It’s been a tough week to be a liberal Zionist in Kentucky.
From the Cats loss to the Cards, to the POETUS’ nuclear noodging, to my own POTUS executing a Grayson Allen-like leg sweep to trip up Israel at the United Nations, I’m taking a writing vacation to console myself for the holidays with some fine bourbon.
But to appease the Ghosts of Chanukah Past, I share memories of a more halcyon time, when a marvelous big man with a marvelously Jew-ish name roamed the hardwood at Rupp Arena. Enjoy this 2014 piece, and a Happy Chanukah and Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night…
Whenever my East Coast friends ask how a Jewish bagel-nosher like me could win statewide office in the country ham-slinging Bible Belt, I tell them it’s simple: There’s only one acceptable form of idolatry here, and it’s Kentucky basketball.
(And don’t forget the explosion of anti-Christian madness every March when CBS Sports replays That Damned Laettner Shot every 15 minutes.)
But growing up here in the sports-crazy South, the paucity of Jewish athletic heroes has always been the source of great disappointment. No scene in cinematic history rings truer than this one from the classic Airplane! (written and directed, natch, by three Hollywood Hebrews):
For the YouTube challenged, here’s the transcript:
FLIGHT ATTENDANT: Would you like something to read?
PASSENGER: Do you have anything light?
FLIGHT ATTENDANT: How about this leaflet, “Famous Jewish Sports Legends”?
Sure, my grandfather had the Hebrew Hammer, Hank Greenberg, and my dad watched the Yom Kippur-skipping Sandy Koufax; but it turns out that my favorite childhood menorah-lighter, Rod Carew — the Hall of Fame California Angel and Minnesota Twin — was never actually a Member of the Tribe (sorry, Sandler).
And today, the most prominent Jewish sports “heroes” include steroid liar Ryan Braun, allegedly kosher Amar’e Stoudemire, and pretty much every controversial or detestable pro exec — late outlaw Al Davis, Redskins-assassin Daniel Snyder, loudmouth Mark Cuban, Browns-mover Art Modell, and…ugh…Donald Sterling.
Then along came Willie…
A few years ago, when word came from on high (or at least Matt Jones’ sources) that my beloved C-A-T-S had signed a super-talented, huge skinny dude named Willie Cauley-Stein, I felt like Kim Jong Un in a buffet line.
Now, for the uninitiated, I’m not suggesting that Willie Cauley-Stein “looks Jewish.” (Although he did once sport a fascinating Jew Fro). Indeed, I’ve been told for decades that I don’t “look Jewish” — and if I tried to show you surgical evidence of my covenant with God, I’d be arrested as a sex offender.
But the name “Stein” is as about as Jewish as it gets. Two of the Bluegrass’ most prominent dreidel spinners, Lexington Legend Alan and liberal icon Kathy, boast the surname. And even when it appears as a last name’s prefix (Steinberg, Steiner) or suffix (Bernstein, Goldstein), Stein is as much an indication of Semitism as the prefatory O’ is of the Irish.
Then the icing on the bundt cake: It turns out that Big Willie was raised from the third grade by his grandparents, Val and Norma Stein. I had visions of a 6 foot 6 inch, 13-year-old Willie hovering over the Torah at his Bar Mitzvah — and even better — his Jewish relatives struggling to lift him up in a chair during the hora circle dance later that evening.
But…alas…came the horrible news: Willie Cauley-Stein is not a Jew. The Steins of Kansas are among the rare subset of Steins who claim German ancestry, but have no connection to the people of Israel.
My world was devastated. My favorite current Cat — and likely the most charismatic and athletically-talented Kentucky cager in a generation — wasn’t part of our International Zionist Conspiracy. I had flashbacks to the awful moment in the Henry Clay High School cafeteria when I discovered that The Boss was Catholic. (Maybe the fact that “Mary” is the name of the woman in every other Springsteen song should have given it away.) I suddenly began to understand the horror experienced by my Irish friends upon their discovery that Barack O’bama and Hakeem O’Lajuwon weren’t wearin’ of the green.
Sure, we can put together a nice minyan prayer group every Saturday game at Rupp — with noted Chosens ranging from UK President Eli Capilouto, to Board of Trustees past chair Britt Brockman, to Medical Center head Michael Karpf, to Arts and Sciences Dean Mark Kornbluh, to rapper/super fan Drake (No kidding, Drake is Jewish!) But there’s no one on the hardwood to light the Sabbath candles.
So here’s my Chanukah wish. It would be obscene for me to ask anyone to consider modifying their faith for my own personal enjoyment. But if Willie Cauley-Stein can’t be Jewish, I would love for the emerging superstar to embrace his surname and consider becoming a Jew-ish Gentile.
Let me explain…
A decade ago, when I launched my national tour for The Compassionate Community — the book in which I discuss my political career as a devout Jew living in an inner notch of the Bible Belt – I ventured often into the rural hills and hollers of my home state. I’d speak passionately about my Jewish faith, quote the Talmud and the Rabbis; but, inevitably, there would be someone who’d come up to me afterwards to proclaim: “You are such a good Christian!”
If I could be a christian Jew, then consider my college roommate, Ron Granieri, who came to campus with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Hebraic faith, customs and moral code, quite impressive for a Roman Catholic from upstate New York. And because he was a compassionate soul with a wicked sense of humor, our other roommate – a future rabbi – annointed him as a Jew-ish Gentile. And a zeitgeist term was born. (Well, at least I’ve written about it.)
If Willie Cauley-Stein took me up on my offer to become a Jew-ish Gentile, he’d find it extraordinarily advantageous in his coming years of challenge ahead. Consider:
As he tries to bulk up his slender frame for the physical combat of in-the-paint professional hoops, Cauley-Stein would find himself surrounded by dozens of Jewish mothers, each noodging him to finish his dinner plate: “William?!? There are kids starving in Africa!”
As he works his way up the NBA ranks, he’d find common cause with so many of the Jewish folks who run the sport, from Commissioner Adam Silver, to nearly half of the league’s owners, to pretty much every sports agent not named Jay-Z.
And as he struggles through his early seasons in the pros, he’d always be buoyed by a 4000-year, comforting tradition of self-deprecating jokes, meta-awareness of neuroses, and kicking the ass of aggressive adversaries. To quote the bard of all things Jewish — Jerry Seinfeld — Willie Cauley-Stein could be the master of his own domain.
So Willie, I wish you a very Merry Christmas. But if you have an inkling that I’m onto something, please put on your yarmulke, drink your gin and tonic-ah, and have a happy, happy, happy, happy Chanukah.