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No Paunch Here: ‘Rabbi Ninja’ Busts Up Jewish Stereotypes (While NBC Plays On Them)

Yeshiva University student Akiva Neuman performed admirably on ‘American Ninja Warrior’

Jonathan Zalman
July 01, 2016

At 5’6′, 150 lbs, Akiva Neuman is no NFL linebacker. But on NBC’s American Ninja Warrior course, it ain’t about size; it’s about agility, strength, and heart. Oh, and maybe a little bit of showboating and celebration—it is television, of course.

Earlier this week, Neuman, a Queens resident and student at Yeshiva University, competed on ANW. Here’s his fantastic submission to the show, in which he explains how he stays in shape while studying Talmud and tax law. The best line? “If I didn’t train for American Ninja Warrior, I’d be on shpilkes!,” says Neuman.

The video below shows Neuman’s performance in the obstacle course, which aired this week. Neuman seems like a fantastic person, someone who is dedicated to and proud of Jewish life. And, as you’ll see, he’s strong and good-natured and focused. He appears to have had a lot of fun competing on the program, doing splits and showing off his quads and pointing at his supporters who, at one point, chant “rabbi, rabbi.”

Don’t get me wrong: It’s fantastic that NBC highlighted Neuman’s Orthodox background. But it did feel overwrought at times, as Neuman was thoroughly branded as a rabbi-in-training-who-wears-all-that-Jewish-gear. But at moments, Neuman’s Jewishness felt like all the announcers highlighted (e.g. a color commentator twice said, “Don’t get your yarmulke wet!”, adding “It’s Hanukkah time” (it’s not); oh, and the hashtag #rabbininja). Or maybe my sense of humor is way off and paranoid. Dunno. You be the judge.

Still, it was great to see a young Orthodox man named “Akiva” tearing it up on national TV, a sight we don’t see nearly enough. Mazel.

Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.

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