NEW YORK -- Around these parts, the questions came quickly as the news of what Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling said crossed over from a sports story to a national conversation piece.
My wife, my father and my editor all wondered the same thing I did the moment I saw the last name: Sterling.
A quick search confirmed that, yes, Donald Sterling -- formerly Donald Tokowitz -- self-identifies as Jewish. By Sunday, we knew this in disgusting detail from his extended remarks comparing "Black Jews" and "White Jews," and dismissing his girlfriend when she compared his abhorrent racial views to anti-Semitism.
There are all kinds of important offshoots from this.
There's the fact that Sterling's beliefs not only fail to comport with Judaism, but would be dismissed by nearly everyone who self-identifies as Jewish.
There's the fact that anyone who would associate Judaism with Sterling's views is taking the kind of leap that produces much of the racial and ethnic intolerance in this world, by ignoring what the overwhelming majority of Jews actually believe.
But there was another reason I had that brief bit of nausea when I discovered that Donald Sterling is Jewish. It disturbed me to no end that someone, anyone, might associate Sterling's views with my own religion -- with me.
There are cultural moments that speak larger truths to many people about ethnicity. And growing up in a liberal, culturally-but-nominally-religious Jewish household, I learned about them.
It was an early bedtime parable from 1947 -- one that, frankly, fills me with personal pride to this day. Hank Greenberg, the Jewish baseball hero, collided with Jackie Robinson at first base. Greenberg came over to Robinson and gave him words of encouragement when others were saying unspeakable things to him.
Greenberg may not have spoken for all Jews -- after all, Donald Sterling was 13 years old at the time -- but there was a feeling of shared battle and shared voice between Jews and African-Americans. I'd like to think there were those in the African-American community who assigned larger lessons about Jews to what Greenberg did and said.
Unfortunately, thanks to the cesspool that is Twitter, I know there are plenty of people who have done the same with Sterling. (If you don't believe me, search for "Sterling Jewish.") While Greenberg's actions stemmed directly from his experiences as a Jew -- he represented the religion with honor, even if some didn't share his ideals -- Sterling's actions fly in the face of the religion as I know it.
Still, it was inevitable, particularly among those predisposed to think poorly of Jews anyway, that Judaism would absurdly be used as a kind of explanation for Sterling's actions and beliefs.
That's why relatives and friends of mine asked this question, sotto voce. This is why we all get to hear the Yiddish phrase, ein shanda fur die Goyim -- meaning, essentially, an embarrassment to the Jews. This was reminiscent of Bernie Madoff, except Madoff stole from Jews. Sterling, incredibly, drew racial lines within the religion he claims, and he profited from the work of those he verbally disparaged.
Sterling caused unspeakable pain to the Clippers, and he planted a little seed of doubt in the mind of many African-Americans. Is this still how white America talks about race behind closed doors?
Sterling's words and deeds run counter to what I think of as the significant message sent by Greenberg, or by the deeds of Freedom Riders Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman -- two Jewish men killed by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi while attempting to organize for the Congress of Racial Equality in 1964.
Anti-Semitism is not yet a relic. One only needs to reach back to a few weeks ago, when an avowed anti-Semite took his gun to a Jewish Community Center in Kansas and killed three people. And -- chilling in a different way -- a Missouri mayor backed the gunman's world view.
But the fear is different now than it was for my parents or their parents. My parents were born in 1946, the year after the Holocaust ended. Then, it was hardly irrational to worry that one person's awful attitudes or actions might be used as pretext for a larger societal response, attacking Jews. In 2014, the fear -- at least for me -- isn't about a national tide turning against Jews because of Sterling, his words leading to pogroms. It's an acute worry that the world might think that Jews have forgotten what it is to be persecuted, or, more significantly, that we are indifferent to the plight of others.
There have always been hateful, immoral people like Donald Sterling within every ethnic group. But to see him out front, the most famous man in the news right now, and that he can be called Jewish, with particular glee from those with hateful attitudes toward Jews, is deeply disturbing.
But this isn't just a story with a Jewish antagonist. The protagonist is Jewish as well.
Adam Silver, commissioner of the NBA, is Jewish. I won't claim that he is a spokesperson for all Jewish people; neither did he. But on Tuesday afternoon, before a packed ballroom at the Hilton in Manhattan and an international audience, Adam Silver spoke for me.
"The views expressed by Mr. Sterling are deeply offensive and harmful; that they came from an NBA owner only heightens the damage and my personal outrage," Silver said. "I am personally distraught that the views expressed by Mr. Sterling came from within an institution that has historically taken such a leadership role in matters of race relations and caused current and former players, coaches, fans and partners of the NBA to question their very association with the league."
And they weren't mere words. Silver, in half a week, not only managed to bring the full force of punishment on Sterling -- banning him for life from anything NBA-related and fining him the maximum amount allowed -- but he has clearly marshaled the owners, in rapid political work, to provide him the 22 votes out of 29 he'll need to strip Sterling's ownership. It sounds like he'll have votes to spare.
Silver had carefully prepared his remarks. But to someone in the room with him, he sounded like a man who also completely believed what he was saying. Silver sounded like a man doing right by his own moral code, and on behalf of fairness. It is the ultimate answer to the reprehensible selfishness that drives Donald Sterling's words and actions.
It was, as I saw it, a very Jewish moment for Adam Silver. It was one man's tikkun olam, a Hebrew phrase meaning "to repair the world."
That's Adam Silver, commissioner of the NBA; but that's also Adam Silver, lifelong basketball fan. I'm a part of that group, too. You could argue that many more of my daily activities revolve around my association with basketball than with Judaism.
And so it all flows together in my mind. Schwerner and Goodman died for what mattered. Two years later, Texas Western's all-African-American starting lineup beat the racist Adolph Rupp and Kentucky. My grandfather marched on Washington to support civil rights. Bill Russell became the first African-American NBA coach. Barack Obama won 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008, and he speaks like the knowledgeable basketball fan that he is -- not in "Manny Ortiz" politician pander-speak -- when he talks about the sport or fills out his March Madness bracket just like I do.
And so it fell to Adam Silver to speak for basketball -- and, yes, as some of us saw it, to speak for Jews as well.
This isn't a fair expectation of Silver. It's not his job. But very little of this has been fair. When a reporter asked Doc Rivers this week whether a boycott should proceed because Sterling's comments were "bigger than the game," Rivers pointed out that players were essentially being asked to reconcile their racial identity with their lifelong professional pursuit, in the harshest public glare, and in a few dozen hours.
So consider Silver's plight, purely from an ethnic context: Sterling, publicly identified as Jewish, is exposed as a bigot of the worst kind. Anything short of Silver bringing the full force of the league down upon Sterling, and the scurrilous suspicions about the Jewish people would be, in the eyes of some, confirmed.
Did Silver feel any added responsibility as a result of Sterling's self-identifying Judaism? I asked him that during Tuesday's press conference. The mention of Sterling's religion touched a nerve; I saw those on Twitter who wondered whether my question, by linking Sterling and Judaism, was a kind of dog whistle for anti-Semites using this deplorable man as an excuse to attack us all. Obviously, it wasn't.
And in response to it, if you ask me, Silver gave the perfect answer.
Here's my question and his answer, in full:
Q: I'm curious -- you spoke about your personal response to this. In terms of Donald Sterling self-identifying as Jewish and you doing the same, as well, I'm wondering whether there was a specific kind of pain associated with that for you and if you felt a certain responsibility within the Jewish community to be responding to this in this way?
ADAM SILVER: I think my response was as a human being, and I used the word distraught before. I spoke on Saturday morning directly to Chris Paul, to Doc Rivers, and it wasn't even anger at that point. I mean, there was a certain somberness, and frankly, I felt sort of most strongly and personally for that team. While this affects every player and anyone associated with the NBA family, for those players and those coaches to go out and do what they need to do and play at the highest level in the world and have them hanging over this I think caused me to have a certain sadness, I would say, about the entire situation. I think this is regardless of anyone's religion, ethnicity, nationality. I think this is incredibly hurtful.
I've never met Adam Silver. That question and answer was my first direct experience with him. Over the past few days I've certainly spoken to enough people who know him to understand how respected he is throughout the league. Few doubt that he's up to the difficult task of succeeding David Stern. Even fewer worry that this significant challenge early in his tenure -- one that may define his entire time in office -- would be too much for him.
Ethics aside, Silver had plenty of compelling reasons for coming down hard on Sterling. The complete exodus of Clippers sponsors this week underlined the problem that the NBA would have if it did anything that allowed Sterling continued access to the league's business interests. And as National Basketball Players Association vice president Roger Mason pointed out on Tuesday afternoon, anything short of the full force of Silver's office brought down upon Sterling might have resulted in a player boycott.
But I didn't get the feeling on Tuesday that Silver was simply doing what made sense for the NBA. He sounded to me like a man truly as disgusted by Sterling as I am.
I'd like to say that Sterling is the first Jew I've heard utter racist things; he isn't. But Silver represents what I believe to be the views of the vast majority of Jews, and he represents the Jewish religion -- or any religion -- at its tolerant, inclusive, empathetic best.
Hank Greenberg didn't ask to be a touchstone for the Jewish people, either. But by the time his career was over, he said, "I came to feel that if I, as a Jew, hit a home run, I was hitting one against Hitler."
The stakes are different for the Jewish people now than they were in 1940. They are different for African-Americans now than they were in 1964 in Mississippi.
But Silver took to the podium on Tuesday with an opportunity to speak, as a Jew, against bigotry and intolerance, to bring forth a moral outrage on par with how so much of America is responding to Donald Sterling's view of the world. Silver delivered an answer to every person who would use Donald Sterling as a means to question how the Jewish people feel about race.
On Tuesday, Adam Silver spoke for us. Adam Silver spoke for me.