Faded Rage

As a Divided Community Begins to Forget, a Court Reopens Old Wounds in Crown Heights

Physically, little has changed in Crown Heights since then. The neighborhood is still largely working class and ethnically diverse. Eastern Parkway is the world headquarters and central synagogue of the Lubavitcher Hasidim, the group to which most of Crown Heights' Jewish population belongs. Inside the large brick building, men rock back and forth, murmuring, lost deep in prayer as young Lubavitchers from all over the world sit in small groups, studying feverishly. A few sleep fitfully, their heads resting on the books of Jewish law. Other men roam about, trying to put together a minyan—the required group of 10 men—so that they might hold a small service. A homeless man wanders through, shaking a cup. Above in the balcony, in the women's section, faces peer down through gaps in the glass.

In the corner, on a raised platform, sits a rolled-up carpet and a large armchair. In this chair once sat Rebbe Menachem Schneerson, the longtime Lubavitch leader who kept the Jews in Crown Heights in the face of white flight to the suburbs. Later, at the afternoon service, the carpet will be rolled out and the empty chair will be set in its rightful place, that it might welcome the Rabbi should he return as the Messiah, as some here believe he will.

A visitor approaches several young Jews and asks them about the recent court decision that may set Yankel Rosenbaum's convicted killer free. Like these men, Rosenbaum was a student here, yet they have not heard of him or of the riots of 1991. "You should ask one of the men with the big beards," advises one young scholar. "They have been here longer."

Outside 1681 President Street, where Gavin Cato was killed
photo: Michael Kamber
Outside 1681 President Street, where Gavin Cato was killed

"How do I feel about the court ruling?" asks Rabbi Praeger, a small elderly man with an appropriately long gray beard. "I don't feel at all. It's a legal issue. Lemrick Nelson is guilty, I know it, and we will let the courts deal with it." As for the Black community, "you can't blame an entire community," he says. "You have to find the individual responsible. Like Al Sharpton. He was out there inciting the people. Al Sharpton was busing people in to Crown Heights."

His anger at Al Sharpton aside, Rabbi Praeger's remarks are surprisingly conciliatory. Ten years ago, rumors abounded of weapons caches on both sides of the racial divide; at least one Hasid showed a reporter a handgun, holstered under his black coat. Today, there is still little voluntary interaction between Blacks and Jews. Yet the two groups tolerate each other, and part of the reason is the success of various community organizations, all heavily funded with tax dollars and foundation grants over the last decade. Mothers to Mothers, Project CARE, and the Crown Heights Youth Collective, among others, have organized dialogue and activities between Blacks and Jews. The kids occasionally play basketball together, Jewish and Black mothers sit down to talk, priests and rabbis have each other's cell phone numbers.

Jimmy Breslin, who in 1991 wrote numerous columns about Crown Heights for Newsday, shows no surprise that the neighborhood has moved on. He tells of a recent journey back to the neighborhood: "I went to Utica and President, tried to find my one contact. At the pizza joint, they told me he was in the fucking can [jail]; he was gone. I don't know anyone else. How many years ago was it now? Come on, 10 years, the neighborhood's changed twice already," he says.

Notwithstanding the fact that he was beaten, his clothes ripped off, and the taxi he was riding in burned, Breslin believes consciousness has faded because the events weren't that remarkable in the first place. "[The media] overstated what happened there. They used it to scare people," he says. "There was no pogrom, there was no riot. How can you have a riot—how many people were killed? Two, and one died in hospital of outrageous negligence [Yankel Rosenbaum died of internal bleeding after doctors failed to locate one of his stab wounds]. How many stores looted? Seven, seven stores, that's all. So I'm sorry, you don't have a riot. How many shots fired, none. Look it up," he says. (At least one store was burned; the police reported dozens of shots fired and at least 188 injuries.)

Perhaps those with the largest stake in memorializing the events are Yankel Rosenbaum's family. Isaac Abraham, spokesperson for the Rosenbaums, becomes livid when asked about assertions that the events were overstated, or that the community should move on and put Rosenbaum's death behind it.

"What do people mean when they say we should put this behind us? What is the definition of that? Do you think the African American community would be silent if this happened in the African American community? The fine line in the sand is, 'If [the victim] is Jewish, let's forget about it; if he's gay, or African American, let's even prosecute him after 50 years.'

"You have to remember what was going on in the South, so it doesn't happen again. You have to remember what happened to Rodney King, but nobody wants to remember what an African American person did to Reginald Denny, and pulled him out of his truck and beat the hell out of him because he was white. That's something people want to forget, and people want to forget what happened to Yankel Rosenbaum. No, you have to remember what happened to Yankel Rosenbaum. If you remember that, you know it'll never happen again."

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