The Curse of the Jewish Jordan

Dmitriy Salita, an undefeated welterweight boxer and Golden Gloves champion, is an Orthodox Jew. His personal website describes him as “a famous Jew boxer,” and he climbs into the ring to the thumping bass of Matisyahu, the Hasidic reggae star. … Read More

By / December 1, 2006
Dmitriy Salita, an undefeated welterweight boxer and Golden Gloves champion, is an Orthodox Jew. His personal website describes him as “a famous Jew boxer,” and he climbs into the ring to the thumping bass of Matisyahu, the Hasidic reggae star. If Salita gets his way, he’ll be the next Jewish media icon.

He’d better be careful what he wishes for. With his Hasidic music and exhibitionistic piety, Salita may awaken a dangerous and venerable beast: hagiographical journalism that sets messianic expectations for Jewish athletes, musicians, or anyone else who fits neatly into the timeworn narrative about the Jew who thrives in a goyish field. It’s a story that is bad for the protagonist, who can’t live up to the overwhelming expectations. It’s bad for fans, who are mortified when their hero proves mortal, even mediocre. And ultimately it’s bad for American Jewry, which should have matured beyond all this.

The story goes something like this: a young Jew—a very Jewish Jew, a Jew’s Jew—falls in love with a gentile pastime. The Jew’s gifts are so astonishing that gentiles make concessions to his faith: the reggae artist is so gifted that marketing executives let him sing about his devotion; the ballplayer is so skilled that the team allows him to miss games on the Sabbath. The Jew can express both his faith and his talent. He integrates without assimilating.

Fawning press coverage in Jewish media provides fodder for mainstream journalists and critics, who publish the feel-good story and shamelessly exaggerate the skills of the young Jew. Then comes the inevitable backlash. The super-hyped-up Jewish icon isn’t all that good. He gets knocked out by a journeyman fighter. Or the hot bat of his rookie year gives way to strikeout after strikeout and a trip back to the minors.

This phenomenon reached a pathetic climax in the late 1990s with Tamir Goodman, a Maryland high school basketball player. As a student at Talmudical Academy of Baltimore, Goodman ran up impressive statistics against competition of dubious caliber. But he wore a yarmulke on the court and observed the Sabbath, and the media couldn’t get enough. During his junior year of high school in 1999, Sports Illustrated dubbed the 6-foot-3 shooting guard the “Jewish Jordan.”

Other media outlets ran with the story. The New York Post, 60 Minutes, and the Forward echoed SI’s hosannas to Goodman, who was uncomfortable with all the attention. “I’m just a basketball player. I’m not Moses,” he told NY Post writer Frank Baum.

For a short time, Goodman seemed to live up to the hype. Division I powerhouse University of Maryland offered him a scholarship during his junior year, after agreeing to his request to skip games that fell on the Sabbath. This was a major concession for a program that, like most at the top, demands unwavering commitment to the team and its routine.

Goodman’s fall from media grace began not long after Maryland withdrew its offer during his senior year. The Jewish Jordan hadn’t played well during a series of basketball showcases for the country’s top high school players. Goodman enrolled instead at Towson State, a smaller school in Maryland. He played for less than two seasons before he left the team after an altercation with the head coach.

Sports Illustrated even rescinded his title, saying, “In retrospect, maybe we went a little too far with the whole ‘Jewish Jordan’ thing.” Goodman now plays basketball in Israel, where no one calls him the Jewish Jordan. He reappeared in a small feature that ran in the Cleveland Jewish News just over a year ago, and he mentioned how much he hated the Jewish Jordan experience.

“I’m living the dream,” he told the paper. “I’m 23 years old, living in Israel, and playing professional basketball.” He now languishes on a second-tier Israeli team, Givat Shmuel. A w
ebsite devoted to Israeli basketball contains a scouting profile with the following line: “To sum it up, was a high-school star who did almost nothing impressive since.” He’s averaging 2 points per game on the season.

The protracted Goodman fiasco prompts a question: How did the journalists who wrote up the story not see this coming? Specifically, how could it not have occurred to them that a skinny 6-foot-3 Jewish high school kid’s athletic domination of shorter, skinnier Jewish kids might not be a prelude to an NBA career, and that he certainly didn’t warrant comparison to the greatest basketball player of all time? What is so compelling about the “Jewish superstar” narrative that makes normally insightful writers go daffy?

It comes down to something Boston Globe journalist Joe Burris wrote at the height of the Jewish Jordan hysteria: “What a wonder it is when the heavens throw a wrench at preconceived notions.” It’s those hated “preconceived notions” that get journalists spewing nonsense. Burris didn’t name them, but we know what he’s talking about. Goodman was showing us that even the most religious Jew could succeed at the most urban of American sports.

Old stereotypes die hard, and we’re not entirely free of the archaic caricature of the weak, unimposing Jewish male perennially emasculated by hearty, vigorous gentile men. When a shomer shabbos guy kicks ass on the basketball court—in the ultimate sport of the inner city and of black athletic prowess—then surely there is nowhere the Jewish male cannot thrive.

As Goodman fades into obscurity, the cycle has started over. In December 2005, Israel’s YNET News ran an interview with Jordan Farmar, a sophomore guard from UCLA. Headline: “The Jewish Jordan.”

The interview contained all the hope, hype, and misfortune that followed Goodman. Reporter Amir Bogen, after admitting his desperation to find a Jewish flame burning deep within Farmar, instead elicits nothing but a bland statement that all religions influence Farmar’s life. Struggling to keep the focus on Farmar’s Jewishness, Bogen lamely mentions that he could be the first Jewish NBA player since Danny Schayes. It’s like telling a young black reporter he could be the next Jayson Blair.

Farmar, perhaps sensing there’s no good way to escape that statement, tries an answer that will please everyone: “I want to be an important force in the whole world, not just the Jewish community.” This kind of talk may lose him his fan base among Jewish sports nerds everywhere, and it sure won’t get Sports Illustrated selling him as Moses and Michael Jordan all wrapped into one.

SI has other things to call Farmar, though: a first-round NBA draft pick, for one. In July, the Los Angeles Lakers made Farmar their first pick in the 2006 draft. Without the messianic hopes of American Jewry on his back, this Jewish Jordan may just make a name for himself as a basketball player, and not just as a Jew.

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