I spent several years traveling the world, trying on different faiths, seeing which one fits. At the end of my journey, I found myself in Tzfat, in northern Israel, diving headfirst into my own faith. The ground I walked in Tzfat felt familiar and foreign at the same time.
One evening, I was invited by a family of Orthodox Jews for a Sabbath at their home. One of them, an impish young man named Asaf, listened intently to my tales of whirling with the dervishes, meditating with the Tibetans. Then he told me a story.
There was this Jew, Asaf said. We’ll call him Moshe. Moshe decided one day he wanted to become Catholic, so he walks to the local church and says, “Father, I’d like to be Catholic.”
“No problem,” says the priest. He sprinkles water over Moshe and says, three times, “You’re not Jewish, you’re Catholic.” He then sends Moshe on his way but with a warning. “We Catholics only eat fish on Fridays. Okay?”
Moshe assures him that is no problem. Except a few days later, on a Wednesday evening, Moshe develops a huge craving for fish. He can’t resist so he slips off to a local restaurant. There, the priest happens to see him tucking into a huge fillet of halibut.
“Moshe! What are you doing? I told you to only eat fish on Friday.”
Moshe, without missing a beat, says, “This isn’t a fish. It’s a carrot.”
“What are you talking about, Moshe? I can plainly see it’s a fish.”
“No, it isn’t. I sprinkled water on it and said, ‘You’re not a fish, you’re carrot, you’re not a fish you’re a carrot…’”
Everyone at the table smiles. Except me. What am I to make of the joke? Am I a fish and always will be? Or am I a carrot with fish tendencies? Or some sort of carrot-fish hybrid? The obvious moral of the story: Go forth and meditate with the Buddhists, do yoga with the Hindus, pray with the Muslims, but you’ll be back. You have a nefesh, a Jewish soul, and nothing you do will ever change that.
At first, I bristled at that notion. We are free—freer than ever before—to choose our own spiritual path, and many people (Jews and non-Jews alike) are doing just that. One out of three Americans will change their religious affiliation over the course of their lifetime. We are, increasingly, a nation of God hoppers.
Or are we? Do we ever fully change?
I don’t think so. We imbibe of the world’s wisdom traditions, from Buddhism to Shamanism, and benefit from them, but the “conversion” is never complete. We always retain, at the very least, our cultural identity—our fishiness—and that is okay. That is good. We need solid footing, or as Archimedes said many centuries ago: “Give me a place to stand and I shall move the world.”
In December, not long after Among Righteous Men was published, I returned to Crown Heights. The evening was unseasonably warm, and I walked east from my apartment, past the lip of Prospect Park, and down the undulating clamor of Eastern Parkway, my hands in my pockets. The neighborhood, where I had spent so many months reporting—some happy, some not – appeared largely unchanged.
There was the proud façade of the main shul at 770 Eastern Parkway, and there were the clusters of yeshiva students. There in the windows of one building hung the yellow flag of the messianists—believers in the divinity of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Rebbe of Lubavitch. In a balcony overlooking the sidewalk, two women were chattering happily in Yiddish. I remembered a snippet from Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City, the best book about Brooklyn ever written: “Yet as I walk those familiarly choked streets at dusk and see the old women sitting in front of the tenements, past and present become each other’s face; I am back where I began.”
Kazin knew that an emotional connection to place can defeat mere geography. It is the not the physicality of a neighborhood that haunts us, after all. It is the connection between that physicality and our inner lives.
I strolled south down Kingston, towards Empire Boulevard. I had a single destination in mind: a tailoring shop owned by a man named Israel Shemtov. During the ‘70s and ‘80s, when crime rates in the neighborhood were skyrocketing, Shemtov had patrolled Crown Heights under the name the “Red Devil.” He was one of the first Jewish vigilantes––a predecessor to the Shomrim and Shmira patrols active in the neighborhood today.
Shemtov, who stands just about five feet tall, was also a master of image management. Where other Hasidim shirked press attention, he embraced it, regaling reporters from the Post and the Daily News with tales of bloody brawls and daring midnight takedowns. He compared himself frequently to Charles Bronson, circa Death Wish. “There will not be a crime in the neighborhood because they know they will be dead,” he said.
In 2010, I had visited Shemtov at his storefront on Empire. By then, he was two decades retired, pale and stooped. Jamming a soft pack of Kingstons into his front pocket, he showed me into his private office, and pulled the door shut behind him. The room was in appalling condition – water damage had browned half the ceiling, and near the only window, several panels hung loose, exposing a nest of wires and cotton-candy pink
insulation. “Sit,” Shemtov said.
For the next two hours, he told me dozens of stories, and sometimes the same story twice: The time he saved the life of a shooting victim; the time he faced down a gang of local toughs; the time he yanked a suspected mugger off a bicycle and beat the kid into the ground with his fists.
“I’ll tell you, since I was a kid, I was a very tough — I was ten years old, and two kids on my bicycle knocked off my helmet,” he said. “I was a little shit. They said, come over here, I want to talk to you. And I came over and beat the hell out of them. I was strong. I still am, thank God.”
Toughness was necessary for a Jew, he explained—“We’ve been knocked around for too long.” During the 1920s, his father’s family had fled Eastern Europe for New York; behind them, there was only death and destruction. “Because of that,” Shemtov said, “I knew I always had to fight.”
Now, months after that 2010 interview, I found myself galloping faster down Kingston, hoping Shemtov had a few more stories left to tell. But when I arrived at the corner of Empire, I found the storefront dark, the door locked. I knocked several times; there was no answer.
That evening, I phoned my grandmother at her home in Boston. During the year I spent writing Among Righteous Men, I had often considered interviewing my grandmother about her mother, Edith, who, much like many of the older Hasidim in Crown Heights, had escaped Eastern Europe under terrible circumstances. For a variety of reasons, I had never gotten around to making the call, but now that the book was behind me, I decided that the timing was right.
My grandmother was good-natured about the inquiry. She told me her mother had long blocked out the worst memories of her girlhood in Eastern Europe; and yet, over time, some details had emerged. Edith Springer — later Edith Rosenthal — had grown up in an area called Gubernia, in modern-day Lithuania. She had several brothers, and no sister. One morning, her father heard a clatter in the streets outside, and peering out the front door, he was run down by a horde of Cossacks. He died instantly.
Later, my great-grandmother, her brother and their mother managed to secure a berth on a ship bound for Ellis Island. During a bad storm, my grandmother told me, my great-grandmother — then only five — was found on the deck of the boat, clutching one of her Mary Jane shoes. The other had washed overboard. My great-grandmother was soaked, shivering, distraught.
But what about Edith’s father, I pressed. What did my grandmother know about that man who had been murdered, in cold blood, in the streets of a small town in Lithuania? “Matthew,” my grandmother said, “I’m sorry. I don’t know. I don’t think I ever knew, and the person who could tell us is long gone.”
So there it was: There was more, but it would remain forever out of reach, enveloped in darkness.
Suffice to say that the sense of connection did not last forever, at least not in that unalloyed state. As time wore on, and I spent increasingly more time in the neighborhood, the epiphanic moments–I think of them now as moments of sheer electricity–became less common. Sometimes, they were replaced sometimes by more ordinary joys: Tours through rambling Crown Heights homes, evenings in the storefront shuls and grand temples, sprawling meals with gracious hosts, small gifts of kindness from strangers who have since become friends.
Sometimes, that initial electricity was replaced by fatigue, anger, and frustration. (Hasidim have never been particularly fond of the mainstream press, and I had more doors slammed in my face than I care to count.) And sometimes it was replaced by a deep and abiding sense of alienation.
By 2009, when I signed the contract to write Among Righteous Men, the scope of the project had expanded––I was no longer interested only in the Shmira, but also in the Shomrim, a rival group of Hasidic vigilantes competing for control of the same Crown Heights turf. The Shomrim and Shmira had once been united under a single shield, but in the late ‘90s, infighting consumed the organization, and the two groups had since set up shop on opposite ends of Crown Heights. In 2009, with the apparent help of one of the Shmira members, six Shomrim volunteers were charged with felony gang assault, in a case dating back to 2007.
According to the Brooklyn DA, the Shomrim, responding to a call of distress from a Crown Heights yeshiva dormitory, had punched, strangled, and kicked their way through a crowd of rabbinical students. The Shomrim, for their part, claimed to have been ambushed by the students, or bochurim.
The gang assault trial, which began in the fall of 2009, was a particularly painful experience for the Shomrim, who believed they had been stabbed in the back by members of their own community. Making matters worse was the fact that accusers and accused fell on opposite sides of a religious schism which had roiled Jewish Crown Heights for years.
The rabbinical students, I came to understand, were messianists, who believed that the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, had been the messiah––the Jew who would usher in the second coming of man. That Schneerson was dead, and buried in Queens, did not diminish their fervor: He could still come back, they reasoned; holy men had before.
The members of the Shomrim, on the other hand, considered themselves to be moderates, who loved their Rebbe, but were embarrassed and uncertain at the fevered pronouncements of the messianists. (I want to stress that I am working here in very broad strokes. Messianist beliefs in Crown Heights, or lack thereof, fall on a wide spectrum, which encompass outspoken messianists, passive messianists, passive moderates, outspoken anti-messianists, and every stripe in between. The distinctions are sometimes described as existing on a “sliding scale.”)
In this light, the brawl at the dormitory took on a different light. It was a not just a fist-fight. It was a religious struggle––a struggle for the soul of Crown Heights itself. This was drama, I thought. This was Shakespearian––that adjective of choice of editors and jacket copy writers. It was a house divided. It was the Hatfields and McCoys, the Hasidic edition.
In the fall of the 2009, I spent several weeks in Brooklyn Supreme Court, observing the criminal trial against the Shomrim. (Want to know how the whole fiasco ended? Well, you’ll have to read Among Righteous Men.) I knew the trial would be the backbone of my book, but I felt there was much of Crown Heights that remained out of reach to me, and in the afternoons, after the court sessions had ended, I took the 2 train out to Crown Heights, to chat with acquaintances or hunt down additional sources.
I was frequently forced to perform strange feats in order to obtain an interview. Once, for instance, I spent an evening in an underground matzos factory, waiting for an potential source to finish firing the bread––a scene I describe in a 2011 issue of Harper’s Magazine. I strapped on tefillin, drank a lot of vodka, recited prayers. I accompanied a Lubavitch friend and Shomrim member to the Hunts Point Market, deep in the Bronx, at half past three in the morning, in order to hear a story about a fist-fight which my friend assured me I would find very interesting indeed. (He was right.)
I was almost always treated with respect, although there were exceptions. Because my book would deal with the rift between messianists and moderates, I needed to spend time talking with both groups. And yet Crown Heights is an exceptionally small place, geographically and otherwise, and since I was always dressed in “civilian” clothes—jeans and a fleece—my progress across the neighborhood was easy to track. I regularly received phone calls from moderates, who wanted to know what the hell I was doing talking to messianists; later, a messianist would call, and ask me what the hell I was doing with a moderate. Usually, these calls were friendly, but sometimes not. I can recall vividly one instance where I returned home to my apartment, in Park Slope, where my girlfriend had prepared dinner; no sooner had I sat down than my phone began to ring.
I recognized the number—the caller was a man I had interviewed two days before. I figured he had forgotten to tell me something. But when I picked up, he unleashed a barrage of profanities, beginning withmotherf**ker and ending with motherf**king traitor. As it turned out, he had assumed I was sympathetic to the messianist cause, but his cousin—“a man I trust and love, a good man”—had seen me “palling around” with a bunch of “no-good mossers,” or “rats.” Moderates, in other words.
“You should be very careful,” the man told me.
“Thank you,” I said. “I will.”
“Because,” he added, “there’s always someone watching. Do you get what I’m saying?”
“Yes,” I said, and hung up. I must have blanched considerably, because my girlfriend eyed me worriedly, and reached across the table to take my hand. “Are you OK?” she said.
I was, but the whole incident helped take the sheen off the kinetic connection I had first felt to Crown Heights. Of course, as I should have known from the beginning, despite the religious and historical aura that surrounds the neighborhood, Crown Heights is really just a world like any other, full of terrible joys and also the usual bitterness and anger.