on Biscayne Bay or Millionaire’s Row had something to do with the decision too, not that I have anything against LeBron’s hometown and current city Akron, Ohio.

Anivut (humility) – Realistically, I don’t expect many NBA superstars to be humble — the few guys in the league who are humble are widely praised as anomalies in the sport. These are guys who grew up with very little and became millionaires with their first signed contract. They live glamorous lifestyles, their image is worth millions, and their endorsement deals add millions more to their net worth. However, the way LeBron handled his free agency decision was embarrassing. The hour-long ESPN prime-time special in which he announced he’d leave Cleveland for Miami had LeBron sitting across from Jim Gray, whom he chose as his interviewer, and in the background were rows of children from the Boys and Girls Club sitting silently. I fault his management team and agent for not using better judgment and letting their mega-star client know how badly this would look to the world.

Malachim (Kings) – We know from the Bible that kings are flawed individuals. LeBron had no problem coming out of high school, signing a mega-contract with the Cavaliers, and proclaiming himself “The King.” It was a title he had yet to earn in the NBA, but he made a personal franchise out of it. While other superstars helped their teams win rings, King James would earn no ring in Cleveland. Today, Dan Gilbert (pictured) issued a letter to Cavaliers fans and finally expressed his own long-held opinions about his franchise player. To the Cleveland fans he wrote, “You simply don’t deserve this kind of cowardly betrayal.” He accused LeBron of giving up and tanking it in the playoffs this year (and also in last year’s post-season). Gilbert’s words lead us to believe that like the kings of the Bible, James is a flawed individual. He put himself before his teammates and the fans who supported him and paid for the tickets, souvenirs, and apparel that kept his stock high.

The people of Cleveland have every right to feel betrayed by LeBron. Superstar athletes may come and go, but the way LeBron handled this free agency decision was all wrong and hurtful to his fans (no fans, NBA; no NBA, no multi-million dollar contracts). Perhaps Cavs owner Dan Gilbert said it best and his words that transcend the NBA. I hope all pro athletes will take Gilbert’s words to heart.

He said, “It’s not about him leaving. It’s the disrespect. It’s time for people to hold these athletes accountable for their actions. Is this the way you raise your children? I’ve been holding this all in for a long time.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Ron Artest Paints Hebrew on Head

The Los Angeles Lakers’ Ron Artest decided to have the word “Defense” shaved and painted on his head for today’s game against the Orlando Magic. However, using the English word “Defense” apparently would have been too, uh, normal for Ron Artest. Maybe he felt that would be something that Dennis Rodman would have done during his time in the NBA. So, Artest decided to go with bleached blonde hair and the word “Defense” shaved and then painted in purple in Hebrew, Japanese, and Hindi characters.

Over the weekend, Artest used Twitter to ask his fans if he got the translations correct. In fact, on his translation page which he uploaded on his Twitpic account, Artest used the Hebrew word “hahagana” for “Defense.” That word actually means “The Defense” and is used in the name of Israel’s army: “Tzva Hahagana L’Yisrael” (The Israel Defense Forces or IDF). Apparently, someone out there told Artest to drop the “The” or the Hebrew “Ha” and just go with “haganah.” Presumably, Jordan Farmar, the LA Lakers’ Jewish player, gave Artest some assistance on the correct Hebrew spelling. But if he wasn’t able to, maybe Artest reached out the only Israeli in the league, Omri Casspi of the Sacramento Kings.

Although, come to think of it, maybe it would have been more appropriate to have “HaHa” included on his head’s message board.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

From Gilad Shalit to Omri Casspi

Evangelical Pastor John Hagee’s organization Christians United for Israel holds huge pro-Israel events in cities across the United States called “A Night to Honor Israel.” The other night was a busy one for me, and I feel like it was my own little “Night to Honor Israel.”

My evening began at a screening of the documentary film “Family in Captivity” about the Shalit family’s campaign to pressure the Israeli government to be more aggressive in demanding their son’s release from Hamas terrorists. Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit has been held in captivity for over three years after being abducted through the Kerem Shalom crossing in Israel.

The film is a gripping tale of a very low-key family, that runs a bed and breakfast in the beautiful Western Galilee settlement of Mitzpe Hila. I found the hour-long film difficult to watch at times. Even before becoming a father I struggled to watch movies in which children are kidnapped (e.g. Ransom). Now that I’m a father, I make it a point to avoid such movies. I made an exception for this documentary because the issue is so dire. Watching the film, I realized how important it is that people all over the world unite in demanding Gilad Shalit’s return from captivity.

The most distressing part of the film for me was the scene in which Gilad Shalit’s father, Noam, met with former United States President Jimmy Carter. I don’t often criticize U.S. presidents. In fact, I believe in the importance of showing respect to our nation’s presidents and yet I cannot refrain from expressing the angst I felt watching the way Jimmy Carter communicated with Noam Shalit. And I wasn’t alone. The entire theater booed after listening to Jimmy Carter speak with utter disrespect to a man fighting for his kidnapped son’s safe release.

Noam Shalit asks Carter if he was able to deliver his letter to his son’s captors. Chewing gum throughout the entire conversation, Carter doesn’t seem to have any empathy for Mr. Shalit. Carter can only describe the devastation he saw in Gaza. In a very self-aggrandizing way, he tells Gilad’s father that Hamas would only accept the letter from him. The former president comes off horribly in the film. Before seeing the film, I read an article in which Noam Shalit says that the fact that Carter is not considered pro-Israel could be beneficial in securing his son’s release.

I’m wondering how many Jewish people who accepted Carter’s recent apology for his anti-Israel rhetoric will see this film and have second thoughts about how genuine Carter’s apology was. In fact, many believe that the apology only came about because his grandson, Jason Carter, is considering a run for state senate, although Carter has denied a hidden agenda.

From the film, I headed over to a synagogue for the annual inter-congregational Men’s Club dinner. The speaker was Oakland County’s sheriff, Michael Bouchard. I thought the fact that Bouchard, a republican, recently declared himself a candidate for Michigan governor made him an odd choice for this non-political event. The sheriff spoke about his recent trip to Israel and the lessons he learned from the Israeli police. His speech centered on how Islamic terrorism must be curtailed. It was a speech one would expect a candidate for governor to deliver to a couple hundred Jewish men in an area that has the largest Arab population outside the Middle East.

I left the Men’s Club dinner and headed out to The Palace of Auburn Hills to watch the Detroit Pistons host the NBA’s first Israeli player. I actually cannot think of another major professional sport that has had an Israeli player. Omri Casspi came to Detroit for the first time and, like other NBA cities with Jewish communities, there was a large contingent of Israelis and Jewish fans in the audience to welcome him.  Casspi is having a great rookie season for the Sacramento Kings.  It was fun watching the fans waving large Israeli flags, which made it on to the jumbo video screens (“Palace Vision”) often throughout the game. I don’t remember the last time so many local fans cheered when an opposing player scored.  The only downside was that the Pistons lost a hard fought game. I must admit that it was odd to watch an opposing player hit a three pointer over my favorite player (Rodney Stuckey) and I actually cheered (see photo).

A few days before his Detroit visit, Casspi scored 18 points against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden’s Jewish Heritage Night.  His welcome to NBA cities by Jewish fans has been great and that energy and excitement has been covered throughout the media including in the NY Times.

Here’s hoping Gilad Shalit will be released from captivity soon and be able to watch his fellow Israeli, Omri Casspi, play in an NBA game.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Name Changes

Cross posted at Kaplan’s Korner (New Jersey Jewish News)

Some sports teams have Native American nicknames that many find to be offensive. Teams like the Chicago Blackhawks, Kansas City Chiefs, Washington Redskins, Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians, Cincinnati Reds, and Golden State Warriors have chosen to keep their names despite protests from the Native American community.

Some teams have changed their team nicknames to be more politically correct. I remember the debates that surrounded the decision of Eastern Michigan University to change its name from the Hurons to the Eagles. More recently, Syracuse University changed its name from the Orangemen to simply the Orange.

The recent suspension of two Washington Wizards players brings to mind the changing of sports teams’ nicknames. Wizards’ guard Gilbert Arenas and his teammate Javaris Crittenton were suspended for the remainder of the season by NBA commissioner David Stern after Arenas admitted that he brought four guns into the locker room following a heated argument with Crittenton during a card game on the team plane.

The owner of the Washington Wizards, the late Abe Pollin, changed the name of his NBA franchise from the Bullets to the Wizards in 1995 after flying back to the Washington D.C. area following the funeral of his friend, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Israel.

In the November 12, 2005 edition of the New York Times, columnist George Vecsey wrote:

Abe Pollin decided months ago that it was wrong to call his Washington basketball team the Bullets. He pushed up the announcement the other day after flying back from the funeral of a friend, a hero, who had been killed by bullets.

“I stood in the spot when Rabin was killed,” Pollin said the other day.

Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister of Israel, was assassinated a week ago Saturday in Tel Aviv. His life was no more precious than the lives of children killed by flying bullets as they cower in apartments in the District of Columbia, or teen-agers gunned down in the heat of an argument. Yitzhak Rabin’s death reinforced Abe Pollin’s belief that something must be done about the nickname.

“I’ve thought about it for 31 years,” Pollin said the other day, after announcing that a new nickname will be chosen by the fall of 1997, when the team moves to a new arena in the national capital.

“Bullets connote killing, violence, death,” Pollin said. “Our slogan used to be, ‘Faster than a speeding bullet.’ That is no longer appropriate.”

So, it is ironic that fourteen years after Pollin decided to change the name of his basketball team because it connoted killing and violence, the team’s star player is arrested for bringing four guns into the locker room.

Charles Krauthammer discussed the issue at length on This Week in Washington. He said:

“In a sense, you’re almost grateful that he died before he could see this. He’s a man who changed the name of the team, the Bullets, which had a long and distinguished history, simply because it gave the wrong message. And he did it, and he probably lost a lot of money doing it, but it meant a lot to him. And to have a member of his team in a gun issue in the Verizon Center, which he built, would have broken his heart.”

Dan Steinberg, in his D.C. Sports Blog, explains that, following Abe Pollin’s death and “Gilbert’s Great Gun Goof,” there have been several explanations for why Pollin changed the name of the team from the Bullets.

The Wizards referenced the name change in their press release about the Arenas suspension, saying: “It is widely known that Mr. Pollin took the extraordinary step of changing the team name from ‘Bullets’ to ‘Wizards’ in 1997 precisely to express his abhorrence of gun violence in our community” Most likely, it was the rampant gun violence in D.C. that convinced Pollin to change the name, but then Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination that gave a greater sense of urgency to the decision.

I don’t believe that changing a sports team’s name will have an effect on how successfully the team performs in the future. However, there is a tradition in Judaism that name changes have the ability to transform. When a Jewish person is on their deathbed, there is a custom of changing their Hebrew name to ward off (and confuse) the angel of death.

In the Torah, several characters have their names changed by God. The first Hebrews Abram and Sarai become “Abraham” and “Sarah” as they progress into the first parents of the Jewish people. Joshua was known as “Hoshea the son of Nun,” but then Moses changed his name to Joshua. The greatest transformation resulting from a name change in the Torah was following Jacob’s struggle with an angel of God when it was declared that he would henceforth be known as “Israel.”

Abe Pollin’s decision to change his pro basketball team’s name from the Bullets was a wise one. Bullets do connote violence and killing, and no sports team (especially one in a town known for gun violence) wants that association. It would be wise for the teams that use American Indian nicknames or mascots to change their names as well. If a pro sports team or a university team has a nickname that offends such a large community of people, why continue that tradition?

Sports teams should use nicknames for which their fans can be proud. In Detroit, our basketball team has been called the Pistons because of the pride the Motor City feels for the auto industry. But now that the auto industry in Detroit has fallen on hard times and there are rumors that the team may soon be for sale, a new name may be in order.

It might be a good idea for Gilbert Arenas to take after the biblical Jacob and select a new name for himself. Just as Abe Pollin honored the memory of his friend Yitzhak Rabin by changing his team’s name, Arenas would be honoring Abe Pollin’s memory by his own transformation.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Jews in Sports

The Jewish community has much to celebrate in the sports world this year –especially in the past month. Many in the Jewish community might have said “dayenu” (it’s enough) to have an Israeli, Jewish boxer rising to prominence. In fact, looking at Yuri Foreman (no relation to George I’m told), many older Jews waxed nostalgic about a time when Jewish boxers dominated the boxing world.

Jewish Boxer Going to Be Rabbi

But it wasn’t enough that Yuri Foreman (right), a Jewish, Israeli boxer was rising up the ranks of professional boxing… he actually won the championship. Foreman is somehow finding the time to study to become a rabbi in addition to his boxing career. I’m sure this is a first. As the JTA reports, “The Orthodox rabbinical student sought some divine assistance in the last 10 seconds of each 60-second break of the 12-rounder. ‘God, please give me strength,’ was his simple invocation.”

New York Magazine covered Yuri Foreman and another Jewish boxer in a recent article. The magazine called Foreman and Dmitriy Salita “two of the most talked-about prospects in professional boxing.” Both professional fighters wear a big, bold Star of David on their shorts. Seeing the Jewish stars on these boxers shorts reminds many of the Jewish boxers of the past; many of whom were immigrants and wore their Judaism proudly.

Jewish boxers from yesteryear is Max BaerOne of these Jewish boxers from yesteryear is Max Baer, the world heavyweight boxing champion who knocked out Primo Carnera to capture the heavyweight crown in June 1934. Baer and four other sport figures have just been elected to the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame for 2010. The 2010 class includes Yael Arad, whose silver medal in Judo at the 1992 Olympic Games gave Israel its first-ever Olympic medal.

As if Rabbi-in-Training Yuri Foreman’s championship doesn’t give the Jewish and Israeli community enough to kvell about, we also have the first Israeli Jewish professional basketball player excelling in the NBA.

The NBA.com website tells the story of Israeli Omri Casspi, who as a young boy in Israel would do whatever he could to catch a glimpse of the NBA. He would wake up early in the morning to watch Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in during the 1990s.

Jewish Basketball Player Omri Casspi is Israeli

Not only is Casspi making history as the first Israeli ever to play in the NBA, but he’s also having a great season thus far.

The Sacramento Kings chose him 23rd overall in the June draft.

“I call him the Michael Jordan of Israel, being the first guy from there drafted in the first round,” Kings teammate Jason Thompson said. “He has a high motor, consistent jump shot, and is real wiry with bounce. When he gets a lot of reps and feels more comfortable playing games, he’ll be a really good player.”

The NBA.com article continues, “There is excitement for Casspi in Jewish communities in the United States as well. Fans in Sacramento wearing jerseys with Casspi’s name spelled in Hebrew came out for a rally after the draft and the Knicks have already designated the Kings’ visit to New York in February as Jewish Heritage Night.”

The Forward described Casspi’s NBA start as a “slam dunk transition for the first Israeli in the National Basketball Association.”

First, Omri Casspi, a 21-year-old forward from central Israel, got off to a quick start for California’s Sacramento Kings on October 28 at his NBA debut, scoring 15 points and logging three rebounds during the team’s season opener — a loss — against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Then, the 6-foot-9-inch player managed similar results during the King’s first home game November 2, contributing 15 points to help the team secure its first victory. Through his first four NBA appearances, the Yavneh native has averaged 10.8 points and 21 minutes of playing time per game, putting him in a tie for third place among the squad’s highest scorers.

It looks like 5770 is going to be a fun year for Jews in sports. Yael Arad gave Israel its first Olympic gold medal in a not-too-popular sport (Judo) seventeen years ago, but now it seems that Israelis are making news in more mainstream sports. With world champion boxers wearing Jewish stars on their shorts and an Israeli slam dunking his way into one of the top players in the NBA today, the Jewish world can now take great pride in its professional sport heroes.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

The Rabbi and the Referee

Sunday the rabbi ran on the court.

No, this is not the title of a new book in the Harry Kemelman series about the detective rabbi.

Last Sunday, during the pre-season exhibition game between the New York Knicks and Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv, Maccabi Coach Pini Gershon was ejected from the game but refused to leave the court at Madison Square Garden.

I’m sure the NBA had some concerns about the substitute officials who have taken over during the referee lockout. But they were probably not expecting a situation like this to take place.

Coach Pini Gershon Maccabi Tel AvivLike most of these pre-season exhibition games with foreign teams, the Israeli team did not prove to be much competition for the NBA pros. The Knicks did not seem to have much difficulty on their way to their 106-91 win in Madison Square Garden. Maccabi’s Coach Gershon seemed to be irked by the referees all game. Ironically, what sent Gershon over the edge was actually a foul on New York. When the Knicks’ Al Harrington was whistled for an offensive charge, Gershon complained to the refs. He was likely upset that Harrington argued the call but didn’t draw a technical.

The referee didn’t much care for Gershon’s attitude and awarded him his second technical foul of the night. The officials had no choice but to follow NBA league rules and eject the coach from the court following his second tech.

And that’s when the rabbinic intervention occurred.

According to the JTA report:

[Coach] Pini Gershon delayed play in Madison Square Garden for 10 minutes Sunday after he would not exit following his second technical foul in the third quarter.

Security officials from the NBA and Madison Square Garden tried to lead Gershon off the floor. Rabbi Yitchak Dovid Grossman of the youth village Migdal Ohr, which was benefiting from the night’s proceeds, also tried to intercede, asking officials to let the coach stay.

Rabbi Grossman apparently tried to appeal to the NBA substitute referees’ sense of teshuvah (repentance). Several reports stated that he told the ref that if Coach Gershon is forgiven, it will be a wonderful example to the children in the crowd.

The NY Times article explains that the rabbi saw it as his duty to moderate. Not knowing that two technical fouls result in an automatic ejection, he attempted to persuade the referee to change his call and allow Gershon to stay.

“But he says that this is the law, that he must leave,” Grossman said, referring to the referee in broken English.

“What can I do? I tried. I tried to make peace.”

It was at that point that Gershon tried apologizing for his outburst, with Grossman behind him.

“This is not a regular game,” Grossman said he told the officials. “In a game for friendship, you forgive.”

Maccabi center Maciej Lampe, a 2003 Knicks draft pick tried to explain his coach’s behavior: “He’s a big person in European basketball, and he probably felt like he was being disrespected.”

Nevertheless, in the NBA, with all its Jewish team owners, Rabbi Grossman proved that not even a rabbi can keep a coach from hitting the showers early following a second technical foul.

The bizarre situation confused everyone, especially the Knicks’ Nate Robinson.

“I was over there just trying to figure out what was up,” said Robinson, who added that the coach and the rabbi “started speaking a different language… It threw me off. I needed a translator,” said the two time NBA slam dunk winner.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller