If Goliath were around today, he might look something like 22-year-old Gabe Carimi. The 6-foot-7-inch, 320-pound all-American left tackle was chosen as this year’s No. 1 draft pick by the Chicago Bears. But for this football player, religion and academics seem to be just as important as athletics. He still remembers the parashah from his bar mitzvah, when he stood a mere 6 feet 4 inches. During his freshman year at the University of Wisconsin, the Big Ten Conference opener fell on Yom Kippur, and Carimi fasted right up until game time. And when the NFL Draft in April landed on the same day that the civil engineer major was scheduled to present his capstone project to his professor, Carimi chose school. For his first public appearance in the Chicago area May 22, Carimi, a Reform Jew, led the Chabad-sponsored Great Jewish Family Festival, in Skokie, Ill. He spoke with the Forward’s Lisa Barr about his childhood, how he juggles Judaism and football, and his new nickname.
Lisa Bar: Why did you choose the Great Jewish Family Festival as your debut Chicago appearance?
Gabe Garimi: I come from a small Jewish community in Madison, Wis., and I thought this would be a great way to introduce myself to the large Jewish community of Chicago.
There is not a large Jewish population where you grew up, by any stretch. Did you ever experience anti-Semitism?
In high school, people just did not understand Judaism at all… if I’d hear negative comments and anti-Semitic statements, like ‘That’s so Jewish,” or, “Such a Jew,” I would say: ‘Why would you say that? I’m Jewish.’ I would not ignore the comments. But I believe after people really got to know me, I changed their opinion.
They called you the Jewish Hammer and now, the Bear Jew — a reference to the movie “Inglourious Basterds ” that actually works quite well with your new team. Do you like it?
Yeah, the Hebrew Hammer was taken, so I think this mixes it up a bit.
You’re kind of an intellectual athlete. What do your coaches think about their bookish star athlete?
Not everyone likes a “thinking athlete,” but those who really know me and truly understand what I’m capable of doing know that I give everything to both areas of my life, and accept that’s who I am.
You’re also quite the Jewish public relations package — the star college freshman football player who fasted on the day of a huge game. Was this an instance in which your Judaism directly conflicted with sports?
My Judaism is important to me — I make it work. I fasted on Israeli time, so I could begin my fast earlier, from noon to noon the next day. That way, I was able to be true to my religion and play the best for my team.
Rumor has it that you already checked out the next decade of Yom Kippurs.
Yes! I checked the next 10 years of games on Sunday or Monday, typically when most NFL games are played, and none falls on Yom Kippur — so I’m good to go.
Apparently you are off the Jewish market. All the single Chicago women will definitely be disappointed.
Yes, it’s true. I’m committed. Let me make my apologies right here to all the Jewish women looking to meet a tall, good-looking Jewish athlete. [He smiles.]
7 Questions for ‘Bear Jew’ Gabe Carimi