If navigating the tricky world of Israeli public diplomacy was as easy as
sinking a three-pointer, former Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball player Eliezar “Lay
Z” Gordon would be our tourism minister.
thinks he’s in possession of a slam dunk to woo Christian tourists to Israel – a
jazzy gospel song he wrote called “Oh My Holy Land.”
But the transition
from the parquet court to the public diplomacy (hasbara
) arena is proving to be
as complex as a zone defense for the 47-yearold Ra’anana
However, the determination developed during a decade-long
basketball career is coming in handy for the charismatic coach and motivational
speaker as he tries to use his musical talents and his personal charisma to
promote Christian tourism to the country.
There aren’t many Israelis like
Gordon – he’s got a name like a rapper, stands out in a crowd because of his
lanky 188-cm. frame, and speaks in a lilting dialect that hints at a combination
of Texas roots, the many years he’s spent playing on teams with black upbringing. Precisely for those reasons, Gordon feels like he – and his song –
are the perfect magnets to bring in tourists.
“I’m somewhat of a novelty
because I have the English, the Hebrew, the basketball and the music, and I can
talk to people,” the affable Gordon said recently on a visit to The Jerusalem
He had recently performed to a packed house at the Einav
Center in Tel Aviv, where he played and recorded “Oh My Holy Land” with full
band and female backup singers and expressed excitement about the prospects of
seeing the song – and an accompanying YouTube clip – adopted by the Tourism
Ministry for an ad campaign in the US.
Gordon explained that he wrote the
song about the feeling visitors get when they fly over the Mediterranean and
start to descend to Ben-Gurion Airport.
And as he boasts, the chorus’s
soulful repetition of “Oh my Holy Land” sung in true gospel style indeed proves
to be infectious and inspiring.
Late last year, he met with officials at
the Tourism Ministry in Jerusalem and played them the song. According to Roee
Weller, Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov’s chief of staff, the ministry sees the
song’s potential to tug at the hearts of Christian tourists.
speaks to Christian lovers of Israel,” he said. “We really think it could be a
great calling card and when we sit down and decide on our tourism campaigns for
the rest of the year, we will certainly suggest it to the advertising team we
Gordon, though, is impatient to embark on his chosen path as a
goodwill ambassador for Israel. He has also received endorsements of the song
from dignitaries as diverse as Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai and New York Mayor
“I’ve found something bigger and meaningful in my life
and it’s mind-boggling,” said Gordon, who has continued coaching young
basketball players and is featured at company events as a motivational speaker
“I believe this song affords the country an enormous opportunity,
and it shows that I might have a calling in hasbara and tourism.”
long time, though, his calling seemed to be basketball. Born in New York and
spending his early childhood in Houston, Eliezer Gordon made aliya as a young
boy to Herzliya with his family, where he grew up as an Israeli in an American
household speaking English. He received his nickname reluctantly, and it wasn’t
because of any personality trait.
“Eliezer was hard to pronounce for the
kids I was growing up with, so they just started calling me Lazy,” he said. “It
kind of stuck, and I changed the spelling, but I had problems with it, because
I’m very ambitious, not lazy at all.”
That energy reflected on the
basketball court and at the piano bench, both places Gordon excelled as a teen.
Maccabi Tel Aviv heard about him and sent their former star Tal Brodie, also an
American immigrant, to provide some “big brother” guidance.
“I had a lot
of problems as a teen – I was an artist trying to be a sportsman, a showman
trying to be a team player,” said Gordon.
Despite Maccabi’s attention,
Gordon decided to return to Houston to complete high school, where his parents
later joined him. He starred for Towson State University in Baltimore and
Southwest Texas State University and was a Jewish All- American in 1987. He was
invited to NBA training camps for both the Portland Trailblazers and the San
Antonio Spurs, but a chance meeting led him back to Israel.
was in Houston giving a lecture, and I went to see him,” said Gordon. “He saw me
and said, ‘What are you doing here? You should be playing in Israel.’”
all Gordon needed to hear, and in 1988 he followed Brodie’s advice and signed a
threeyear contract with Israel’s premier basketball team. However, Gordon’s
problems with teamwork landed him on the bench, where he created even more
problems, and during the next season, Maccabi ended up buying out his contract
and releasing him. After a year back in Houston, he was signed by Hapoel Eilat
where he spent three successful seasons.
“I was a pretty good ball
player, but if I had owned a different personality, I would have had a better
career,” he said.
Gordon ended his career at age 32 playing with Hapoel
Haifa, a period in which he met his future wife, Mirit, and settled down to
raise their two children.
“That was early to end a career in basketball,
but it was good for my soul,” said Gordon.
For a while, he worked as a TV
sports analyst, and even hosted his own show on the Mideast Channel – Lazy
. He also developed his musical side, writing and recording a song with
Ahinoam Nini. The songs have kept flowing, and Gordon, a nimble pianist
and melodic vocalist, moved into the hasbara field by chance in 2009, when he
went to the US and performed at a game between Maccabi Tel Aviv and the San
Diego Clippers. He then went to speak on behalf of the Israeli Consulate in Los
Angeles to high school students in downtown LA, where he discovered that he had
a rapport with the inner city students.
“Here I am, a Jewish guy but my
soul is black,” said Gordon. “I love gospel, I play a black game of
basketball. I’m not trying to be a rapper, but I’ve been playing with
blacks all my life; sometimes I was the only white guy on the team.”
thinks that the result of his life experiences – manifesting itself in “Oh My
Holy Land” and his foray into outreach for Israel – combine all of his musical
and interpersonal talents into one irresistible package.
“I feel for the
first time in my life – with this song and with this personality of mine that
was so problematic on the basketball court – like I am able to do something
really great for this country,” he said.
Gordon’s hoping that soon,
Middle America will see “Oh My Holy Land” featured in an official Israel tourism
ad campaign, but he knows it’s not him that’s going to be making that final shot
at the buzzer.
“I’ve done my part; I’ve gotten an assist. Sometimes,
that’s more important than a basket,” he said.
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