Celebrating Passover With Amar’e Stoudemire

Editor’s note: These photos were taken Friday afternoon before sundown as Amar’e and family prepared for the next night’s Seder.

This past summer, Amar’e Stoudemire found himself standing before a group of bearded rabbis in a small room in an Israeli building that was home to a Jewish court. He wore a black suit and black hat and was there with a very specific goal: to demonstrate that he was committed to living the rest of his life as an Orthodox Jew.

The rabbis fired all sorts of questions at him. About Sabbath restrictions. About prayers. About keeping a kosher kitchen. Stoudemire, who had spent more than two years studying for this exam but more than two decades preparing for this moment, answered them all.

Well, almost.

Amar’e blesses his youngest son Alijah in the kitchen.

“There was one I missed,” he recalled recently over Zoom. “They asked me if it was after a Shabbat meal, and you say Birkat Hamazon, which is your after-blessing on the bread, and now you have a grape, do you say a bracha”—blessing—“on the grape. And the answer is yes and I got that wrong. It was the only one I missed.”

He leaned back and smiled. He was sitting in his Brooklyn home. Passover was in two days. His preparation for the holiday was basically done. He had two boxes of Matzah stowed away in the kitchen and planned on going to his rabbi’s home for a Seder.

Amar’e seasoning Stoudemire Farms ribeye steaks, with Assata, Amar’e Jr., and A’re Stoudemire.

“The only thing I have left to do is some more searching under the coach and vacuuming,” he said. “And then tomorrow is the actual last day to get rid of all the chametz [unleavened bread and other food products not Kosher for Passover].”

Typically, his days start early; he likes to squeeze in a 6:45am Talmud lesson before morning prayers, which start at 8am. At 11am, he studies his prayer book in Hebrew, so that he can better understand the words he says. At 1pm, he studies the laws of the Sabbath. At 2pm, he has a second Talmud lesson. He meets with a Hebrew tutor at 3pm. Stoudemire works as a player development assistant for the Brooklyn Nets, so much of this changes on the days when the team is in town and has practice. But even then Stoudemire will just reschedule whatever study he can for the evening.

Amar’e helps his son Alijah set the table, in front of Hollywood Africans In Front Of The Chinese Theater by Jean- Michel Basquiat.

He also makes sures to pray every afternoon, and when doing so on non-Sabbath days makes a point of turning off his phone. It doesn’t matter if juicy NBA rumors are flying all over Twitter. One afternoon in January, for example, Stoudemire was completing the ritual ceremony of washing his hands before praying when his rabbi bounded over.

“Did you hear about the trade?” he asked.

Stoudemire was baffled.

“You guys got James Harden,” the rabbi told him.

Amar’e prepares the matzoh for the table.

Over the past decade, I’ve enjoyed following Stoudemire’s journey from curious Jew into practicing one. Watching him embrace every aspect of Judaism in a way you almost never see famous people do has been a joy. I, too, am a practicing Jew—I was raised in a modern Orthodox home and remain modern Orthodox today—but I’ve spent that same time period growing more numb to the whole thing. I still practice the religion, and still find meaning in some of its rituals. But over the years that fire has dimmed. I find myself observing much of it due to muscle memory.

Amar’e and Amar’e Junior on his balcony on Friday afternoon.

I’m guessing this is not uncommon among people who grow up around any religion, but I was eager to talk with someone who feels otherwise, who actively chose their faith as opposed to passively being chosen, who excitedly uses social media to welcome the impending Sabbath—which he observes in full— and announce his completion of yet another Talmudic tractate. Someone who’s enthusiastic about eating Matzah as opposed to being frustrated by being told he can’t eat bagels for a week.

“I think the notion of just leaving Mitzrayim speaks to me,” Stoudemire said when I asked him about Passover, using the Hebrew and Biblical word for Egypt. “It allows you to understand, like, whenever you decide to change as a person and become a better person, it’s OK to change and it’s OK not to look back, and if you embrace that change and move forward, then you go to your promised land.”

Basketball trophies and Judaica adorn Amar’e’s bookshelves.

Stoudemire went into the story of his own journey. When he was a kid, he said, his mother told him that they were descendants of the lost tribes of Israel, groups of Jews who are believed to have been deported from the Kingdom of Israel after it was taken over by the Neo-Assyrian Empire around 722 BCE, and so he started reading the Bible by himself and also with friends. One summer in the early 2000s, after being drafted by the Phoenix Suns, he enrolled in some classes at Arizona State.

“I spent a lot of time in the library,” he said. “I’d sit down with my Torah, with my books on geography and western civilization and the encyclopedia and line up all the things I learned within the Torah, to make sure it was all in sync. And I realized there were some similarities with what my mom was saying, that the diaspora could have been taken to America, and I wanted to learn more about that and try reconnecting with that.”

Amar’e sneaks past his Eddie Martinez painting, Mini Fresh Direct II, to wake his son from a nap.

Stoudemire decided to start traveling the world, “to countries that are major historical countries, to connect the dots from the Torah.” He visited Athens and Rome and Jerusalem. He hired drivers and tour guides and listened as they told the stories of the sites. “And to me it made sense because I was learning Torah already, and I was actually comparing my notes as I traveled to these countries.

He grew comfortable in his knowledge, and more secure about his beliefs. During his trip to Israel in 2010, which took place just a month after he had signed a $100 million contract with the New York Knicks, he sat down for a local television interview. With a big white kippah sitting on top of his head, Stoudemire talked about his connection to Judaism and his plans for observing the Sabbath, Passover and Yom Kippur. Soon after, he started posting Judaic sayings on social media. He met with rabbis. He even changed his name: His friends, he said, now call him Yehoshafat, a king of the nation of Judah from the book of I Kings, who the Bible considered righteous and whose name means “God has judged.” “It came from a chavrusa I was learning with,” Stoudemire said, using the Aramaic word for study partner. It’s the name he prefers.

Amar’e helps Alijah secure his Yarmulke on Friday afternoon.

In 2016, Stoudemire retired from the NBA. He signed a contract with a professional team in Jerusalem. Israel became his home. Around a year or two later, he decided to devote more of himself to Judaism. He began studying for his conversion, though he prefers the term reconnection. I asked why. His answer brought us full circle and featured a cadence and language that would be familiar to anyone who’s spent any time learning in any Yeshiva.

“Every Jew on the face of the Earth has converted, because from the time we left Mitzrayim, which is the Pesach [the Hebrew word for Passover] story, we were all at Mount Sinai with Moshe [Moses’s Hebrew name], and we said, ‘Naaseh v’nishma,’ I will do and I will obey. So at that point we then converted from what we were in Egypt, to following God. So every single Jew that follows God has converted, according to Hakadosh Baruch Hu [another Jewish term for God, which directly translates as The Holy One, Blessed Be He].”

Amar’e horsing around with the kids: (from left) A’re, Alijah, Amar’e, Amar’e Jr. Assata.

In other words, he was just reconnecting to what he believed to be his roots, and doing so because he believed, he said, “that it could help me learn to be a better man.” Which makes sense. But, I said, doesn’t joining a religion of rules and laws also lead to a more restrictive life? I was curious about what someone like him—a very famous person with access to whatever he wants and the world seemingly at his fingertips—viewed as the appeal.

Stoudemire said he doesn’t see it that way. “When I say a blessing, it’s like me shaking God’s hand and showing appreciation. I’m saying thank you. He created all these beautiful things for us and we’ll just go on and eat the food without even thinking about it?”

Places are set at the table, with an adult and children’s version of the Haggadah.

Our conversation was coming to a close. I asked Stoudemire if he had any more Passover-related d’var Torahs—literally “words of Torah” but used commonly to describe a lesson drawn from the Bible—to share.

“I mean, there’s so many d’var Torahs you can do for Pesach, bro,” he said. He paused for a moment. He then recited the story of Moses’s rise. How he was a reluctant leader, how he never envisioned himself being the type of person capable of leading the Jews out of slavery, how God had to call his name twice at the burning bush.

“There’s always a duality, there’s always two sides to something,” Stoudemire said. “And when you choose a righteous side, you then end up becoming greater than what you thought you’d be.”

Amar’e studies the Talmud.

I wrote most of this story the next day, before the start of the holiday, but even afterwards I couldn’t stop thinking about Stoudemire’s words. Two nights later, I was sitting around the dining room table with my wife’s family: her parents; her two brothers; their wives; and her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor. Also, my three-and-half-year-old daughter, who, despite it being an hour past her bedtime, had pleaded to stay up for the Seder, which she had learned about in school. It was the family’s first time being under one roof since the pandemic’s arrival. My daughter drank grape juice and hopped from family member to family member. She fiddled with her toy matzah and placed it onto the Seder plate she had made. She asked for more grape juice. A streak of purple ran down her chin. It was time for the Ma Nishtana. She’d been practicing all week. She climbed onto my sister-in-law’s lap. They sang together.

Traditionally, the afikomen is broken in the middle of the Seder and hidden for children to find.

Yaron Weitzman is a writer in New York and the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow him on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman.


PRODUCTION CREDITS:

Styled by Kesha Mcleod

Food by Jay Kumar

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