When a celebrity declares his desire to get in touch with his Jewish roots, the Jewish community is wary. How serious can Madonna/Lindsey Lohan/Ashton Kutcher be, we wonder—without considering the irony that many of us are not particularly serious about our religion either.
So it’s no surprise that NBA star Amar’e Stoudemire’s recent trip to Israel to seek out his “Hebrew roots” was met with a sense of bemused skepticism, both inside and outside the Jewish community. It doesn’t help that he suggests, but never reveals, the source of his suspicion that his mother had Jewish roots. When pressed about whether he’s Jewish, he responds, “Through history, we all are.” The obsession with wearing a yarmulke on his trip and the Tweeting in basic Hebrew only add to the sense that Stoudemire doesn’t get it.
But what exactly doesn’t he get? That Judaism should not be embraced publicly? That one shouldn’t be vocal about one’s enthusiasm for learning about Judaism? That Jewishness is reserved only for those with Jewish genes? In outsize form (both metaphorically and literally—he is 6-foot-10), Stoudemire’s exploration of Judaism mirrors the experience of many converts, who often encounter skepticism both for their motives and for their practice. His evasiveness about his genetic connection to Judaism is a quiet rebuttal to those who would make Jewish identity contingent on maternity. In his claimed decision to celebrate Shabbat, observe Passover and fast during Yom Kippur (unless there’s a basketball game, in which case, he says, “I’ll have to eat”), he is embracing the most important part of Jewish life: its rituals. It doesn’t matter whether he is a member of a synagogue, or is an officially sanctioned Jew, he’s interested in Judaism purely because of what he feels it offers him spiritually and emotionally. It is an expansive and unorthodox (big and little “o”) approach to Judaism that is espoused by only a few radical voices, like Rabbi Irwin Kula.
Of greater concern from my perspective is how his newfound Judaism fits in with his older professed Christianity. He has a tattoo of the star of David on his left hand, yes, but he also has a tattoo declaring himself “Black Jesus” on his neck. In 2007, he told the Christian sports website “Beyond the Ultimate”:
Even though (my father) died when I was twelve, my mother made sure that Christianity continued to be a central part of my family’s life. That’s why I have such a strong faith today. Going to church helped me develop a relationship with Jesus, and that has given me something to lean on as I have worked to reach my goals.
In none of the articles about Stoudemire’s interest in Judaism does he address the place of Jesus in his belief system. It is certainly possible that his beliefs have changed. But if his beliefs haven’t changed, his exploration of Judaism and adoption of Jewish rituals may make him a Judeophile, but they won’t make him a Jew.