On a sweltering Sunday afternoon, Yaakov Bar Am places his toes and hands on four medicine balls. With the fringes of his tallit katan, the undergarmet religious Jews wear under their clothes, nearly reaching to the floor, his yarmulke slipping off his head, the 49-year-old Northwest Baltimore resident cranks out 20 pushups, then jumps up, flexing his bulging biceps and grinning from ear to ear.
"I learned that Rashi [a famed 11th-century Biblical scholar] taught the importance of keeping the body healthy," says Bar Am. "It's our job to take care of our bodies."
Bar Am is on a crusade to make sure everyone, including observant Jews, eats right and gets fit. Many Orthodox men eat junk food and skip exercise because they're overwhelmed by family and religious responsibilities, says Bar Am, who used to weigh 198 pounds and is now a lean and mean 145 pounds. Too many food-centered Jewish holidays featuring calorie-laden dishes such as brisket and matzo-ball soup mean it's easy to pack on the pounds, says Bar Am, who began gaining weight after the first of his five children was born.
Sitting in his den, surrounded by stacks of free weights, resistance bands, an incline bench, and other fitness paraphernalia, Bar Am recalls that carrying so much extra weight made even his walk to synagogue an exercise in misery. "I couldn't even feel joy for the Sabbath. My pants were so tight I could barely breathe."
Recently, Bar Am and his wife became independent Team Beachbody coaches. Their mission is to spread the word that you can keep kosher, be fit, and still observe Jewish laws. "I feel like HaShem [God] has given me the responsibility to help other men and women in my community to stop the trend in obesity." Strictly observant Jewish men face unusual fitness hurdles, he says. Because of prohibitions against men and women fraternizing, religious men often don't belong to co-ed gyms.
"They will not look at women in workout clothing, even on DVDs," Bar Am says. To maintain modesty, observant Jewish women wear T-shirts and skirts over exercise clothing. When the Bar Ams traveled to Las Vegas for a Beachbody convention, they were overwhelmed by the respect shown by fellow Jews. "Jews came out of the wood work to say hello. It was because we were in our Orthodox garb," he says.
Being the fittest and most ripped middle-aged Jewish man within the eruv- the area circumscribed by a symbolic line within which certain activities forbidden to Orthodox Jews on the Sabbath are permitted-isn't the only thing that makes Bar Am stand out among his fellow Orthodox Jews. A self-described "jack of all trades and master of none," he manages to squeeze in a host of eclectic hobbies (scuba diving, woodworking, bird-watching, collecting Flying Tiger memorabilia from World War II) in between his day job as an analyst for Verizon.
In place of a man cave, he retreats to a large converted shed packed with "every tool a woodworker could want." There, he spends up to 20 hours a week, often working late into the night creating custom furniture, ornamental bowls, display stands for religious stores, and ritual Jewish objects such as shtenders-prayer and study lecterns-that he sells to local synagogues for his business. In 2011, Bar Am formed the Maryland Artisan Guild, a cooperative of regional artists that offers marketing, public relations, and management services. He's also the president of the Baltimore Area Turners, the local chapter of the American Association of Woodturners.
Bar Am acknowledges that one of the reasons he isn't your typical Orthodox Jewish man may be because he wasn't "frum from birth"-he was not born an Orthodox Jew. Bar Am wasn't even born into a Jewish family. His father attended a Presbyterian church, but Bar Am rarely went.
"I was a history buff," he says. "All I'd read about was the horrible things religion did." Reading authors such as Camus in high school, Bar Am says he identified with existentialism. Still, he was intrigued by Judaism. "I'd always been curious about Judaism," he recalls. Even during his 30s-a decade during which Bar Am played guitar in the band Stepmother Mary and fully embraced the sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll lifestyle-he felt something was missing. "I was a borderline drunk," he remembers. "I wasn't a very good person. Even though people knew who I was and they played my music on the radio and I had groupies, I felt empty. I was depressed. I had no one to share my life with."
After hanging up his guitars, Bar Am picked up a fencing foil ("I took up fencing after blowing out my shoulders playing league tennis"). It was at a fencing match that he first spied his future wife, a member of the University of North Carolina's fencing team. Four years later, they married in a Jewish ceremony (he converted before the wedding). "I knew I wanted to convert to Judaism," he says, "but meeting my wife was the catalyst. The more I spoke with the rabbi, it was clear that's what I wanted. The rabbi couldn't give me books fast enough."
While many people convert to marry a Jewish spouse, not all embrace Orthodox Judaism. For Bar Am, the turn toward Orthodoxy happened after meeting a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi and his wife (Chabad is a Hasidic movement in Orthodox Judaism) at a Reform synagogue in North Carolina. "We sang songs and talked. That just sparked me," Bar Am says. Soon, the couple was on the fast track toward becoming observant Jews. Moving to Northwest Baltimore's heavily Orthodox community, the couple jettisoned their secular lifestyle, a change that included adopting the last name Bar Am, Hebrew for "son of the people."
Bar Am insists he doesn't want to be the poster boy for unconventional Orthodox Jews. He notes there are plenty of Orthodox Jews who play in bands, run races, and participate in other secular activities. Although he doesn't share some of the same views as his Orthodox neighbors-Bar Am is a pro-life liberal Democrat, while many Orthodox Jews are conservative-"I have to be accepting," he says. "I have to keep my mouth shut because I'm outnumbered."
Come the end of the summer, Bar Am will pack up his family and join his in-laws for their traditional beach vacation. This year he's taking up a new hobby. "I'm going to take surfing lessons," he says happily. "Big, fat, and pale was not a great look for the beach."