Friday afternoons in winter, the sun sets early. By five o’clock, the sky is purpling and the cold of night has begun to set. At six o’clock, it’s so completely dark that it may as well be midnight. In the Hasidic section of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, the world shuts down. When the sun sets, in accordance with the Sabbath laws, people abandon their phones and minivans and live in a pre-electric world, if only for twenty-four hours.
The exact time of sunset varies by the week, but every week has the same rhythm. At sunset, the men go to synagogue and pray. (A few women go, too; the oldest and youngest women, girls with their fathers; some post-teens, the not-yet-married and the not-yet-mothers; and some elderly women; any women who care to and any who can escape their houses.)
The prayer service takes an hour almost to the minute. Afterward, the streets hum with life: People returning from synagogue, people walking to the houses of friends or parents or cousins for dinner. Friday night dinner is a rigorous affair, not just in the amount and quality of food prepared (the Talmud specifies that the Sabbath dinner table should be like a king’s banquet), but also in the act itself of dining. Prayers, consumption, and conversation often go for four or five hours, bedtimes suspended, agendas cleared. Every dinner is like a party; people are invited and counter-invited, and the population of every house in Crown Heights is never shuffled so much as it is on a Friday night.
I want to tell you all of this as a way of explaining why my wife and I were passing near the corner of Kingston and Lefferts Avenues on that Friday night in December—one of the shortest of the year—when, just a couple of feet in front of us, the magazine of a handheld pistol was emptied into the open driver’s-side window of a dirty black sedan.
A bolt of amber electricity jumped from the gun’s nozzle. The sound was loud but not ear-splitting, each pop too short to hurt or to last. There must have been thirty or forty people on that street corner, in immediate distance—firing distance—of the blast. They took off.
Some ran at once. Others of us were frozen in place. The old couple across the street, holding each other throughout the shooting, the husband’s arm cruxed and held out elegantly, the wife’s hand resting at his elbow. The man with his short son, no more than three or four years old, who he picked up and threw over his shoulder, ignoring the Sabbath prohibition not to carry anything, because that’s what you do. Violate one Sabbath to save many Sabbaths, that’s how the Talmud explains it. The girl in tight heavy-framed glasses and a burgundy leather flight jacket, who looked cool enough for me to wish we knew her, since the dearth of cool and nonconformist people in Crown Heights was at a severe low point, now plowing down the street in the other direction, never to be seen by us again.
Fastest of all was my wife. A former champion swimmer in Australia, unused to her Decembers being this cold and this frozen, who was currently bigger than she’d ever been. She was incubating a baby in her belly, a perfect unfinished thing unable to run itself or react to the shooting in any way, to whom the loud quick pops probably sounded like faraway bubbles in the embryotic-fluid lagoon. Other people ran to protect themselves, to protect a loved one, or out of plain fear. My wife ran to protect the infinity of possibility swimming in her stomach.
I remember the irrelevant stuff, the apocrypha of the situation, the way your mind does when something happens to you that you don’t think will be life-changing while it’s happening but becomes important in retrospect. Near the corner where it happened, the bright red awning of the Family Dollar, long and thin, a turreted semicylinder, so unnaturally ketchuppy that it made shopping at the crappy discount store into an almost royal experience, which a few seconds later the shooting would occur next to. Half a block before that, the iron Goodwill collection box, bolted to the ground like a giant mailbox, soliciting food, clothes, and children’s toys. The last part sticks in my mind, despite the ludicrousness of it. We have not yet had our first child, but it will happen within the month; and we will have more children after that, and G-d willing we won’t have a need for years to give away whatever kids’ toys we receive, but it still sticks in my mind, if we grow old here, if we sow our family here.
Or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe I’m remembering all of this wrong, the way I wanted to. After all, I walk this block every day to work, I pass these things a million times over the routine of my commute. They probably don’t even occur to me anymore. My wife says I’m melodramatic. I don’t think she’s wrong. But I need to piece together the fragments of my life, I need to play and replay the things that scare and bother and disturb me until I’ve made my peace with them, until I’ve made them a part of me.
The Death and Rise of Crown Heights
In 1940, the then-spiritual leader of Lubavitch, Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, moved to Crown Heights. It was already a Jewish neighborhood, but it resembled today’s Crown Heights almost not at all. Its blocks were inhabited mostly by working-class families, largely secular, who worked long days in the city. On weekends, they took their families to the nearby Prospect Park Zoo, played sports and swam at the Crown Heights Jewish Community Center, and constructed many of the brownstones and tenement apartments that remain in the area. They built the Jewish Hospital of Brooklyn, which at the time was one of the largest hospitals in the borough.
In the late 1950s, with the rise of desegregation and the phenomenon of white flight, most Jews moved out. Schneersohn and his followers did not. Headquartered at the synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway, his followers swelled and grew their community in the area. The exodus of Jews made housing cheaper, and the Lubavitchers took advantage of that fact, moving in themselves and buying up real estate to sell and rent. At that same time, Black families were also moving to Crown Heights from Manhattan and taking advantage of the family-friendly neighborhoods (easy commutes, big houses, plentiful playgrounds). In 1957, the population of Crown Heights was 25 percent Black. A steady migration of Jamaican and other East Indian communities swept into the area, and by the mid-1970s, the streets of Crown Heights looked much like they do today: a stark diversity of Black people and black-clad Hasidic Jews.
The two communities, in the ensuing years, had their share of skirmishes. But the single defining moment in the relationship, or the lack thereof, came in August 1991, when the neighborhood exploded in a fury of pent-up violence. Even the commonly-used appellation is misleading: we call them the Crown Heights Riots, as if no riots have ever occurred in Crown Heights before then, or since.
The events started simply, but quickly became muddled: There was a car accident. The driver was Lubavitch. Two children, pedestrians, were hit: one injured, one killed. While the injured child was being attended to by police, an ambulance took away the driver of the car.
This is when the details get hazy. According to some reports, the Lubavitch-run volunteer ambulance corps refused to take the boy. Other reports say that the police on the scene insisted that the driver should be taken for his own safety, and that the assembled crowd was shouting anti-Semitic slurs, or that the crowd was already in the process of beating the driver.
Over the next three days, Crown Heights turned into a war zone. One hundred ninety people were injured. Stores were vandalized and looted. Two people were killed: Yankel Rosenbaum, a Lubavitch exchange student from Melbourne, Australia, who was staying in Crown Heights while researching his doctoral dissertation,1 and a non-Jewish man who was mistaken by the rioting crowds for a Jew. By the fourth day, nearly 1,800 police officers were deployed in the area.
Isaac Bitton was one of those injuries. A Moroccan Jew who became religious and joined the Lubavitch movement later in life, he was an accomplished drummer. His band, Les Variations, played part of a tour with Led Zeppelin in the 1970s and was invited to open for the Rolling Stones. He left the band and started studying at yeshiva in 1977; he moved to Crown Heights, where he continues to live, a few years later. At the time of the riots, he was working as a hotel manager.
“My wife would call me on the phone,” he told me during an interview. “She told me, be careful, people are outside our house. I came back from the hotel early with my son. Before we came to our house, a block away, we were attacked.”
Bitton is loath to talk about it. His story has already been told—he was, in no small way, the image of the Lubavitch community at its most vulnerable. A picture of Bitton appeared on the cover of the New York Post with the headline “Day of Hate,” with his twelve-year-old son crouching over his unconscious body. He was saved, he said, not by the police—“They were watching. They saw what they saw, and they waited”—but by a non-Jewish journalist, Peter Noel, who was reporting on the story. “He tried to divert them,” Bitton recalls. “He told them, go go go somewhere else.”
The riots marked the downward turning point for violence in the area. From 1990 to 1993, according to the NYPD’s CompStat records, counts of rape and robbery both fell in Crown Heights, while murder and assault remained about the same. Five years later, though, murders were more than halved, and burglaries were reduced 400 percent. In his book Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brooklyn Riot, Edward S. Shapiro says that the riots were one of the primary reasons that New York mayor David Dinkins lost his bid for reelection: Many Lubavitchers, he claims, attributed the police department’s reaction to the situation to Dinkins’s “racial exclusiveness.”
And recently, on the twentieth anniversary of the riots, the reporter originally assigned to cover the riots by the New York Times wrote that “over those three days I also saw journalism go terribly wrong”:
When I picked up the paper, the article I read was not the story I had reported. I saw headlines that described the riots in terms solely of race. Two Deaths Ignite Racial Clash in Tense Brooklyn Neighborhood, the Times headline said. And, worse, I read an opening paragraph, what journalists call a “lead” [sic], that was simply untrue:
Hasidim and blacks clashed in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn through the day and into the night yesterday.
In all my reporting during the riots I never saw—or heard of—any violence by Jews against blacks. But the Times was dedicated to this version of events: blacks and Jews clashing amid racial tensions.
The misreporting, while noteworthy, doesn’t itself demand a place in my survey of the Lubavitch community. What sticks out for me is how widely this article was cited: clipped and passed around by families all over Crown Heights, copied-and-pasted on several Lubavitch news services.
Has the neighborhood changed? According to the dramatically rising rents, yes. According to Isaac Bitton, it’s a small change, a surface change. “Maybe a little, but not too much. It’s still in the air,” he says. “Thank G-d, we haven’t had major problems, but here and there, isolated problems we still have, in the evenings, in the nights. There are more white non-Jews. There’s a lot of white non-Jews who come to live with us because it’s cheaper.” He muses on this, smiles, swallows. “But it doesn’t change too much.”
The fact that virtually all Lubavitchers stuck around in Crown Heights, that there was no widespread exodus from the area, is a testament to how strongly they cleave to their Rebbe. His house still sits on President Street, in the middle of one of the nicest blocks in the area, kept uninhabited after all these years.
Today, Crown Heights is a ghost of its former self, but a formidable one. The old Jewish Community Center, once a neighborhood gym and celebration hall, has been taken over by Oholei Torah Yeshiva, one of the main learning institutions of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, attended by over a thousand boys. The old Brooklyn Jewish Hospital has been converted into high-end apartments for predominantly young, predominantly white residents. It’s a popular singles hangout. In a true cycle of urban renewal, one young man whom I spoke to said his mother was born in the hospital. As a child, her family moved to Long Island; now he’s back, living in the very same building.
You can’t go home again. Even calling Crown Heights home seems like a tricky, loaded proposition, for even though its demographics have remained more or less steady for the past half century, it would be hard to call any of its populations settled. Its Caribbean immigrant families spread out, assimilate, move into other areas of the borough and are replaced by new immigrants; the Lubavitchers send their children around the world to do outreach work, and they settle in their new cities and communities, winning new devotees to the cause, who move into Lubavitch Crown Heights to carry on the legacy of their spiritual predecessors. It’s an ouroboros circle of urban life. But that circle comes out different every time somebody new draws it.
The Perfect Apartment
I first landed in Crown Heights in the summer of 2004, against every expectation I’d had. I mean, I never thought I’d live among Jews. I’d sold a novel, and I decided to spend the summer in New York, edit it with the publisher, live in his office. Every two or three Fridays, I’d take the subway to their Soho office, labor over the thick manuscript, a triple-spaced mountain on my editor’s desk that was as tall as his fist. Then I’d take it back to the apartment where I was staying and slowly rewrite pages into chapters.
I worked in chunks of ten or twelve hours, focused and agoraphobic, rarely venturing outside the apartment. The apartment itself: my childhood friend Aaron, who’d been living in an underpriced one-bedroom with an extra bedroom in the living room, offered to let me move in. It was a huge tenement building on the corner of Empire and Nostrand—in the heart of Crown Heights, but two avenues outside Jewish Crown Heights. I learned almost immediately that there were streets that were all Jewish and streets that no Jews lived on, and almost nothing in the middle. Our building sat squarely in the non-Jewish zone, the Caribbean zone. The apartment complex itself was a nightmare. There were roaches. One of its two elevators was always broken down, and the floors were mysteriously sticky. Its facade was old and majestic, like the apartment building in Ghostbusters, but badly crumbling like ancient ruins (or like the Ghostbusters building once it gets taken over by Zuul). A revolving cast of shady-looking characters populated the building’s front stoop at all hours of the day, their hands only leaving their pockets to make magician’s passes with each other.
Aaron was a vagabond, a pioneer. He’d found this place, not on Craigslist or through friends, but by picking a neighborhood and walking through it, calling up the numbers on the building signs. We were in apartment 5-K (which I christened S-K, after my favorite band, Sleater-Kinney)—the building was six floors, thirteen apartments on each floor, and to my knowledge we were the only white tenants in the building.
I was definitely the only tenant there who wore a yarmulke. For the first weeks, my new neighbors regarded me with a silent, sullen suspicion. I thought it was because I was a white kid, a sigil of changing demographics and rising rent, until Aaron informed me otherwise. The owners of the building, he said, were Lubavitch. The other denizens thought I was one of his underlings, either an inefficient elevator repairman or a spy trying to find tenancy violations in order to evict residents and jack up rent.
I made it my mission to spend more time outside my room. I said hi to people in the corridors. I took the elevator instead of the less calamity-prone, but also less sociable, stairways. People got used to seeing me on a daily basis, realized I wasn’t the Man, realized I was in the same pierced and sinking boat that they were. What might be the last straw came via an incident, which I only recount with journalistic distance and a reporter’s interest in impartiality, in which I was caught in an elevator with a cockroach, a foot long if it was an inch, which ran back and forth, twice, over my foot. I screamed like a twelve-year-old girl, which wouldn’t have been so bad had the elevator’s other occupant, an actual twelve-year-old girl, not nonchalantly stamped on the demonic vermin and then giggled wildly at my non-native New Yorker’s freakout.
That summer, I also explored the community that I was supposed to be a part of. I was a Hasidic Jew, not a Lubavitcher but a member of another sect, much smaller and lower-key. Though I’d been determined to live a monastic existence that summer, apart from a Jewish community, I was drawn over to the Lubavitch part of Crown Heights. Shelter and food are two of our most basic needs, and it isn’t a coincidence that religious Judaism has incredibly strict mandates for both those things: food has to be kosher, specially selected and prepared in certain ovens and on certain plates; and on Sabbath, when we stop using electricity, you need to be within walking distance of other Jews, for a synagogue to pray at and to walk to other Jews for Sabbath meals.
I had never eaten in restaurants so often, nor invited myself to so many people’s houses, as I did that summer. I became a welfare case of the Lubavitch community’s largesse. People pricked me from the crowds exiting synagogue, invited me for a meal or an entire Sabbath. It wasn’t like the Salvation Army; it was me sitting in with a real family, partaking of their family meal. It was usually awkward, but only for me I think: for those many-kidded, outreach-oriented families, dinner-table flexibility was a way of life.
Some of those families were millionaires, with expansive mini-mansions hiding inside normal Brooklyn brownstones. Others were impoverished, dirty, eating on shared and shaky benches. To all of them, these Sabbath dinners were a refuge: the streets, even the streets of this neighborhood, were hostile, dangerous, never completely theirs. There’s a hot-button issue among Lubavitchers that their religious leader, the Rebbe, is (or was) (or will be) the Messiah. It often causes anything from debates to fistfights with non-Lubavitch Jews, most of whom associate that belief with, well, Christians. But messianism and redemption are at heart a religious Jewish issue, and the fact that Lubavitchers spend so much time thinking about redemption might also be a function of the place where they live. Nowhere in New York is it as apparent that they are living in exile from their holy land, a troubled and fallen world that they’re meant to set themselves apart from. The way they dress, the things they believe, the way they are supposed to act. One of the essential teachings of Lubavitch Judaism is that the entirety of Divine spirituality was originally contained in a set of vessels. These vessels were smashed, and the Divine sparks were dispersed throughout the world. The original Hasidic rebbes, from which Lubavitch descended, believed that the job of people in this world is to collect these sparks, to redeem them through our actions and good deeds.
Part of my awkwardness, those Friday nights, sitting at those tables, was my normal social anxiety. Another part, though, was being the victim of this selective largesse. I had no idea of the surname of my landlords that summer. I didn’t know whether I’d met them, whether I’d regaled them by talking for an hour nonstop about the book I was working on or hung out with their kids at the neighborhood open mic or eaten their last avocado after I confessed that I was a vegetarian and they made me a special entree, since the rest of the family was having chicken and nothing else.
But I had the sense that any of my hosts that summer could be the same people who controlled the building where I stayed, who neglected it and made its residents the kind of people who didn’t mind if cockroaches ran over their feet. I got the sense that, in the eyes of the other half of Crown Heights, it could have been any of them. It could have been me.
The last week I stayed there, I went with Aaron to drop off the rent check. We waited in line for close to an hour inside a small basement office, featureless except for a little window made of shatterproof glass. You had to stand in line with a certified cashier’s check, tell them your name and wait for them to look it up. You couldn’t mail it in and you couldn’t stick it in a box and run. It didn’t have to be humiliating, but it felt that way, being forced to wait in order to pay for having a place to live.
We finally arrived at the window, and Aaron handed over the check. The teller at the window took it, and there was a flash between her and I—a girl, about my age, professional but young, dark hair tracing over one eye, a hint of attractive furtive, not-all-thereness to her detached glance. I wondered if she was part of the family that ran the building. I wondered if she would ever go out with me. I wondered if she was invested in this job with all her heart or if it was just about getting through the day. Our eyes lingered on each other for longer than they should have. Aaron gave her the envelope, she and I broke eye contact, and I couldn’t be sure I was never at her family’s Sabbath table. I wondered if I would see her again.
When we got married, my wife and I had a disagreement of borders. We came from different worlds. I grew up in a working-class part of Philadelphia; she was from Australia. I’d grown up secular, but became observant later in life; she was raised Lubavitch, but she had a period of rebellion. Both of us had settled down, but not compromised. We each had found a way to be Orthodox, but to fit it in with our respective selves. We were both artists. We were both nonconformists. But we were both strongly, resolutely Hasidic.
We tried living first in Melbourne while she finished school, which I could barely tolerate; then Israel, where she’d studied, at a hippy yeshiva dedicated to Shlomo Carlebach, a Hasidic rabbi who toured with the Grateful Dead, but where neither of us could imagine settling. Crown Heights seemed like the best sort of compromise. It was the center of the Lubavitch world, and we’d be surrounded by tons of her cousins, but we were also only a two-hour drive from my parents. And, of course, we’d be in New York City, close to the music she loved and the writers’ events and open mics I hungered for, and if ever we would find a quirky or nonconformist Orthodox community, other people who were artsy or odd like we were, it would probably be in New York City.
But what we’d found in Crown Heights so far was frustration and cold. We were alienated on every front possible, closed off to everyone but ourselves. Itta’s family loved us and had us over to meals all the time, despite the fact that, whenever we opened our mouths to tell stories or what we’d done that week, they had no idea what we were talking about. That winter I’d written a piece on then-presidential nominee Barack Obama for Chicken Soup for the Soul that I thought was gentle and inoffensive; I was soundly thrashed for it for an hour at one Sabbath dinner by an eighty-year-old woman. She called me a traitor and demanded to know how I could defend “that Muslim.” But they kept inviting us back. Week after week, they invited us back.
We run. She moves faster but I call out directions. I throw my body in front of hers, thinking it will be better if a bullet entered me than her—than them, I correct myself—this selflessness a new and uncertain feeling. I am not used to other people needing me. I think things I will never tell her, so many thoughts shooting through my head: that if I do get hit, the shot will probably pierce me and continue into her. That she is wider than me, that her temporarily increased dimensions make her a larger target than I am, that the shot might clear my side and still hit her. I am a worst-case person, paranoid and overthinking at the best of times, but as fast as my legs strain to run quicker, quicker, my brain burns unmistakably faster .
At the end of the block I see her waver, slowing down, unsure. “Turn right!” I yell. If we have a chance to get off this street, out of the line of gunfire, take it.
We turn right, then right again, then a third right. As we slow, coming to the corner, my wife asks me: Do we go home now?
I don’t want to. At this moment I hate home. Home was the apartment we’d had for barely three months, that we’d trusted to be our nest, our safe space in Crown Heights, barely two blocks from where we were now. Home had betrayed us.
Do you need to? I ask her. Are you feeling sick?
She flashes me that champion swimmer’s smile.
I try to look confident back at her.
Let’s go to dinner, I say.
That fourth corner—the corner that would make a perfect square—is the corner of Brooklyn Avenue and Lefferts. The street where it’d happened, a block down. We can see down to the site of the Family Dollar, the electric-toylike red and blue of police sirens. Whatever it was, it was over now. We kept going.
That night we were eating at my uncle Chaim’s. Okay, technically he was my wife’s uncle but I love him like my own. Growing up in the secular world, but getting into Judaism, and seeing from afar the Lubavitchers who lived on the edge of my own hood in Northeast Philly, Uncle Chaim was a lot like what I imagined G-d to look like: an old man with a shining round face and a long white beard, a floppy black hat like a gangster and a toothless, fleshy baby smile.
My wife, more political and more gracious than I, slipped out of her coat, retired to the old, broken, and wonderful trampoline-like sofa in the living room, where the women have gathered and Auntie Esther is holding court. Auntie Esther and Uncle Chaim are Crown Heights royalty. Their apartment is falling apart, they have no money and a solid dozen of their descendants is staying with them on any given day—grandchildren here on pilgrimage or teen yeshiva students or cousins with nowhere else to go. They live right across the street from 770, the main synagogue of Lubavitch on the corner of Eastern Parkway and Kingston Avenue. You can see 770 out their front window. I don’t know Uncle Chaim’s exact relationship with the Rebbe, the spiritual leader of Lubavitch, but in pictures of the Rebbe, Uncle Chaim frequently pops up in close proximity, near the very center of the Rebbe’s coterie, like a Where’s Waldo swallowed in the sea of black hats.
It suddenly occurs to me that I don’t know what we will do, that my wife and I hadn’t spoken at all about what we would do when we get here, only the getting here itself. My body jerks momentarily to go to her; but she is already deep within the crowd of women, and though I still like to think of myself as a punk, or at least a social misfit, I don’t have the chutzpah to break that social wall and approach her.
Instead, I take aside Uncle Chaim. “We were just in a shooting,” I say. Then, realizing the ludicrousness of that statement, I edit myself: “There was a shooting right in front of us on the way over here.”
“Aah,” he says. He ponders this. He is past the age of speedy thinking and snap judgments; he weighs things in his head until he’s decided on them, doesn’t react until he’s sure he has the right reaction. “Someone was killed?” he says.
“We don’t know. We didn’t stick around long enough to find out.”
“You are both okay? Your wife, is she all right?”
“Thank G-d,” I say. “You should’ve seen her run. The pride of Beth Rivkah’s swim team, that one.”
“Thank G-d,” he murmurs. “Thank G-d.”
“Should I call the cops?”
I fall silent, thinking I’ve made a faux pas. Or not? It’s Shabbos. No electricity. No phones. None of the outside world is permitted.
He doesn’t look at me like I’m being ridiculous. He doesn’t snap at me or accuse me of heresy.
Instead, he says, “What good will that do?”
“I could tell them about it. We were witnesses… we might have information?”
“If you call, if you do not—the police will still find out about it.”
“They, um, they already know. We circled the block—” (again the ridiculousness of language; everything I learned about crime, I learned from television2) “—and we saw police cars.”
“So, there is no need,” he says. “After Shabbos you can call. Come and have kiddush. I have made vegetable soup for you special.”
And I do. And he did. It fills me and is warm enough to make me, for that moment at least, forget about the outside world.
Here is what happens:
A few days later, I do call. It’s from inside my apartment, on my cell, but as soon as I dial the number my body starts shaking.
The pleasant-sounding secretary to the station is of the same mind as Uncle Chaim. She tells me I can report it if I want, but the police already know about the assault, so there’s really no point.
“But I was right in front of him. I can ID him—”
“What was he wearing?”
“Blue jeans.” (I say this. I think it was blue jeans.) “A brown leather jacket—”
“It wasn’t black?”
“I’m almost sure it was brown, a sandy, horse-colored brown.” Is my mind playing tricks?
“Would you come down to the station to pick him out of a lineup?”
My mind reels. I freak out. I imagine him looking through the tinted glass, straight at me, his friends running into me right outside the station. Giving me the eye. Following me home. We live two blocks from the police station. It’s crazy how close we are. And I wasn’t even sure about his jacket.
The Crown Heights Experience
“The opening of Franklin Park is generally seen as the tipping point for Crown Heights in terms of its rapid gentrification,” says Sonja Sholklapper, a Crown Heights beat reporter for DNAinfo and Patch.
Franklin Park Bar, which started its renovation in late 2007 and opened in April 2008, was the first establishment of its type on what subsequently came to be known as the Franklin Avenue strip. The bar is trendy, catering to a young, professional, integrated but mostly white clientele. It almost singlehandedly turned Crown Heights into a nightlife destination, opening the floodgates for similar establishments. (The Franklin Avenue corridor now boasts upward of a dozen bars, music venues, and boutique stores.)
I told Sholklapper about the shooting, and she immediately fits it into the timestamp of the neighborhood’s rapid gentrification. Just six months before the shooting we witnessed, Russel Timoshenko, a New York police officer, was shot and killed at almost the same intersection as our shooting: the chase began there, and he was murdered three blocks away. Reading the New York Sun’s report of the aftermath is a chilling sort of crime-novel Mad Libs, with our intersection thrown in seemingly at random:
Inside the abandoned vehicle, which was left on the corner of Lefferts and Kingston avenues in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, were a 9-millimeter handgun and five corresponding shells, which point to another gunmen unloading five rounds at [Timoshenko’s partner] Officer Herman Yan, police said. Of the five rounds, only two connected with Officer Yan, hitting him in the arm and bulletproof vest, police said.
Sholklapper points out to me that the geography of our shooting is also telling: “Your incident is very neatly located at the midpoint between kill-’em Crown Heights and the one we—and the New York Times—know today.”
Kingston Avenue has become that gateway. To one end sits the kosher wine bar and restaurant Basil, serving pizzas topped with white asparagus and goat cheese six nights a week, not far from Franklin Park and the bars it inspired. A block in the other direction starts the proper Hasidic section, mastheaded by the giant synagogue everyone calls 770, and then the Hasidic shops—the sweetshops, dress shops, ritual-object stores. The Hasidic section ends at the Family Dollar, and after that there’s a rush of bodegas, liquor stores, mostly-empty playgrounds—what Sholklapper called (and I now can’t stop thinking of as) “kill-’em Crown Heights.”
That was a year of sea change in the Lubavitch community too. The Chevra Ahavas Yisroel synagogue opened and introduced a radically different style of prayer than the standard Lubavitch experience, which you need to understand simply does not happen in Crown Heights—or it didn’t happen before the synagogue. A year after its genesis (in an empty basement loaned to the group by the Rubashkin family), the New York Jewish Week reported that the synagogue regularly drew two thousand worshipers for its Friday-night Sabbath service, most in their twenties and thirties. The following year, Lamplighters Yeshivah, a Lubavitch Montessori yeshiva, opened—the first of its kind, teaching Hasidic customs and biblical exegesis and Talmud study in a progressive atmosphere.
“There’s finally enough of us outside the box,” Chezzi Denebeim, the rabbi of Ahavas Yisroel, told me, “that we had to create our own box.”
We just missed it.
A year before the founding of Lamplighters, six months before Chevra Ahavas Yisroel held its first service, we moved away from Crown Heights. Even after the incident, it took us forever to find a place. New York is hard. Real estate is insane. We couldn’t find the right place—somewhere that was cheap enough and safe enough. I could say we started staying inside our apartment every Shabbos, that we refused to take the subway after nightfall.
But we didn’t. None of that happened. Life went on doing what it always did: moving forward.
Now we live in Ditmas Park. Our neighborhood is lively at dawn with elderly couples taking power walks and dogs on parade. After dark, it’s so quiet you can hear the ocean wind. We have a backyard where our kids can run and roll and play (although, this being Brooklyn, most of the running must be in circles). There are two other families, each an avenue away, whose kids are roughly the same age as ours. All told, it’s a calmer place than our last neighborhood, more amicable. People say hi to you on the streets. The whole neighborhood feels like a shared secret.
It’s not bad, but it’s a far cry from Crown Heights, where on every block there’s at least half a dozen young families who are every bit as willing to watch your kids for a couple of hours as they are to drop off their own kids at your house and expect the same. The problems in our life are just that: problems, little nagging scraps, annoying and recurring but easily fixable. Whereas Crown Heights was like a war zone—but in war, you’re always on a side; you’re never alone.
Each day I feed and clothe my kids. The bumbling, troublesome stomach is now a bubbling, introspective six-year-old; her younger sister is four. I let my wife sleep late with the baby, waking her as I leave for work.
And then mostly it’s up to her to make the drive—less of a commute, more of a pilgrimage—four times a day, back and forth, dropping them off and picking them from Lamplighters, the very same Montessori yeshiva in Crown Heights.
We both run through the timeline in our heads frequently. If we’d waited just six months to leave, we’d have been there for the opening of Chevra Ahavas Yisroel. A year, and we’d be walking instead of driving our kids to school. Some of their classmates commute alone, scootering unaccompanied down Eastern Parkway. I sometimes watch them and think, how could their parents be so irresponsible? But I know as well as any of them how random violence can be.
Would we have stayed if we knew what was to come? Probably. If we weren’t on that corner that day, would we have still left? Who knows? We make our choices; we throw ourselves into life and where it takes us; we make do.
One of my favorite writers, Ivan Klíma, was teaching abroad in London when his native Czechoslovakia was invaded by the Soviets. Knowing full well he’d be jailed and forbidden to write, he still returned to Prague. Years later, a reporter asked him why.
“Most of London’s street names have no associations for me,” Klíma said.
I don’t think his answer was meant flippantly. We’re brought up in a pattern, and we learn to flourish in that pattern. For their mother, for me, we weren’t raised in Crown Heights. Like poor Yankel Rosenblum, we never got accustomed to it; we never became fluent in its streets and mysteries, never learned how to navigate it safely. Unlike poor Rosenblum, we made it out.
And, for better or worse, we chose that fluency for our daughters. Not the Crown Heights that caused the riots, but the neighborhood that’s being built on its ashes. We had no idea if it was the right thing to do. We aren’t sure if it’ll work at all. But it’s the life we’ve chosen. And for now, it’s working.
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1When we moved to Crown Heights, several of my wife’s Australian family, in spite of there being a frequent and vibrant shuttling back and forth between the Lubavitch community in Melbourne and the community in Crown Heights, advised us against settling there because of “what had happened to Yankel.”
2and, therefore, phrases like “we circled the block” pop naturally into my head. It only serves to exacerbate the distance between Uncle Chaim and me. English is his fourth or fifth language, and pop-culture allusions are all but useless: I grew up without any real crime happening around me, and Uncle Chaim grew up without a television.