"Would you like something to read?"
"Do you have anything light?"
"How about this leaflet, Famous Jewish Sports Legends?"
Great Jewish athletes aren't quite as rare as the movie Airplane! would have you believe, but in the highest echelons of certain sports like basketball, Jewish jocks are certainly an underrepresented minority. So absurd is the notion of a dominating Jewish player, in fact, that when one comes along, it's simply not enough to compare him to any regular famous athlete: Only the most dramatic allusions suffice. Hailed with almost as much fervor as the parting of the Red Sea, the concept of the ‘Jewish Jordan’ has inexplicably captivated the sports media (Jewcy.com). Los Angeles Lakers guard Jordan Farmar (a literal personification of the lofty nom de guerre) may be the current standard-bearer for Jewish basketball prowess, but Orthodox Jew Tamir Goodman, who was briefly but mightily exalted by the likes of ESPN and Sports Illustrated back in 1999, endures as the original.
All along, all I've ever said is, "I'm just trying to use my God-given talent." I'm no different than anyone else—you're a reporter, a lawyer is a lawyer; for me, my talent is basketball. I don't know; it's not like I wanted [the hype], or asked for it.
Currently hooping in Israel's second division, Goodman, age 25, lives in a suburb of Tel Aviv and is averaging close to 20 points per game for Maccabi Shoham, of Israel's second-tier National League. He says he's playing the best ball of his professional career right now, but the path to Shoham has been full of curves.
After winning the MVP award at one of high school basketball's national All-Star games, the Capital Classic, Goodman was offered a scholarship to ACC powerhouse Maryland [Associated Press]. The deal with Maryland soon fell throughGoodman attributes it to the university's unwillingness to accommodate his Saturday observance of the Jewish Sabbathand he accepted a scholarship with Towson University, a Division I school in the suburbs of Baltimore, where he is from. Bogged down by a conflict with new coach Mike HuntGoodman says Hunt physically harassed him and made anti-Semitic remarkshe left at the end of his sophomore year for Israel, signing with Maccabi Tel Aviv, the team that went on to win the 2005 Euroleague title.
While the glory days of Sports Illustrated and 700 interview requests a week may have passed (Cleveland Jewish News), Goodman tells Gelf that he is exactly where he wants to beand that he doesn't mind that Farmar has assumed his "Jewish Jordan" mantle. Since his arrival in Israel, Goodman has confronted a new set of challenges: marriage, fatherhood, a stint in the army (to get his dual citizenship), and regular shuffling around the pro basketball league. He relishes his role as a bilingual mediator between Americans and Israelis on his team, but even in Israel, his observance of Orthodox Judaism makes him an outsider in athletics. (On his website, Goodman wryly notes his unique position within the basketball world: "Tamir [has] the respect of his coaches and teammates for his religious dedication, as well as for his ability to throw down two handed jams and no look passes.") Gelf caught up with Goodman by phone from his home in Givat Samuel. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Gelf Magazine: Are you at all disappointed you've gone from being a highly-touted Maryland recruit to playing in Israel's second league?
I try to bring 100 victims of terror to every game—there are so many kids in Israel who have suffered so much for no reason, and basketball is just a great way to help them smile.Tamir Goodman: No, I'm very happy. I can't thank God enough for what I have. I've been able to stay an Orthodox Jew. Not many people can say they've reached their dreams. And I've reached my dreams. I've still got a long way to go I'm getting better every day.
GM: How does the competition in Israel compare to the competition you faced in the US? How does the style of play differ?
TG: I think it's very, very competitive in Israel. In general, the whole country is a very competitive place. Most teams now have about four American players; most either left the NBA or were great in college. There are a lot of people you see here who were great in college, and you don't really know where they are. And they're in Israel. It's really cool. Within the last two years [Maryland's] John Gilchrist and Terence Morris, [Arizona's] Jason Gardner, etc. have been here. There are a lot of top-notch players here. I thank God everyday that I'm able to play basketball professionally in Israel.
GM: What's the hardest part about living in Israel?
TG: Just being away from my family in the States. My grandmother's here, and of course my wife. I don't see my nieces and nephews. I miss my father and mother a lot.
GM: Do you miss Baltimore?
TG: I miss my family, and I miss people that I grew up with. Baltimore's been great to me growing up. But I love being able to serve God here. I love it. I feel more and more at home here.
GM: How often do you come home?
TG: I come to America in the summer, mostly go to the camps, and spend the last week in Baltimore. Once in a while I come in to recruit money for the charities.
TG: I started it right after the [Israel-Lebanon] war. We went to the north [of Israel] and I saw houses that weren't repaired from the rockets, and I thought, I just have to do something. And if I don't, it's wrong of me. It's great. I know there are a lot of people in America who want to help. And sports are greatI have sports, I know what it can do, and I love helping the kids. So it's a perfect match. I just want to help as many kids as possible.
With everything that's going on in Israel, I'm always able to play basketball, serve God, and help out. I try to bring 100 victims of terror to every gamethere are so many kids in Israel who have suffered so much for no reason, and basketball is just a great way to help them smile. For kids up north, summer is the time to play ball. They had no summer. They spent it in bomb shelters.
GM: To what do you attribute the media frenzy surrounding you in high school at Talmudical Academy? Was it warranted?
TG: I have no idea. I never asked for anything for myself, I never talked about myself. Anything I've ever done, I only did for Judaism. All along, all I've ever said is, "I'm just trying to use my God-given talent." I'm no different than anyone elseyou're a reporter, a lawyer is a lawyer; for me, my talent is basketball. I don't know; it's not like I wanted it, or asked for it. I try to be as simple and as humble as possible all the time.
GM: As you were heading off to college, did you ever that worry the hype surrounding you surpassed your talent?
TG: No. I mean if you look at everything I've done in high school, I was up there with everyone. I won the MVP of the Capital Classic All-star game, and a lot of the guys who play in that are doing very well in the NBA. It wasn't that I didn't have the talentI proved myself time and time again against the best. When you're the first, a trailblazer, you're going to go through a lot more than the average person. I'm still breaking down barriers because of my faith. But God's helping me. I just go through more tests than other athletes go through. I believe I'm being tested.
I just know that whatever I go through, at the end of the day, everything is going to be OK. Everything I go through, I go through with happiness. You can't go through life saying, "I wish I had this" or "the grass is greener on the other side." What you have is what you need. There's a saying in Judaism: "Who's considered rich? A person who's happy with what they have." I'm so blessed with the best family, and I'm able to grow every day as a Jew.
GM: How's your relationship with Towson University these days? Have you spoken with Mike Hunt since you left Towson?
TG: I'm not the type of person to be in fights with anyone or hold grudges. I more look at it as being guided by God, and not the person. What happened with Coach Hunt, instead of getting mad at him, I thought, "Hey, maybe my time's up here; maybe God wants me to go to Israel." No, I haven't spoken with him.
I don't really differentiate between Orthodox or secular. I believe all the Jews are God's children. I've worked with everyone from the most religious kids to ones who aren't in tune with their Judaism, and I treat them all the same.GM: Have people in Israel heard of you from your Sports Illustrated days?
TG: Yeah, a lot of people in Israel had heard of me before I came over here.
GM: Is it true you're the first observant Jew to play in the Israeli basketball league? Is it difficult to be an observant Jew and basketball player at the same time?
TG: I believe so. It actually works out great because I'm kind of the mediator. All the American guys come over and relate to me because I speak English, and the Israelis because I speak Hebrew. For me it's perfect; for me it's not a problemI graduated from a Christian school, had a Muslim roommate, and have been with all nationalities.
GM: Do you feel you've helped bring together Orthodox and secular Jews?
TG: Well for me, I don't really differentiate between Orthodox or secular. I believe all the Jews are God's children. I've worked with everyone from the most religious kids to ones who aren't in tune with their Judaism, and I treat them all the same. I grew up in a Chabad House. That's the way we were raised, and that's the way they taught us to be. [Editor's note: Chabad Houses serve as mini Jewish Community Centers and exist in every corner of the globe, from Kinshasa to Asunción.] Anyone who came to the [Chabad spiritual leader] Lubavitch Rebbe, he accepted, and saw how special they were. Not to compare myself to the Rebbe, but we try to learn from his ways.
GM: Are there any similarities between your current experience as an Orthodox Jew amongst secular Jews and your experience in the US as simply a Jew amongst non-Jews?
TG: Not really. I think all the questions are different. In America, they'd ask me, "What is Shabbat?" In Israel, even if they're secular, they'd ask, "What time is Shabbat?" Even if they're secular, they know a lot about Judaism. In America, a lot of times I'd have to teach from the beginning. When I was six years old, I was the first Orthodox Jew to go to basketball camp. Even from that age, I was answering, "Why do you have that hat on your head?" I never took it [his yarmulke] off. I was always proud to be Jewish.
GM: What's next for you?
TG: I'd like to play as long as possible. I think God's given me a lot of talent in basketball. I'm averaging like 19 points a game. It's going well, I'm very happy. I want to work my way up the ladder. I don't like to say, "I want to play for this team." Do your best, and God will take you where you need to go. I'll just do what's in my hands, which is to play as best as I can.