Football’s newest ‘Bear Jew’ hits Chicago’s ground running

Gabe Carimi’s introduction to the Windy City at a Chabad-sponsored event just the latest big hit from the newest Monster of the Midway.

Gabe Carimi 311 (photo credit: Chicago Bears and Carimi Family)
Gabe Carimi 311
(photo credit: Chicago Bears and Carimi Family)
The red carpets were rolled out at New York City’s Radio Music Hall. All of the top college football players were sitting next to their sports agents, awaiting news of their future.
It was a nail-biter of a night. The 2011 NFL Draft was in fifth gear. The first-round draft choice for the Chicago Bears (29th pick) was finally called out: University of Wisconsin’s star offensive lineman Gabe Carimi.
It was an exciting moment for the Bears, but where was Carimi? Back in Madison, Wisconsin. The 22-yearold, 6-foot, 7-inch, 320-pound All-American tackle and civil engineering major was presenting his capstone project to his professor.
On the biggest night dictating the course of his career, Carimi chose school.
Flashback four years earlier: It was the Big Ten Conference opener, and game day fell on Yom Kippur. Carimi, a Reform Jew, chose to fast the requisite 24 hours right up to the game.
Who is this guy? And to top it off, last month, Carimi stood before a group of sports reporters and scouts after the draft, and told them: “Just so you know, I already checked the next 10 years of games on Sunday and Monday, typically when most NFL games are played, and none fall on Yom Kippur – so I’m good to go.”
It was there that the “Jewish Hammer” (as he was called in Madison) was crowned the “Bear Jew” – a reference to Quentin Tarantino’s hit movie, “Inglourious Bastards.”
In a sports arena where very few Jews are known to wander, Carimi is out there in full force – brawn, brains, and proud to be a member of the Tribe.
Love him. Love this Bear Jew.
Flash Forward: It is the middle of May, and Carimi has chosen for his debut Chicago appearance to headline the Chabad-sponsored “Great Jewish Family Festival” in Skokie, Illinois.
It was there amidst the parade and hoopla that I caught up with him.
Carimi was surrounded by kids of all ages shouting: Gabe! Gabe! And it was there, that I had the opportunity to find out what made this bookish Jewish jock tick.
Let me state up front that I’m 105 pounds, five foot, two inches. Carimi and I stood next to each other and looked very much like the Jolly Green Giant and the Little Green Sprout.
“Not many people know this,” I told Carimi, “but I played Big Ten football. I was the quarterback of my sorority at University of Illinois. We never won a game, but don’t mess with me.”
He laughed hard. It was hearty, open and inviting as he began to discuss his life, and his career.
Carimi was born in Lake Forest, Illinois, and moved with his parents and older sister Hannah to a small town north of Madison.
His father is a physician and his mother a homemaker.
On his bar mitzvah (yes, he still remembers his parasha from Leviticus), Carimi towered over the rabbi at an intimidating 6-foot-4.
As one of two Jews in his school (his sister was the other one), did he experience anti- Semitism? “In high school, people did not understand Judaism at all,” he says. “I would hear negative comments like ‘That’s so Jewish’ or ‘Such a Jew’ and I would say, ‘Why would you say that? I’m Jewish.’ “I would not ignore the comments, but I believe that after people really got to know me I changed their opinion and perhaps when I got out of school I left it a better place and people perceived Jews much differently.”
Carimi was as an all-around athlete all through school – baseball, track, but excelled in football. He has a long list of credentials: co-captain of the Big Ten champion Badgers, recipient of the Outland Trophy (the nation’s best interior lineman) and the winner of the Marty Glickman Outstanding Jewish Scholastic Athlete of the Year Award, among many accomplishments.
But the Yom Kippur story played especially big, both with fans and in the media.
“Look, my Judaism is important to me,” he says. “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.”
Carimi, who has never been to Israel (Get this: Birthright rejected him!), says that he has a lot of Jewish pride and that his teammates have always been supportive of his choices, and respect his religion.
When asked if he feels the weight of responsibility being labeled “Super Jew” in a mostly non-Jewish pro-ball environment, Carimi says, “Not at all. People who don’t like that I’m Jewish, I don’t need their support. I don’t care about them. Someone said something disgusting about me online after I was drafted by the Bears, which was very anti-Semitic – something with Hitler’s face on it.
“My response was, ‘Buddy, you’re wasting your own life with this stuff.’ But there are very few of those types and a lot more people who are happy to have someone like me on the team. I have a lot to give. I know it, and my team knows it. I’m tough, but I can think.”
Not all coaches appreciate the “thinking athlete,” Carimi adds, but he has won them over with his ability to give everything to all areas of his life, and proven successful.
“Sports is very important to me, and so is school,” he says. “I believe you can’t do well in one area of your life and crappy in another. The key to my success is to work hard and be consistent in all areas of my life.”
And what about his heart? Carimi is very close to his family, especially his mother. He says he would do anything for her (education is first in her playbook).
And yes, he is committed, and in love.
With a warm smile, he apologizes to all of the eligible Jewish Chicago women seeking a (very) tall, handsome, and smart athletic bachelor with a brilliant future.
And for those who are wondering … yes, Carimi IS coming to my house for Shabbat dinner.
Lisa Barr is a freelance writer living in Chicago.