A shock of virtual enthusiasm ripped through the Web this week when Amar’e Stoudemire, the $100-million basketball star who recently signed with the Knicks, announced that he’s Jewish. “I am proud to be a Hebrew and embrace my Jewish background,” he told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, shortly after arriving in Israel.
It was his first time in the country, which he was visiting to learn more about his Jewish heritage. But it is still unclear what exactly brought about his newfound interest. Ha’aretz reported that the trip was prompted by him recently learning that his mother was Jewish, but The Jerusalem Post quotes him as saying "I have been aware since my youth that I am a Hebrew through my mother."
What’s almost certain is that the news will not go away soon. After all, when he begins his inaugural season with the Knicks this fall, he’ll be surrounded by the largest Jewish community outside of Israel. Surely, they will come with questions.
Here’s one, and it’s not for Stoudemire: does it matter?
I don’t mean to suggest that it doesn’t, but I’m more interested in understanding why it might. That fact of any superstar athlete being Jewish, in and of itself, to me means very little. Celebrating the fact alone is nothing more than cheap ethnic chauvinism. Is Judaism somehow more worthy — cooler? hipper? — because a great ball player carries our card too? Now there I do imply my answer.
So why might it matter then? One reason I think it does is because, rather than simply proclaim his Jewish roots, Stoudemire seems to be showing an earnest interest in them. He told the reporters that he’s in Israel to learn more about his heritage, which to me seems like the most significant part of this story. Whether Stoudemire comes away feeling a stronger tie to Judaism is beside the point. What matters is that he’s doing the hard work of learning about it.
Perhaps we all can learn from that too.