At Beth Abraham Synagogue in northwest Baltimore, a 16-year-old basketball player was the topic of conversation at Tuesday morning's services. At Beth Tfiloh in Pikesville, the youth figured into the rabbi's sermon Saturday.
At midweek, two octogenarians shopping at nearby Seven Mile Market paused in the produce aisle to debate the athlete's play. And on Reisterstown Road at Tov Pizza, where Orthodox Jews gather not only to eat but also to pray, talk for days has centered on Tamir Goodman of the Talmudical Academy.
The skinny kid with the sweet jump shot caught the eyes of the region's sports fans by committing to the University of Maryland last Sunday. But Goodman really has riveted Baltimore's Orthodox community, an enclave of 30,000 that prides itself more on religious observance than athletic feats.
As a ballplayer, being Orthodox makes him unorthodox. Goodman can dunk and drop three-pointers and dazzle crowds with behind-the-back dribbles. Tuesday, he scored more points (50) than Talmudical's opponent, a private Christian school.
Synagogue or supermarket, it doesn't matter. All people are talking about is Tamir.
"We haven't seen anything like this in 5,700 years," said Rabbi David Finkelstein of Beth Tfiloh.
"I'm as excited as I'd be if Tamir were my own son," said Aaron Crew of Stevenswood.
"Tamir is our Tiger Woods," said Mark Rosenbluth of Upper Park Heights. "He can bring his people together the same way Tiger did."
Yet it is a jubilation tempered with concern. The very thing that has the Orthodox community exclaiming over Goodman's feats has it fretting as well. Balancing the rigors of big-time athletics against the demands of Jewish scholarship is seen as a formidable challenge.
"I'm sure some people think Orthodox boys should study Torah and not play college basketball," said Rabbi Shlomo Porter, director of a Jewish outreach program in Baltimore. "But I think this is a wonderful thing where one can [keep] one's aspirations due to God-given talents, and still run true to Judaism."
The player comes from a family with one son who is a rabbi and another who is studying to be one. Goodman, who turns 17 today, follows a daily regimen that includes an hour of morning prayers, four hours of Jewish studies and classes that continue until 6: 30 p.m. He is nearing a flash point in life at which most young Orthodox men step up their religious training: 90 percent of Talmudical graduates go to Israel for a year of intensive Jewish studies before entering college.
Instead, Goodman, a junior at Talmudical, plans to head to College Park to play basketball in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He'd been sought by the Terps, ranked No. 5 in the nation, and agreed to attend Maryland while at a game there last weekend.
"Tamir's life is the antithesis of that of the letterman," said Rabbi Moshe Hauer, chairman of Talmudical's board of education. "We must brace him for the culture shock. All the fame in the world won't be worth it if this trip means a departure from his core values as an observant Jew."
Others put it more bluntly.
"Tamir is a sweet, innocent guy who happens to shoot well -- but he hasn't swum in the sewer [of college athletics] yet," said Sheldon Tajerstein of Pikesville, father of one of Goodman's teammates. "We'll be proud of him when he finishes this journey and proves himself able to withstand the secular culture of sports."
Tajerstein said a secular university would be "a different milieu" from the northwest Baltimore neighborhood where most of the area's Orthodox Jews reside. He described the tight-knit enclave, where families keep kosher, observe the Sabbath and live their lives by laws that have been heeded for thousands of years, as a "wonderful supportive cocoon."
Last Tuesday, more than 300 people turned out for Talmudical's game. That's six times the size of pre-Goodman crowds at the primary and secondary school of about 600 boys. Bearded men in black hats and youngsters in skullcaps filled the dimly lighted "gym," a cramped multipurpose room where most fans must sit on a stage.
They cheered as Goodman nailed a 30-foot set shot, and whooped when he broke free for a slam.
"I've never seen a religious guy dunk on a fast break, especially one who's 6-foot-3," said Yosi Lowenbraun of Baltimore.
Mired in traffic beneath his basket, Goodman shoveled an underhand shot that banked in for two points. On stage, an elderly man in a yarmulke shook his head, removed his glasses and wiped them clean. "That's poetry," he said.
On the sideline, a mother jiggled a crying infant on her knee and cooed, "Look at Tamir, watch Tamir " Save female relatives, Talmudical's fans are all male. It is considered improper for single women and girls to attend the boys' games, and cheerleaders are nonexistent.
In the Orthodox community, young men and women don't socialize. That's just one of the contrasts Goodman will face as a student at Maryland.
"Becoming a jock in college usually means you can get all the girls you want," said Shlomo Reich, 22, a student at both Johns Hopkins University and Ner Israel Rabbinical College. "But to us, [not dating] is a normal way of life. And Tamir is a strong-willed guy."
Another difference between the Orthodox and secular worlds: the mixed feelings Jewish elders have watching youngsters trying to emulate Goodman in basketball. At halftime, several dozen children poured onto the court to try to spin balls on their fingers and dribble behind their backs.
Elders say it is Goodman's religious dedication, not his jump shot, that bears watching.
"What if other Jewish kids not as gifted as Tamir try to achieve in basketball, without success, and blow their formative years [of Jewish training]?" said Chaim Stencil, a student at Ner Israel. "It's important they know that he's the exception."
But Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh said that, overall, being able to display one's Jewish roots in a sports setting is a positive thing.
"As a kid in New York, when I went to Yankee Stadium, I took off my yarmulke for fear of sticking out," he said. "Now, a half-century later, we're sending a guy with a yarmulke to play on Tobacco Road.
Talmudical's remaining games
Date Opponent Time
1/19 Cap. Christian 6: 30
1/24 at Curley 3
1/27 Covenant Life 6: 30
1/30 Pompei 8
2/3 at LAB school 4
2/6 Greater Grace 8
2/9 at CHEN 7: 30
2/20 at Yeshiva 8
2/23 Model 7
Pub Date: 1/18/99