Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi, award winning journalist, author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi"

UConn Guess Who’ll Win the Final Four (Based on Jewish Sources)

I rarely make Final Four predictions, including those based on Jewish sources, but hot on the heels of my Super Bowl triumph and in light of a more-than-casual statewide rooting interest here in Connecticut, how could I resist?  With apologies to the Lady Huskies, I’ll be focusing on the men here. And as I always say when providing these iron clad prognostications, please wager responsibly.

Let’s just start by saying that Storrs, Connecticut has become to college basketball what Green Bay is to football.  To have both the men and women’s teams in the Final Four and for that to feel routine keeps us from appreciating just how rarified the basketball air has become around these parts. 

That said, UConn is also the clear-cut favorite to win from a Jewish perspective.

The four teams left standing this weekend all feature animal nicknames.  Badger, ‘Gator, Wildcat and Husky.  All are found in the Bible.  

Some connect the badger to the hyrax, an animal that can be found in remote locations like En Gedi.  I was interested to find out that Bucky Badger, that irrepressible Wisconsin mascot, is Jewish.

Kentucky, a traditional basketball power, had the distinction of a Jewish star player named Sid Cohen, who was one of the first junior college transfers to play for the legendary coach Adolph Rupp.  We’ll grant that when Rupp’s mom gave him that first name, she had no idea that it might not be so popular among Jews later on (and indeed many Jews had that name too).  We also read in Job 4:10, “The lion roars and the wildcat snarls, but the teeth of strong lions will be broken.”  If Kentucky were playing Penn State, that would be a very good sign.

But a badger ‘aint a lion, and the presence of badger skins lining the sacred tabernacle tells me that Wisconsin will win.

Florida: Let’s ignore the zoological distinctions between alligators and crocodiles for a moment.  We’re talking creepy crawling things in the water with big teeth.  I’ve seen lots of crocs in Israel – not just the shoes (or in the form of handbags).  One of my kids’ favorite attractions when they were younger was Hamat Gader, a spa / crocodile farm right near the Syrian and Jordanian border, off the Yarmuk River, where Jacob fought the angel and was renamed Israel.  It’s the only crocodile farm in the Middle East, but the Jewish sources are filled with allusions to crocodiles, like this one in Job, attesting to the animal’s ferocious nature.  In modern Hebrew, the croc is Tannin, also a traditional word for sea monster, associated in folklore with the Red Sea.

Add to that the fact that the University of Florida has the largest population of Jews among all public univisities in America.  A great Hillel too.  Wisconsin is #10, incidentally.  

But I pick the UConn Huskies, specifically for four reasons (aside from my wanting to walk the streets of my fair state safely this weekend). 

1)     Biblical: We read in Judges 7:5, “So Gideon took the men down to the water. There the LORD told him, ‘Separate those who lap the water with their tongues as a dog laps from those who kneel down to drink.’”   Those who lapped like dogs were chosen to be his soldiers.  Why?  Because they were less likely to kneel to idols, and, according to some, because they overcame their fear of crocodiles in the water.

2)     Because of Doron Sheffer and Nadav Henefeld, Israeli hoop legends who came of age in UConn blue.

3)     Because UConn is the only team in the final four with a player whose first name is also a major part of the Hebrew liturgy.  Yes, Amida Brimah, the seven foot freshman from Ghana, wins this year’s Torah Bright award for most evocative Jewish name ever given to a non-Jew.  I sense a big weekend for Amida, a payoff from his years of “silent devotion” to his craft.

4)     And to top it all off, UConn’s star guard’s name (Shabazz Napier) is deliciously suggestive of Judaism’s day of rest.

I see a big weekend for UConn and two more banners for Titletown  USA.

Shabazz Shalom!

About the Author
Award-winning journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Author of Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times and the upcoming book, "Embracing Auschwitz." Rabbi Hammerman was a winner of the Simon Rockower award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism, for his 2008 columns on the Bernard Madoff case, which appeared first on his blog and then were discussed widely in the media. In 2018, he received an award from the Religion News Association, honorable mention, for excellence in commentary, for articles written for the Washington Post, New York Jewish Week, and JTA. Among his many published personal essays are several written for the New York Times Magazine and Washington Post. He has been featured as's Conservative representative in its "Ask the Rabbi" series and as "The Jewish Ethicist," fielding questions on the New York Jewish Week's website. Rabbi Hammerman is an avid fan of the Red Sox, Patriots and all things Boston; he also loves a good, Israeli hummus. He is an active alum of Brown University, often conducting alumni interviews of prospective students. He lives in Stamford with his wife, Dr. Mara Hammerman, a psychologist. They have two grown children, Ethan and Daniel, along with Chloe, Casey and Cassidy, three standard poodles. Contact Rabbi Hammerman: (203) 322-6901 x 307