UPDATE: Rabbi Lau & Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Story
A little over a month ago I wrote about a news report here in Israel that detailed the history and upcoming meeting of Chief Rabbi Lau and Lakers legend, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Recently, that post of mine has seemingly become viral and has brought thousands of new visitors to this site. And so, I’d like to thank a reader of mine, Eric, for directing me to this article on ESPN.com.
Henry Abbott of ESPN.com linked to the story reported on my blog and asked Kareem, “I have heard this amazing tale about your dad and a boy he helped liberate from a concentration camp at the end of World War II. Would you mind recounting briefly the story of Rabbi Lau and your dad?”
Below is Kareem’s answer:
That story — people have gotten that all mixed up. There was a reporter in Israel who put my father into the tank battalion that liberated Dachau. My dad was a police officer in New York. One of the guys that he was a police officer with was in a tank battalion that liberated Dachau. Rabbi Lau was a boy in Buchenwald, which was also liberated by black troops, but it was a totally different group than the one that my dad’s friend was in. The group that helped liberate Buchenwald was the 183rd Combat Engineers, an all black unit.
To further illustrate the mix up, (perhaps due to the language barrier of the Israeli reporter?) Mr. Jabbar continued to clear the air swirling around this story by explaining that:
The reporter in Israel mixed all of the facts up, and got it all conflated. People were thinking my dad was a lieutenant in the 761st Tank Battalion. My dad was a lieutenant in the New York City Transit Police! And that’s how he got to know Smitty, who was one of the liberators of Dachau and other camps.
That said, he did express his great respect for the Rabbi when he mentioned that as early as 1997 he had met Rabbi Lau when he was in Israel. Indeed, Abdul-Jabbar remarked that, “I just wanted to say hi to him because he had a particular regard for the black Americans that were involved in his liberation!”
However, this recent claim of Mr. Jabbar goes contrary to what friends, acquaintances, and even published author and the former Dean of Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles, Rabbi Dovid Landesman, had heard from Kareem himself!
A number of years ago, Kareem visited an Orthodox synagogue in Beverly Hills by the name of: Beth Jacob Congregation. Indeed, he addressed the audience and as Rabbi Landesman, (who ironically enough wrote a book entitled, There are no Basketball Courts in Heaven) recalled here:
He retold the story, mentioning that he had been amazed that Rabbi Lau a]had remembered his uncle’s name (after all these years) and b] gone to the trouble of making a reception to express his gratitude (towards Jabbar during his visit to Israel). He told the audience that it had been a life lesson on what it means to express thanks!
While I was not present at Beth Jacob that particular Shabbos, I remember there being many teens who were not only buzzing about the fact that a Lakers great visited their Shul—but also about the powerful message that he relayed. And so, I wish I could utter with certainty the famous line of the legendary newscaster Paul Harvey, “and now you know the rest of the story. Good day!”
However, I can’t. There seems to be a contradiction between Kareem’s words in his recent interview with ESPN and his words that Rabbi Landesman recalled him making to the Orthodox congregation.
In Abbott’s piece Kareem dismissed the story by not simply being “misquoted” (which seems to be a line used by athletes sometimes) but instead being “mixed up” or perhaps lost in translation.
On behalf of all the the seemingly hundreds of people who have emailed me asking for any more information on this story, I can only hope that Henry Abbott of ESPN.com or perhaps Brian and Andy Kamenetzky of the Land O’ Lakers Blog on ESPN.com, can help us all clarify this story once and for all.
For the record I do believe that Kareem should get his coveted statue outside of Staples Center!