It all began when Amare Stoudemire, who recently signed a $100 million contract with the New York Knicks, wrote "I'm Jewish" on his personal Twitter account.
The former Phoenix Suns star's agent was quick to deny the claim. "He's not Jewish. It was blown out of proportion. His mother says there's a little Jewish blood in her side of the family. I haven't checked to see if he's circumcised."
Stoudemire landed in the Holy Land last week for what was referred to as a journey to discover his Jewish roots.
"I'm in Tel Aviv now; this city reminds me of Miami. The restaurants are great – and so are the people. Thanks fans for following me. Laila tov," the hoopster tweeted.
He also updated his fans during a visit to the capital. "Jerusalem is a beautiful city; I'm at a cafe eating a late lunch. I'm learning Hebrew by the min. Keep up!! Shalom."
I greeted him at a Jerusalem hotel. The American tourists almost fainted from excitement when he walked through the lobby. Stoudemire, who had a rough childhood, patiently signed autographs and displayed his ball-handling skills, particularly to the younger fans.
Then we headed out to Masada. The heat was stifling, but the 27-year-old athlete didn’t seem to mind the weather as he toured the top of the mountain donning a yarmulke and holding two mezuzahs he purchased in Israel.
Stoudemire and Arik Henig (Photo: Ariel Besor)
You're standing in one of the most important Jewish sites; how does it feel?
"I'm elated, because of the historical importance and also because of the amazing view of the desert and sea (Dead Sea)."
Your fans were surprised by your remarks on Twitter regarding your Jewish roots and your decision to visit Israel. What happened that you discovered us all of a sudden?
"It's nothing new. I've been into it for the past four years, but each summer there was something else preventing me from visiting Israel. Once it was the US national team, another time it was a severe injury."
What process have you been going through over the past four years?
"I was curious to study the history of the place where Jewish culture began."
Omri Casspi, Israel's representative in the world's premier basketball league, said in a recent interview that Stoudemire had told him that his mother is Jewish. The conversation began when Casspi asked about Stoudemire's Star of David tattoo.
The mother's Jewish roots are also mentioned in Stoudemire's unofficial online biography.
Happy Walters, his agent, says, "Amare is simply a student of history and has planned to visit Israel for a while. Is it possible that he's Jewish? Perhaps. We are going to investigate it, but I don’t know where it will lead to. I think he's excited to learn about his roots, but it's not like he had a bar-mitzvah. If he finds out that his mother's great-grandmother was Jewish, then it's possible."
For Stoudemire, the important thing is what he feels deep inside.
Are you Jewish?
"From my family's perspective - no. No one in my family is Jewish; no one was raised as a Jew, me included. But in the spiritual sense I'm Jewish. In my culture I'm Jewish. I came here to become familiar with every corner of this land and with my connection to the place – the spirituality and culture of the Jewish people. The fact that I am not Jewish by religion does not prevent me from connecting to the Jewish nation's spirituality.
"I will learn more and more Jewish customs and connect (to Judaism) as much as possible."
Did you know that New York, where you'll be playing next season, is the city with the largest Jewish population in the world?
"I'm glad many Jews attend Knick games. As I said – I'm not religious, I'm spiritual, and I connect to any place where there are Jews."
What can we expect from you there, and what do you expect from the Knicks?
"I hope that I'll keep up my game. I promise one thing: I'll be working hard. What I expect from New York is to give me a good feeling and that we'll finally make the playoffs...this is my and everyone's goal."
And how do you expect to combine keeping the Mitzvahs with playing basketball?
"I fast on Yom Kippur and I don't eat bread during Passover, unless Yom Kippur happens to be a game day. I keep the Mitzvahs, yet for the high salary I get I must meet the demands of my employers."
Stoudemire at Dead Sea (Photo: Ariel Besor)
Overcoming difficult childhood
The 6-foot-10-inch, 249-pound Stoudemire said that while he has no plans to convert to Judaism, he would definitely consider living in Israel sometime in the future.
Stoudemire's father passed away when he was 12, and his mother, Carrie Mae, has been imprisoned several times. Amare attended six different high schools before he finally graduated from a high school in Orlando.
Asked about US President Barack Obama, Stoudemire said, "Many people are disappointed with him, but I support him 100%. He's living up to his promises, especially with regards to the weaker sectors of society."
Stoudemire was accompanied by a rather small entourage, including his beautiful girlfriend and a lone bodyguard, as part of his attempt to keep a low profile in Israel.
While in Israel, Stoudemire also enjoyed a private shooting session with his personal coach and fitness trainer, ex-Israeli Idan Ravin, at Maccabi Tel Aviv's home court, Nokia Arena. Ravin provides similar services to other NBA stars, including LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. While at Nokia, Stoudemire shot jumpers with a yarmulke on his head. At the end of the practice he received a gift from the Maccabi Tel Aviv Basketball Club.
The NBA star also paid a brief visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. The museum's website quoted him as saying, "It was an incredible experience. I learned a lot, and encourage my friends and others to visit Yad Vashem as well."
We met at the David Intercontinental Hotel in Tel Aviv to sum up the visit.
Too bad it's so hot here. Aren't you suffering?
"Are you kidding me? It's not as bad as Phoenix. It's much hotter there."
If our foreign minister asks to recruit you for Israel's PR efforts, how would you 'sell' Israel?
"First of all, history teaches us that world culture originated in Israel. Here you see the places that determined the course of history, such as Jerusalem, which is the most beautiful city in the world.
"Other selling points would be the scenery, the beach, the weather and, of course, the good food and pretty women."
Have you heard of the surge in anti-Semitism around the world, and does it frighten you now that you've transferred to our camp?
"I'm not afraid, because I am not familiar with this reality. I have no idea it exists. If it does, it should be dealt with in a spiritual manner."
What do you know about the bloody Israeli-Arab conflict?
"I've never followed it. I prefer the path of peace over war."
At least you're familiar with the other Jewish player in the league, Omri Casspi.
"Yes, we meet a few times a year in games and various functions. He is playing at a very high level for his age, 21. Because of his personality and build he will definitely improve. Maybe in the future he will join our Jewish community in New York."
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