Gabe Carimi: The Badger Jew

We all know Gabe Carimi enjoys pancakes. His legacy of flattening defensive lineman while with the Badgers made him a first round pick in this year’s NFL draft. But what you probably didn’t know is that Carimi also savors potato pancakes come Hanukah time.

Yes, Carimi is Jewish, and he’s not shy about his faith. In fact, his new nickname was inspired by one of the great Jewish characters in recent cinema history: Eli Roth in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, a.k.a. The Bear Jew.

I would argue that there could not be a more apt description of the Chicago Bears’ 6’7” tackle that practices the Jewish faith, so good job nicknamers. But Carimi doesn’t just practice his faith, he celebrates it as well.

His first public event after being selected by the Bears was to attend the Great Jewish Family Festival, a celebration hosted by a Jewish group outside of Chicago. Other Jewish feats stretch back to his college days, where as a freshman he fasted for a day right up until kickoff of the Big 10 opener, in observance of Yom Kippur (the holiest day of the year). Thankfully for the Bears, Carimi has checked and made sure that Yom Kippur doesn’t fall on a Sunday or Monday for the next 10 years. But even just last week, he appeared at an event in Illinois to benefit the UW Hillel.

Clearly, this is a man who embraces his status as a Jewish athlete and role model. He may be somewhat of an unlikely Jewish persona; “interior lineman from Wisconsin” usually elicits an image as far from “devout Jew” as possible. But he enters a sports landscape that is as devoid of Jews as that Wisconsin line usually is. There are a scant handful of stars in sports today who are Jewish, and even fewer who actively embrace their religion. Sure Ryan Braun, Kevin Youkilis and Ian Kinsler are Jewish, but how often do you hear about it? Ok, so Youkilis released a T-shirt with a Hebrew phrase, but that kind of inspiration isn’t reaching the Jewish masses too far outside of Boston.

Of course, it’s natural that these guys aren’t wearing yarmulkes in public and regularly attending Temple. I’m Jewish, but certainly not religious, and if I was a star athlete (it’s not too late, it’s not too late) I certainly wouldn’t be bringing up my faith again and again. Youkilis’ shirt is a nice homage to his roots, but the fact that it’s one of the most singularly Jewish acts of a star athlete today shows how few of those displays there are these days. I mean, when’s the last time you heard an athlete “Praise Hashem” during an interview? Amar’e Stoudemire may not be far off, but I don’t know how many young Jewish boys would view him as a Jewish role model.

The point I am winding to is this: while there may be a lot of Jewish sports fans out there who are far from religious, it takes that display of faith from an athlete to distinguish him as a distinctly Jewish athlete and role model. It’s why Sandy Koufax is a veritable Jewish hero after refusing to pitch the 1965 World Series opener on Yom Kippur. And it’s why Gabe Carimi is quickly becoming a Jewish icon. Especially in an NFL where you have as good a chance as running into a Jew as Al Davis does at avoiding jokes and insults (Al Davis: another Jewish icon!).

In the end, most Wisconsin fans will look back on Gabe Carimi as one of the better linemen to come through a program built on linemen; an Outland Trophy winner who personified that famous hard-nosed, run-first style that the Badgers are known for. But there will be a few, myself included, and hopefully you too, who will see Carimi’s legacy slightly differently: as a man who was not just the full embodiment of Wisconsin football, but the full embodiment of a Jew, quietly keeping his faith and making all parties invested in his success happy. Or, in a simple phrase (albeit far from catchy and possibly playing up some stereotypes): The Badger Jew.

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