To whoever is reading–
I’ve had some complaints regarding my recent appearance on Conan, promoting my new book, Kasher In The Rye: The True Tale Of A White Boy From Oakland Who Became A Drug Addict, Criminal, Mental Patient…And Then Turned Sixteen. Some Jews (I’m assuming here) were a little offended by my poking fun at my experiences with childhood Haredi life. I said they looked like fat Amish penguins and that they were weird. But seriously, I mean is any of that in dispute?
Now, normally, I try and pay anonymous complaints no heed as I have long since come to terms with the fact that when you make jokes, especially sharp prickly ones, you will invariably bruise the tender sensibilities of someone and that the anonymous and instantly accessible nature of the internet gives those bruised peaches an instant platform to lodge their grievances. But I’ve been thinking about it and I thought, since I’m being asked to blog for MyJewishLearning and Jewish Book Council, that I might try and clarify myself and my jokes and my Jewishness.
I grew up in a bifurcated existence, floating between the supernatural realms of Chassidus and the concrete pragmatism of secularization. I’m an anomaly. A rare breed that is both “frum from birth” and “off the derech” in sharp strong veins that ran, right next to one another, interweaving themselves into a confusing rope almost long enough to hang myself with.
My father moved to Seagate, and married into a Satmar family when it became clear that my mother — who took us on a “vacation” to Oakland early in my life — was not going to return. He was a unique man, a brilliant dynamo who painted and performed in the Lower East Side and according to family legend was asked by Marcel Marceau, seeing his pantomime genius, to join him as a “mime in training.” All the messy blurs of the art world were turned into sharp edges when he found Chassidus and returned to the shtark world of frumkeit.
My mother, who stole us away in the night, kept that mess and turned it into kindling for a bright jumbled fire that illuminated our home and kept us warm. Her relationship with Judaism was casual and ambivalent, no doubt poisoned a bit by her rocky marriage to my father.
I was born in the middle ground. To my left was modernism, to my right was minhag. The runoff of both experiences was churning white water that I had to learn how to paddle down, desperate to keep my head above water. Eventually, I learned how to make jokes about all of it and those jokes became flotation devices. They buoyed me and kept me breathing.
And though, if you read the book you will see how deeply and severely I sank later on, I used those jokes to keep me as afloat as I could be, even as I got smacked around on the rocks. Kasher In The Rye is a book where I expose my soft underbelly to the world and tell the tale of my teenage descent into drug addiction, violence, insanity and crime. But it’s a comedy. How can such dark fodder be funny?
My God, how can it not?
If I hadn’t learned to laugh at it, all of it, it would have swallowed me whole and I’d probably not be your blogger this week. I’d likely be dead. So you’ll forgive me if I laugh at you. I’m really just laughing at myself. It never occurred to me that my childhood wasn’t my own to joke about. But I see now that, when bringing that childhood into the public for everyone to enjoy, and hopefully to relate to, that I’m joking about your childhood too. If I offend anyone with my gallows humor, please know that I was born on a gallows and and I’m telling jokes to stave off execution. If you’d like to take my place up here you are welcome.
This isn’t an apology. God forbid. I’m not sorry at all for turning my experiences into jokes, it’s what I do. This is a clarification. I love Jews and Jewishness. I love Chassidus and tradition. I love it sincerely and I love to make fun of it too. Honestly if you don’t think there is anything hilarious about living in 21st-century America but pretending fashion wise that its 1820’s Hungary, then you take yourself too damn seriously. I think the Baal Shem Tov would probably agree with me but who the f*ck am I to speak for him? I’m just a clown. But I think we need clowns as much as we need rebbes.
The first Jewish debate never ceases to amaze me. I am of course referring to the great debate between Abraham and God as recorded in Chapter 18 of Genesis. While Abraham’s epic story is remarkable, there is nothing in the prior (or subsequent) biblical narrative to indicate that the patriarch will challenge so boldly the God who commands his life so thoroughly. This is the quintessential man of faith, after all, who unquestioningly sets forth to a new land and submits even to the command to sacrifice his beloved son with nary a word of objection.
So when quite suddenly “Abraham came forward” (18:23) and dares God to morally justify the collective punishment of Sodom-well that is astonishing! “Will You sweep away the innocent with the guilty?” he pointedly asks in the same verse. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” he passionately exclaims two verses later. Abraham holds his ground as the debate goes back and forth concerning the minimum number of innocent people it would take to save the city.
The abrupt and apparently truncated conclusion to the debate (see 18:33) shifts the enigma of Abraham to the enigma of God. Does the Judge of all the earth in fact act justly? Do some innocent perish with the wicked? Were the wicked beyond repentance and mercy? Were the ordinary citizens of Sodom equally evil?
Who, then, won this debate? Certainly Abraham leaves quite a legacy. Abraham could easily have looked the other way. He could have idly stood by. Instead he decides to stand up to God no less, his guide and protector. In the words of Naomi Rosenblatt, this story is about “the power of one man of integrity to be the conscience of the world.” In the words of Elie Wiesel “the Jew opts for Abraham-who questions- and for God-who is questioned…knowing that he may oppose God as long as he does so in defense of His creation.”
The Sages coined an expression for challenging God in the spirit of Abraham, “hutzpah k’lape shmaya- boldness (even nerviness) toward heaven.” This legacy of “holy hutzpah” finds expression throughout Jewish literature, but especially in Eastern European Hasidic tales like Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s “Din Torah mit Got-Lawsuit with God,” and in another tale where he tells a simple tailor who challenged the Almighty in prayer, “Why did you let God off so easily? You might have forced God to save all of Israel!”
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.
Matthew Shaer is the author of Among Righteous Men: A Tale of Vigilantes and Vindication in Hasidic Crown Heights. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.
I did not set out to write a book about Jews.
In fact, I was warned repeatedly against it—by friends, acquaintances, publishing professionals. I remember an early phone call with a well-known editor at a publishing house in Manhattan, who told me, in no uncertain terms, that “people don’t buy Jewish-themed books.” He must have heard me collecting me breath on the other end of the line, because he quickly added: “Even Jews don’t buy books about Jews. And definitely not books about Hasidic Jews. Sorry.” Still, I considered what I stumbled across to be a good story, and I was loathe to take his advice.
In the spring of 2008, I had been dispatched by New York magazine to the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, to interview the members of a Hasidic anti-crime patrol called the Shmira (“Watchers,” roughly, in Hebrew). For the most part, the Shmira were considered a relatively benign community presence––responsible for ferrying elderly women to the bus stop, or fixing flat tires, and so on––but that spring, a couple members of the group had allegedly set upon a black college student named Andrew Charles, and beat him around the back and arms with a night stick.
Fewer locales are more sensitive to the specter of racial violence than Crown Heights, the site of three days of deadly rioting in 1991—local Jews continue to call the event a “pogrom”—and within a week of the incident, the neighborhoods had taken on the appearance of what the Times termed a military camp. Police riot vans mobile command posts were stationed on Kingston Avenue, the high street of the Jewish community; packs of uniformed cops worked west to east on Carroll and Empire, flashlights in hand. Local politicians, fearing the worst, issued public pleas for calm.
Accusations were thrown back and forth with increasing alacrity. The large African-American and Caribbean population blamed the Shmira for targeting black men. The leadership of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, meanwhile, which had been headquartered in Crown Heights for decades, pointed to an uptick in violent crime, and claimed that the police had abdicated their duty. In that vacuum, the argument went, the Shmira were bound to act. In late April, I reached out to Yossi Stern, a Lubavitcher Hasid, and the spokesman for the Crown Heights Shmira. Stern was wary of the media attention, but when I asked if I could pay him a visit, he agreed, and invited me to his home on Union Street.
That evening, I walked from my apartment in Park Slope, down Eastern Parkway, and into Crown Heights. My only previous experience with the neighborhood consisted of momentary glimpses out of the window of a cab, as I hurtled out to the airport, in Jamaica, Queens—I remembered packs of black-hatted men, grand old apartment buildings, the sun-dappled and tree-lined footpath which runs down the southern lip of the Parkway. What I found was something very different; something deeply jarring.
I should say here that although I consider myself in many ways to be culturally Jewish, I am not observant nor particularly religious, and I spent much of my childhood attending Unitarian services with my mother, who was born into an old Unitarian family. And yet some of my earliest memories are of sitting on the floor of my great-grandmother’s apartment building in Newton, and listening to the circuitous clucking of Yiddish. My paternal grandmother spoke Yiddish sometimes, too, usually when she wanted to say something to my grandfather that the kids wouldn’t understand; even now, when reporting on Orthodox communities in New York, I am shocked at how much of the language I must have internalized.
I knew, vaguely, the story of my great-grandmother, Edith Rosenthal, whose father had been murdered by Cossacks before World War I. I knew that she fled Eastern Europe with her mother and brothers, and passed through Ellis Island, before settling outside of Boston, where my grandmother was raised. But I had never been able to visualize the world from which she had come––a Jewish shtetl––until I began the process of reporting the New York magazine article, and then the book.
Here in the midst of bustling Brooklyn was a small enclave––no more than six blocks by ten––that seemed to operate by the codes and customs of a bygone era. Here was a world where Yiddish was the common language, where Hebrew adorned the storefront signage, where one could walk three steps from the haberdasher to the bagel maker and then on to the fishmonger, whose wares––wet, pink, scaly––were displayed on large beds of ice, behind densely-fogged glass. Initially, I found it all to be quite thrilling, and after my interview with Yossi Stern, I returned frequently to Crown Heights, although I had no new assignment in the area.
I read every book on Jewish Brooklyn I could get my hands on––I started with Henry Goldschmidt’s expert Race and Religion Among the Chosen Peoples of Crown Heights, and worked outward from there. Later, I read Martin Buber, Elie Wiesel, Gershom Scholem. I muddled through long religious services, staring at walls of complicated theological text no more discernible to me than kangi; when I grew weary, I’d peek up at the upper reaches of the shul, where the Lubavitch women, separated from the men by a heavy sheet of Plexiglas, davened in a room of their own.
I have lifted the following excerpt from a journal I kept during that time, when I was first beginning my research. I think the date was February of 2010––I had been invited by a Lubavitcher rabbi friend to attend services at his shul. At the end of services, the congregants, all young men, began to dance. I watched them for a moment, doing my best to make it clear that I did not particularly want to join, but eventually, I felt a heavy hand on my shoulder, and I was quite forcibly dragged into the midst of the melee:
Outward we whirled, in faster in faster circles, my yarmulke at one point slipping off my head. It was the closest I have been to pure joy in Crown Heights—the closest I got to understanding the neighborhood. It was also the closest I came to understanding the faith of the Hasidim. For if I had remained outside the circle, taciturn and grudging, I would never have allowed myself the emotional space to become involved. I would have shrugged it off. Inside the circle, though, pressed elbow to elbow with these grinning, happy men, I understood finally the importance of comradery—us against the outside world. It was a warm place to be.
A few weeks later, I walked out of a private residence and into the purple twilight, and caught a glimpse of a trio of Yeshiva students, skipping down Kingston, hand-in-hand. In the windows of the nearby apartment buildings, candles glowed. A line of men filtered through the front door of 770 Eastern Parkway, the headquarters of the Lubavitch movement, their heads hung, their eyes on the leather-bound books which they held out in front of them like beacons.
Not for the last time, I felt that some part of Crown Heights belonged to me. It was my history, the history that I shared with my grandmother, and my great-grandmother, and her father, who had died without ever setting foot in America. Or perhaps it is more accurate, in the end, to say that some part of that place was me, in a profound way that I did not yet understand.