During my youth, my personal hero was the popular Jewish singer Avraham Fried. As a member of Tzlil V’zemer Boys Choir, I enjoyed the fact that we had a number of concerts in which we performed prior to Avraham Fried. On those occasions, after our performance was over I had the opportunity to watch Fried’s performance from backstage. At home I would imitate his stage performance, singing his early classics including “No Jew Will Be Left Behind” and “Keil Hahoda’os.”
When I was eleven years old, my parents chaperoned the choir during a trip to Eretz Yisrael, where we performed in Gan Sacher before an impressive crowd of 9,000 people. Shortly before we were set to go on stage and while I was already wearing my choir uniform, my father called me over an instructed me to follow him. We walked quickly down a backstage hall to where Avraham Fried was waiting. He greeted me warmly in what was a thrilling moment for me. I was so excited – I had met my hero!
In the summer of 1991, Gatorade launched what was potentially the most iconic sports commercial of all time. It was right after the Chicago Bulls had won the first of six championships under the leadership of Michael Jordan, who was also the season’s MVP and the Finals MVP. The commercial depicted a blissful atmosphere of children rallying around Jordan, shooting hoops with big smiles on their faces. Interspersed were highlights of some of Jordan’s finest moments in big games. Throughout the commercial, Jordan could be seen with his head cocked back drinking a cold bottle of Gatorade. The background music played to the lyrics “Sometimes I dream that he is me… If I could be like Mike!” It wasn’t just Jordan’s success as a player, it was also his suaveness and popularity as an iconic personality. The subliminal message of the song was that if you drink Gatorade, you can indeed be like Mike.
During the years when the commercial was popular, my Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Berel Wein, quipped, “What can you expect from a generation whose slogan is to ‘Be like Mike’?” Rabbi Wein would often encourage us to have positive role models in our lives, because who we aspire to be like plays an important role in how we aspire to live our lives.
For a number of years, I was the principal of Mesivta Ohr Naftoli in New Windsor, New York. Right after Shavuos, New York State Regents season began. A few years ago, for the second section of the English Regents, the students were instructed to write an essay based on various provided readings. The topic for the readings was “The Celebrity Solution,” i.e., the fact that celebrities are used increasingly to promote issues of politics and ethical matters. “Stars – movie stars, rock stars, sports stars – exercise a ludicrous influence over public consciousness. In recent years, stars have learned that their intense presentness in people’s daily lives and their access to the uppermost realm of politics, business, and media offer them a peculiar kind of moral position…” The article named specific personalities, including Natalie Portman, George Clooney, Bono, Angelina Jolie, and Brad Pitt.
For our yeshiva students, even if they were familiar with these names, they definitely do not hail any of them as their heroes, to say the least. What’s even more ironic is that the Regents were offered the day after Shavuos, when the yeshiva students had spent hours engaged and immersed in learning the teachings of those who are truly their greatest heroes – Abaye and Rava, Rashi and Rambam, Rabbi Akiva Eiger and Reb Chaim, to name a few.
If we had our way, we might indeed have the yeshiva students write about how iconic heroes have an immensely deep influence on politics, ethics, outlook, and everything in between. But the names of the heroes would be worlds – nay, universes – apart!
“If I could be like Rebbe!”