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‘The Bear Jew’ is coming to tackle Chicago

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

If you know just one thing about Gabe Carimi, it’s that he’s the star University of Wisconsin lineman who the Chicago Bears chose as their first round pick in the NFL draft last month.

And if you know two things about Carimi, you also know the 6’7, 320-pound tackle is Jewish.

While the accepted cultural truism is that stereotypes are lies that must be avoided, at least in polite society, the dearth of Jewish pro athletes, particularly in football, is sufficiently real that when one arrives on the scene, Jews tend to close their organic chemistry textbooks in unison and pay attention.

“People are talking about this guy,” said Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz, regional director of the Lubavitch Chabad here. “He’s a celebrity.”

It helps that Carimi is not one of those conflicted, weak-tea Jews who feels saddled with his faith at birth and spends his life squirming under the burden. Carimi’s first public event in Chicago is at Chabad’s Great Jewish Family Festival at Old Orchard in Skokie this Sunday.

“Yes, definitely, [Judaism] was a big part of me growing up,” he said. “I went to Temple Friday nights. It’s something I’m so proud of.”

Entranced, still, by the memory of how Hank Greenberg, the Detroit Tigers slugger, refused to play on Yom Kippur during the 1934 pennant race, everyone writing about Carimi and Judaism raises the issue of what he would do if a Bears game fell on the holiest day of the Jewish year. Carimi -- his step-grandfather was Italian, hence the name -- always answers that he checked, and Yom Kippur doesn’t fall on a Sunday in the next 15 years (which led to a whir of near-Talmudic analysis online, with rabbis leaping to point out that Yom Kippur never falls on a Sunday, because it would be too close to the Sabbath on Saturday, and others moving the discussion along by asking — aha! — but what about Monday and Thursday night games?)

To me, a more apt question is: How does being Jewish affect being a pro football player?

“I don’t see how they’re any different, than being a Christian player, or whatever religion you practice,” he said.

Well, there is the inevitable anti-Semitism that’ll start right after the first missed block.

“I experienced some of it in high school,” he said, stressing it was never from his teammates. “Your team never would, your team is kind of your family.” As far as the fans . . . .

“It’s pretty loud on the field,” he said. “I can’t even hear the fans.” Besides, said Carimi, who caused a stir by saying he’s the best tackle there is, his level of play gives potential critics no reason to complain about him.

“I’m pretty good, too, so haven’t had to hear too many negative comments,” said the 22-year-old.

Star Jewish athletes of decades gone by were seen as champions for their tribe.

“These people were considered warriors standing up for their people. [Boxer] Barney Roth was standing up for Jews against Adolf Hitler” said Steven Riess, a history professor at Northeastern Illinois University who studies sports, noting that this role has been reduced since “Jews are much more assimilated now and part of mainstream America.”

Though they’re still vulnerable on the topic of Israel, the object of constant attack. Carimi has no strong opinions on the Jewish state.

“No, nope,” he said. “I haven’t been there, don’t have a position on it.”

Sorry girls, he’s taken

Knowing my audience as well as I do, and hoping to save a platoon of Jewish mothers the stress of tucking their daughters’ photos into their purses and slipping away to Soldier Field, I had to ask Carimi: so, a girlfriend?

“I am seeing someone,” he said. “Sorry to all the good-looking Jewish girls in Chicago.”

Football is big on nicknames — Walter Payton was “Sweetness,” William Perry was “The Fridge.” The nickname that has been floated for Carimi is “The Bear Jew.”

“It’s from ‘Inglourious Basterds,’’ he said, referring to Quentin Tarantino’s movie. “‘The Bear Jew’ or the ‘Jewish Hammer’ in college.”

I had my doubts about “The Bear Jew.”

“It’s sorta stark, isn’t it?” I asked, having a hard time imagining Joe Buck exulting, “That’s a great play by the Bear Jew!”

“Yeah, definitely,” he laughed. “But it works out good, because I’m on the Bears. Let ‘em do what they want — it’s all in good humor.”

So far. The pressure of being a role model is magnified for Carimi because of his religion. Is he concerned about living up to expectations? His confidence about his performance on the field is matched by his faith in himself.

“I was raised the right way,” he said. “Had good values instilled in me, and never have any inclination to do anything I know is wrong or would cause people to look poorly on my community, my family or my religion.”

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