A Kobe Bryant fan and the concept of ‘kavanah’ – opinion

Shame on Israelis for elevating American hysteria to a higher plane than Jewish wisdom and, more importantly, common sense.

NBA Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant speaks at a webcast to unveil his new Nike Zoom Kobe IV basketball shoe in Los Angeles (photo credit: REUTERS)
NBA Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant speaks at a webcast to unveil his new Nike Zoom Kobe IV basketball shoe in Los Angeles
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Jewish concept of kavanah – intention – refers to a worshiper’s sincerity during prayers and the fulfilling of commandments. Though scholars disagree on the extent to which certain rituals are meaningless without the necessary purity of heart and mind, the idea that a person’s intentions are often as relevant as his actions is pretty universal.
Even courts of law examine intent – such as “malice aforethought” – when determining a defendant’s guilt or innocence.
One exception among many at the moment – thanks to the cancel-culture climate in the US – concerns the use of “blackface,” dark makeup applied to white skin for theatrical or costume-party purposes. In the mid-19th century, minstrel shows popularized this custom, and by the early 20th century, it became its own art form. Al Jolson, the “king of blackface performers,” is the name most associated with the practice.
Today, any blackface is considered racist and therefore taboo, regardless of the kavanah of those accused of having violated it, even in the distant past – no matter what its aim. In a McCarthy-like sweep of self-censorship, Hollywood and Broadway not only have been removing all vestiges of blackface, but have been engaged in a kind of ongoing breast-beating far more intense than any Yom Kippur service.
David O. Selznick’s 1939 film, based on Margaret Mitchell’s novel, Gone with the Wind, and Disney’s 1946 partly animated musical movie, Song of the South, are examples of blockbusters that portray blacks in a cringe-worthy stereotypical fashion – something that is understandably offensive to African-Americans. Blackface, too, is and always has been an atrocious form of comedy.
It is thus that many TV sitcoms have been removed from cable channels, streaming platforms and digital libraries, while others have had blackface scenes or episodes featuring them cut. Even the most popular hits, such as 30 Rock, Community, Scrubs, The Office and Golden Girls, have not been spared the editors’ chopping block – including when the purpose of their use of blackface was to highlight its evils.
Jews, who have suffered centuries of antisemitism and continue to be depicted by haters as stingy Shylocks, hook-nosed “elders of Zion” and Israeli oppressors, are especially sensitive to racism in all its manifestations. This is why 627 American-Jewish organizations penned a letter in June, which was published as a full-page ad in The New York Times last Friday, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement – despite a radical-leftist agenda that has been hostile to Israel, to put it mildly, and not too friendly to Jews in general.
BUT ATONING for racism, including if its sole expression is having been born with the wrong skin pigment, is currently the height of fashion in chattering-class American circles, and it is spreading to the rest of the West as fast as the coronavirus. Israel – a country filled with self-flagellating Jews who catch on quickly to every trend and run with it – was bound to get infected.
The story of Barak Shamir is as illustrative as it is outrageous.
Shamir, a 21-year-old Israeli male model, became an unwitting target on Twitter last week after he innocently orchestrated a tribute to the late basketball legend Kobe Bryant. The LA Lakers giant (literally and figuratively) – an 18-time All-Star who won five NBA championships – was killed on January 26 in a helicopter crash. He would have turned 42 on August 23.
To honor Bryant, Barak decided to do a photo shoot on the birthday of his lifelong idol. The young man, whose adoration for Bryant was boundless, spent some three hours having his entire body painted brown and his hair done accordingly. He then donned a Lakers uniform, with Bryant’s iconic number 24 on the front and back of the jersey, and had a videographer tape him shooting hoops.
Shamir captioned his photos and video clip with the following statement: “Kobe, you were a role model for me. I grew up trying to imitate your [moves] on the court. One of the reasons that I keep on playing is that I learned so much from you – not just as a basketball legend, but also as a great person. You are a legend on the court and outside of it. I miss you Kobe. Happy birthday, Mamba,” (using a reference to the nickname, “The Black Mamba,” which Bryant gave to himself].”
Used to being admired by fans of his own on every platform available to narcissistic celebrities whose entire career is based on their looks, Shamir was unprepared for the hostile response that he received on social media. For 48 hours straight, he was verbally assaulted for being a racist.
Comments included calls for him to be stoned to death, shunned by society and stripped of his career. One more moderate tweet suggested that his behavior was a case of “Israeli idiocy having crossed all red lines.”
NOW THERE’S a hoot, or at least an instance of the “pot calling the kettle black” – an expression about the color of cookware that’s now also banned as racist. Talk about idiocy crossing all red lines.
Mortified by the onslaught, when all he had intended to do was immortalize his hero, Shamir promptly deleted his tribute and apologized profusely, both on the Internet and in TV interviews. He insisted that he had meant no harm, and swore that has never judged anyone by race, gender or creed.
He was clearly telling the truth.
This did not prevent super-model Yityish “Titi” Aynaw – who was crowned Miss Israel in 2013 – from putting in her own tarnished two cents on the so-called scandal. Denouncing Shamir’s video as a “very bad act, very racist,” she told Erev Tov host Guy Pines, “I’m happy that from all this, people learned and understand a tiny bit what blackface is and why it’s offensive.”
Titi, a drop-dead gorgeous, mega-successful, Ethiopian-Israeli super-model went on to say that Shamir could have honored Bryant in other ways, because “before he was black and before he was a basketball player, he was a person.”
Wow. What profundity.
Pines pointed out to viewers, with no small amount of condescension, that Shamir hadn’t been aware of the blackface issue and rampant racism in the US – as though Pines himself has a clue about anything American other than the exploits of movie stars. Nor did he or anybody else discuss Shamir’s kavanah, the sincerity of his devotion to Kobe Bryant and the intention of his personal memorial to the basketball great.
It is not clear how Bryant would have reacted to his fan’s gesture. Given his announcement three years ago that if he weren’t retired, he would kneel during the national anthem at the start of his games, he might not have taken kindly to it.
Bending a knee – instead of standing with hand to heart for “The Star-Spangled Banner” – became a “thing” when football player Colin Kaepernick, formerly of the San Francisco 49ers, did it to protest “racial injustice.”
The only valid criticism of Shamir is that he should have known better about the connotations of blackface and the politics of the athlete he loved so dearly. A far greater transgression was committed by his detractors, however, who ignored his kavanah, not even giving the poor guy the benefit of the doubt.
Shame on Israelis for elevating American hysteria to a higher plane than Jewish wisdom and, more importantly, common sense.