Aaron Liberman’s kippah makes basketball history

On Jan. 5, Aaron Liberman of Northwestern checked in for the final minute of action against Michigan in the Wildcats’ 74-51 men’s basketball loss in Ann Arbor. In the process, the redshirt freshman made history twice:

According to the Big Ten News Network, Liberman was the first player to wear a yarmulke in Big Ten Conference history.

Also, Michigan became the first NCAA Division I basketball program to host two kippah-wearing players on its court. On Dec. 27, 2000, the first night of Hanukkah, Tamir Goodman of Towson University recorded 9 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds in 34 minutes in the Tigers’ 73-71 loss  to the Wolverines. (Aside: I attended the game featuring the “Jewish Jordan” with my hometown rabbi.)

In his first season of college ball, Liberman’s stat line reads 2 rebounds in 4 games. But the yarmulke angle has made his celebrity star shine brighter. As Yahoo News reports:

Liberman was invited to speak after a home game last month about what it’s like for him to be an Orthodox Jew playing major college hoops. The school handed approximately 200 purple yarmulkes with an N printed on them to people who attended.

Bar-Ilan student kicked out of class for not wearing yarmulke

A Bar-Ilan University Talmud professor kicked a male student out of his class for not wearing a yarmulke.

The incident reportedly occurred last week and later came to light on the Bar-Ilan Facebook page. A complaint posted omn the page over the weekend by a classmate and the stream of comments following it were removed on Tuesday but then circulated by screenshot.

“How is it possible that a lecturer tells a student to get out of class for not wearing a kipa, and the university backs that teacher?”  the student wrote on the Facebook page.

The university responded that all students signed a form at the time of enrollment that they agreed to wear mandatory head coverings in basic Judaism courses. Not all professors strictly enforce the rule.

“The obligation to wear a yarmulke in classes pertaining to religious texts is meant to respect the institution's Jewish tradition and values. According to the university guidelines, students are obligated to wear a yarmulke in Judaism classes,” according to the university's official response.

Md. student asked to defend wearing kippah

A Jewish student at a Maryland high school was asked to prove that he wore a yarmulke for religious reasons.

Caleb Tanenbaum, 17, was asked by the administration of Northwood High School in Silver Spring to provide a letter from a rabbi explaining why he wore the plain, off-white knitted kippah, Patch in Wheaton, Md., reported.

Caleb, an Israeli by birth, decided recently to wear a kippah, according to the news website.

Head games: Jordanians tell Israelis to keep out kipot

Israelis have been asked to leave their yarmulkes at the border when entering Jordan, an Israeli news site reported.

An Israeli businessman told Ynet that his yarmulkes were taken and put in a safe upon his entry into Jordan, with a Jordanian policeman telling him that it was for his own good.

Tefillin and other religious articles also are not allowed into the country.

Yossi Levy, the director of communications at Israel’s Foreign Ministry, told Ynet that there were “disagreements with our Jordanian counterparts in regards to Jewish religious objects” entering the country.

“We receive a growing number of complaints by Israeli visitors who report of religious items being confiscated at the border crossing ‘for security reasons,’ ” Levy told Ynet. “They explain this by the need to protect visitors carrying ‘obvious Israeli identification means.’ “

You’re Fired!

From the beginning, even before it was famous, “The Apprentice,” Donald Trump’s reality TV show, had piqued my interest — but not enough

to make a standing engagement with my TV set whenever it was on.

But then one Friday night I had Shabbat dinner with a few friends, and it turned out that one of the women there, a friend of a friend, was working on some reality programs. I said that I’d never want to be on any reality show, “Except maybe ‘The Apprentice,'” I conceded. As a businessman and entrepreneur, I thought I could make it through the process.

“There’s actually going to be a casting call in a few days,” she said.

Immediately I began to picture myself on The Donald’s show and, of course, winning the apprenticeship. Hey — I’m no supermodel, but I’m not a bad-looking guy. And I’m as smart, aggressive and ambitious as anyone else who’s been on the show. I’ve got all the qualities it takes to win the prize.

There was only one little issue. Should I wear my yarmulke to the interview?

As a traditionally observant Jew that toes the line between the Conservative and Orthodox world, I have a strong sense of Jewish identity. Not only do I wear my yarmulke in public and for business, but I also proudly wear my chosen Zionistic declaration of Israeli citizenship and volunteering in the Israel Defense Forces on my sleeve.

I didn’t always dress this way. When I first started my business, I was choosy about when I decided to wear my yarmulke. Because of anti-Semitism, I didn’t want to risk losing a client. I figured that if all I had to do was remove my yarmulke, I’d do it to get a client. (People of color don’t have it as easy as yarmulke-wearing white men: I can take off my kippah, but they can’t change their appearance).

Then one day I had met with a very successful Orthodox businessman who wore a black yarmulke and sported a long beard. He said he had never taken off his yarmulke for any business reason.

“If you believe in your identity, you don’t want to do business with people that don’t respect your religion and culture,” he said.

I haven’t taken it off since (except to shower and sleep).

I didn’t know what to do for “The Apprentice.” Wearing a kippah in New York business is one thing, but wearing it to get on national television is completely another.

I started filling out the application at midnight the night before interviews, and arrived at NBC at around 4 a.m. There were already 337 people there before me. But I was lucky later when there were even more behind me. On that line, we were all equal. We all believed that we had a shot at the title — or at least getting through the door. We stood outside in the freezing wind. I was bundled up, hat and all.

Five hours later, when I got inside, I took off my hat and revealed my secret: I wore my yarmulke. Why? Because I decided that my only chance to shine, to stand out from the hundreds of others, was to show off how different and diverse I was. Out of 16 people — eight men and eight women — surely not everyone could look exactly the same.

For the interview, they sat 12 people around a table and had them face the casting director. During introductions, I told everyone that I was a Web developer and ran a Judaica store over the Internet (www.judaicastore.com). Then the casting director suggested a topic of conversation.

The theory was that if you can rise above the others with intelligent thoughts and could express yourself clearly and speak well, they would notice you as good material for the show. As most of my colleagues and friends will admit, I certainly have this skill. I, along with one or two other people, dominated the conversation at the interview. After five minutes, the interview was over and they thanked us all for coming.

I never heard from them again.

Did my yarmulke matter in the end? I think so. Maybe they just didn’t like me –although I can’t imagine that. I think that national network television is not ready for an observant yarmulke-wearing Jew from New York. I’m not sure that the show wants someone so strongly identified with the Jewish community, Israel and all of its current politics — even if that person were “fired!”

Maybe I shouldn’t have worn the yarmulke. But I’m glad I did. Now I have my own version of reality.

Raphi Salem, CEO and president of SalemGlobal Internet, lives in Manhattan.

Ask the Rabbi

It’s late on Sunday evening at KFI 640 AM’s &’9;Koreatown station, and within the confines of an overly bright fluorescent-lit radio booth, a tall man with Phil Donahue-white hair and a scraggly reddish beard worthy of the Norse god Thor sits alone at the mike.

Dressed in dependable Chabad wear — white dress shirt, black slacks, yarmulke and tzizit hanging out — Rabbi Chaim Mentz is an unexpected voice, booming out of the radio in a heavy Brooklyn accent.

"You got questions, I got answers!" Mentz enthuses in a gravelly voice.

Mentz, or "the Rabbi," as his listeners fondly address him, also raises questions, every Saturday and Sunday night, when he conducts something of a live farbrengen, minus the Absolut Vodka. With a spritz of humor and little egotistical radio jock pretension, he tackles some serious issues.

"Who are our friends in the Middle East?" he asks his callers. After the commercial break, he ups the ante: "Give me four names of countries in the Middle East helping us."

Merv from Los Angeles starts listing countries: "Israel, Egypt, Iran… "

"Iran!" responds Mentz. "I don’t know what world you’re living in where Iran is your friend!"

"Israel," states a woman caller. With disgust, she then sizes up her view of the U.S. coalition with several Arab nations: "They’ve been taking our money and spitting in our face. They won’t help their own people."

Which is exactly where Mentz wants the conversation to go. "America has been giving billions to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and they’ve done nothing," he says on the air. "When you’re not letting us bring soldiers to your land, you’re helping bin Laden."

Notice how Mentz himself has not mentioned the word "Israel" once during the show.

It’s all a delicate balance. Look around the recording booth, and you will find Sunday’s newspaper, an Osama bin Laden "Wanted" poster; but you will not find a soapbox — it’s just not the rabbi’s style. His style can be summed up in a word that is also a place, a state of mind: Brooklyn.

The Crown Heights-raised rabbi is a follower of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, whose practical wisdom informs the way Mentz dissects moral ambiguities.

Mentz’s discourse comes wrapped in that jocular, boisterous bluntness common to his native borough. At times, he becomes theatrical, as only a New Yorker can, singing along with the patriotic tunes on his bumper music or reminding listeners, "We can’t forget Sept. 11."

"I’m just here to shed light," Mentz told The Journal in his thick Big Apple accent.

Leading? Manipulative? Perhaps, perhaps not. What is certain is that Mentz’s humor-leavened backdoor approach makes for compelling radio. Take the way Mentz addresses the anthrax panic and the accompanying 24/7 news, both of which he believes are overblown.

THE RABBI: "We had a scare over here at KFI. A little coffee powder, and they’re calling the FBI."

PHIL FROM DOWNEY: "Fear is a very natural emotion. Fear is what keeps people alive. I’m glad they evacuated Congress. I wouldn’t want 500 dead congressmen."

THE RABBI: "You don’t see anyone panicking over breast cancer or food poisoning, and more people die from that. This is exactly what the terrorists want from us. Their whole realm is negative."

AMY FROM WHITTIER: "I’m wondering if I’m weird. I’m not afraid at all. My husband and I are going out to help stimulate the economy."

THE RABBI: "Take it with a grain of salt, and just be careful."

Mentz’s gregariousness is evident in the way he kibbitzes with colleagues at the studio between segments. On this Sunday night in October, Mentz is in especially good spirits — earlier, his beloved Yankees defeated the Seattle Mariners. He can barely contain himself on the air, and during the breaks he banters with other KFI alpha males the way sports-lovin’ men do, in that nearly foreign, mile-a-minute dialect of numbers, surnames and nicknames.

Mentz later remarks how at home he feels at the radio station. When throwing parties, his co-workers will often pick up a cake from Schwartz’s Bakery for him.

"Even if the food isn’t kosher, they invite me down because they just want me to be there," Mentz says, beaming.

The rabbi’s salt-of-the-Earth style has endeared him also to high-profile people. Laura Bush has conversed with him on several occasions. Mentz has also interviewed Hadassah Lieberman, the then-vice-presidential candidate’s wife, and discussed the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s attempt to negotiate with the Taliban with Bill O’Reilly of Fox News Channel’s highest-rated program "The O’Reilly Factor." According to Mentz, Vice President Dick Cheney’s camp contacted him to schedule an interview after the rabbi’s conversations with the first lady.

Mentz once reported from a rave to expound on the values of American children today. As DJs pumped two-step beats by techno groups like Propellerheads, Mentz interviewed a handful of the 15,000 revelers, some of whom were high on Ecstasy.

"I was easily the oldest person there," he reports.

Mentz, 42, lives in Bel-Air with his wife, Charna, and their five children, ages 4 to 13. Since 1985, Mentz has led Chabad of Bel Air services at his home. KFI notwithstanding, Mentz’s only previous broadcasting experience was "Basic Judaism," a public access show he hosted on Century Cable in the early 1980s.

"I built my synagogue through that show," Mentz says.

In his two years at KFI, he has received only eight pieces of hate mail: two from gentiles; six from older, secular Jews who felt that Mentz sounded "too Jewish." Which amused Mentz, because it is his very ethnic appeal that attracts much of his younger Jewish audience.

But Mentz estimates that the bulk of his listeners are non-Jews, such as those who greet him with an Anglo-twanged "Shalom, Rabbi!"

It’s about 11:30 p.m. Mentz tells listeners about his recent brush with a Muslim man at a Ralphs supermarket who inquired which synagogue Mentz led. Mentz fibbed, telling the stranger that he did not belong to a congregation. The rabbi begs his audience to judge him — did he do the right thing? Once again, by presenting a micro-scenario, KFI’s rabbi has snuck his listeners into a wider discussion: in this case, racial profiling.

TRICIA FROM L.A.: "You did the right thing. If that happens again, you should ask, ‘Why do you want to know? Do you plan to convert or to bomb me?’"

THE RABBI: "We live in a very strange time. Thanks for your call."

TRICIA FROM L.A.: "I love you, Rabbi."

Catch Rabbi Chaim Mentz on KFI 690 AM Saturdays, midnight-3 a.m.; and Sundays, 10 p.m.-midnight.


In most big cities in the United States, horse-and-buggy rides are offered as tourist attractions. It is therefore not shocking to find them lined up in Philadelphia, right near Constitution Hall and the Liberty Bell.

What was surprising, however, was whom I found driving a horse and buggy during a summer visit to Philadelphia. As I approached the horses and buggies, I noticed that all of the drivers were dressed in crazy costumes, each claiming that his ride was the best Philadelphia could offer. But one buggy driver was a little different. His outfit consisted of a beard and yarmulke. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Immediately I thought, “What is wrong with this picture?” Didn’t this fellow ever hear Jackie Mason instruct that certain professions aren’t for Jews?

I inquired if he had any problem getting the job. Did the owner of the business object to his wearing a yarmulke? He told me, “Are you kidding? The owner loved it. He thought it was a costume, and the crazier you look, the better it is for business.” I then asked if it actually attracts people. He replied that Israelis love it, and they come and take rides so they can have pictures of him with the horse and buggy. They do this because no one in Israel will believe them unless they have the picture to prove it.

I wondered what a religious Jew was doing here. He told us that he is a college student majoring in history. I inquired if his interest in history led to his employment, but he assured me that it didn’t. I then asked if he had a natural empathy for horses, but he replied that until he took this job he had never come near a horse. Confused, I again asked, “Why would a nice Jewish boy like you be working here?” He replied simply, “I needed a summer job.”

It took me some time to appreciate his answer, but when I did I realized it also helped me understand a fascinating point about Noah and the view the sages of old had of him.

Our sages wondered if Noah was really great. Although the Torah states in the opening verse, “Noah was a perfect tzadik in his generation,” Rashi, the classical medieval commentator, quotes the Midrash that states, “But if he had been in the generation of Abraham, he would not have been considered significant.”

In a penetrating observation, the 19th century Chassidic work, the Shem MiShmuel, wonders how we can say this when the Torah itself stated that Noah was “a perfect tzadik.” Abraham, in contrast, was never called perfect. Instead, God told him before his circumcision, “Walk before Me and be perfect.” In other words, Noah was perfect, but Abraham had to attain perfection.

This, claims the Shem MiShmuel, is the message of the Midrash. Noah was perfect because he was blessed innately with spirituality. As the Talmudic work Avot D’rabbi Nathan claims, Noah was even born circumcised. He needed to do nothing to attain piety. It was a built-in phenomenon that never changed.But, asks the Midrash, is true greatness received or achieved? In contrast to Noah, Abraham’s origins were idolatrous, and he attained piety because of his tremendous efforts. This, argue our rabbis, is true greatness. When one overcomes all the obstacles that are in front of him and becomes great, that deserves our recognition.

That young college student in Philadelphia proved to me that you can achieve anything you want if you just put your mind to it. He needed a job, so he overcame obstacles to get one. Some of us are like Noah with all of the blessings built in, but most people have to work to achieve success.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.