Whatever brotherhood human beings may be capable of has grown out of fratricide.…
—Hannah Arendt, War and Revolution
The only possible answer to this crime is to turn it into a crime committed by all humanity. To share it. Just as the idea of equality and brotherhood. In order to bear it, to stomach the idea of it, we must share the crime.
—Marguerite Duras, “We Must Share the Crime”
I’d shared the crimes: the fratricide of Yankel Rosenbaum, the brutal stoning of Isaac Bitton, and the psychological torture of his son Yechiel. I’d shared the crimes long before the New York Post constructed “THE TRUTH!” about Crown Heights, in a front-page revelation of “what really happened” during those three days of rioting.
Like me, the Post hardly knew Yankel Rosenbaum or what really happened to him. But I know the father and son in the famous photo on its front page. I know the man lying helpless on the ground, and the boy cowering nearby. That photo has become a symbol of black inhumanity toward the Hasidim. But Isaac and Yechiel are my friends.
I know their fears. The tragic events of Crown Heights created a brotherhood between me and the Moroccan-born Lubavitchers, who had taken on the countenance of death seconds before I snatched them from a mob of blacks shouting, “Kill tha muthafuckin’ Jews.”
After that day, I didn’t see or speak with the Bittons again until Isaac (thanks to Jeff Goldberg, a reporter with The Forward, a Jewish weekly) contacted me two months ago. The day before the Post’s version of “the truth” appeared, I went back to Crown Heights for a long-awaited reunion with Isaac and Yechiel. As I approached the hotel where Bitton works, my conscience menaced me: “Ego-trippin’ muthafucker! Why you lookin’ for props—a pat on the back from these Jews?”
I paused at the bottom of the hillock leading to the hotel, arguing with this mocking soliloquy — struggling over the politics of embracing and shaking hands with Isaac and Yechiel. Like so many Hasidim who survived Crown Heights, they saw the riot as a pogrom. Atrocious as it was, the riot wasn’t that. As Martin Luther King wrote in his jailhouse sermon on loving our enemies, they were “putting a false label on an evil act.” For that, said my lowly conscience, snub them! “Walk away, schvartze,” it urged. But I couldn’t.
My name echoed loudly in the lobby of the hotel. “Peter Noel, I don’t believe it,” said a diminutive bearded man, who walked toward me in a herky-jerky gait, arms outstretched, flashing the most contented smile. “Isaac,” I sighed as our arms locked. No Hasid ever embraced me as warmly, as genuinely as Isaac Bitton. The brother was way past cool.
He looked me over. I looked him over. There we were, a West Indian and a Lubavitcher, two symbols of cultures trying to ethnically cleanse each other from the neighborhood. As he led me down the corridors and into a room, the battle for Crown Heights, in all its racist and anti-Semitic viciousness flashed before me.
I remembered being trapped on Schenectady Avenue, in full view of riot-ready cops and a Post photographer, dragging a seriously injured Isaac like a fallen buddy away from the line of fire. I remembered screaming survival techniques to Yechiel. Now, for the first time, as Isaac straightened the signature black hat on his head, he insisted that I view the attack from his eyes.
“I was coming from work with Yechiel,” Isaac recounts. “We came to the comer of Carroll and Schenectady and I asked a cop, ‘Is it safe to go up there?’ He said, ‘Go ahead.’ We crossed over to the other side of Schenectady. As we came to the middle of the block, the mob, as soon as they saw us, started screaming ‘Jew! Jew! Jew!’ They hit us with the bricks and stones. An eyewitness told me afterward, ‘They had knives, razors.’ She said, ‘You know, they even tried to cut your son.’ But I don’t remember that. I don’t remember the razors.”
Then Isaac saw me running toward him. “I knew right away that you were a friendly person. While Yechiel was crying and telling me, ‘Papa, papa, get up,’ you were telling me, “Stay on the ground. Don’t move! Everything’s gonna be okay.’ I saw when you made a sign to the people to go somewhere else. I knew you were somebody who wanted to help.”
Isaac believes the mob didn’t give a damn that I was black. They wanted to hurt us — him, his son, and me — the nigga for hire. “You could see it on their faces. I felt their anger right away. They wanted to hurt you. Of course, they wanted to kill us.”
A brick had knocked Isaac to the ground. Blood spouted from a deep head wound that required ten stitches to close. His right shoulder was dislocated. Isaac knew the cops were just a stone’s throw away from where he lay prostrate against the sidewalk. “I remember you picking me up,” he recalls. “I was heavy, yes? I remember you telling me, ‘They’re gonna be here any second,’ but I kept asking myself, ‘Where is the police?’ If they had come when they were supposed to, these people wouldn’t have touched us. The first brick I couldn’t avoid. But the second and third, and the sticks that came after: It shouldn’t have happened.”
It shouldn’t have happened to Isaac Bitton. Not the former hippie and drummer of the rock group Les Variations, who coined the term Moroccan roll: who’d gotten hooked on Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” as a young boy in a traditional Moroccan-Jewish family. “Jacky,” as he was known then, would sit for hours on the dock of the bay, lip-synching the ballads of his idol, Otis Redding. Jacky studied the Soul of black folk and, after the formation of his band in 1966, he got gigs on the same bill with Gladys Knight and the Pips and Curtis Mayfield.
“They beat the wrong guy,” Isaac says, referring to the Crown Heights assailants. “When people tell me, ‘You only like Otis Redding. Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix, and the rest because they are musicians; not because they are black,’ I tell them they don’t know the real Isaac. I had in my house in Paris a black singer who lived in my studio for a year and never paid a cent. I never asked him. If you don’t have good vibes, I don’t want to stay around you. White, yellow, you hate me? Forget it.”
In 1975, after four impressive albums, two on Buddah Records, Isaac’s band broke up. After a series of solo ventures flopped, friends in Ohio helped him get back to his Jewish roots. He joined the Lubavitchers in Cincinnati and later moved to Crown Heights to be close to the rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
“Why did the blacks come after me chanting and screaming ‘Whose streets? Our streets!’ I took nothing from them,” says the father of 11 children. “There are lots of Jews in this neighborhood who are struggling. They don’t have a penny.” Isaac is one of those struggling Jews.
He has worked at the hotel for six years, and in that time, he’s met a lot of soca bands and calypsonians from Trinidad. Visiting West Indians favor the joint. Isaac knows Massive Chandelier, Charlie’s Roots, Super Blue, and Black Stalin. He tells the women in the bands: “I am sorry I cannot shake hands,” and he tries to explain that Hasidim cannot touch someone of the opposite sex. “You can’t even kiss your sister.” The room where his tiny daughter is asleep also doubles as his four-track recording studio. Equipment is piled higgledy-piggledy on a table in one corner. Isaac has a new song, “Change Is in the Wind,” which he composed in collaboration with a black lyricist. The song was written seven years ago, but Isaac cut a demo after the Crown Heights riots.
“Don’t you hear it humming?” he sings. “Can’t you feel it coming? Getting closer day by day/Change is in the wind/You say you wanna know if we’ll have a better world/A better place for children and the whole human race/We’ve been asking for so long, when and where does the madness end? /You keep wondering if, like the times, men and minds are going to change/Can’t you feel it? Change is in the wind.”
It was then I brought up the touchy subject of forgiveness. I told Isaac that his song was about all people changing, including the ones who’d left him for dead on the streets of Crown Heights. I quoted Dr. King, who said forgiveness means “that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship.… The words, ‘I will forgive you, but I’ll never forget what you’ve done’ never explain the real nature of forgiveness.”
“You forgive somebody if you really know that this person really regrets it,” Isaac shot back. “When you know that these people only regret that they didn’t kill you, how can you forgive them? These people are not asking you to forgive them. They still want to kill you. We can’t forgive them for the pogrom. It was a pogrom. It doesn’t have to be sponsored by the state. It can be groups of people who decide they want to get to all the Jews.”
I told Isaac that every time Jews use the word pogrom to describe the Crown Heights riots it is viewed in the African American community as an attack on David Dinkins. “As a human being, Mayor Dinkins is not responsible,” Isaac says. “He is a respectable person. I don’t think he’s anti-Semitic. But he lacked a fast reaction. You don’t wait three days to react. I understand that he is black and he didn’t want black people against him so he played the situation with diplomacy. But this no diplomacy when people destroy your car and throw stones at you because you are a Jew. You have to stop them.”
Yechiel, he says, relives “the pogrom” in his dreams. “In the morning, he tells me about the stones, the faces, the screams. He is always afraid coming from school. He thinks he recognizes a couple of the rabble-rousers. He learned to tell the difference between them and people who were protesting peacefully. He knows that the people who did this to us are troublemakers, uneducated, on drugs.” But Isaac refused to cooperate fully when police and federal investigators asked them to identify the attackers.
“The police asked us if we recognized some people and we said, ‘Yes, but we don’t want to go that way.’ First, I was not sure that Yechiel really recognized the people and second, there would have been more violence.”
Two days after our reunion, I returned to the hotel. As Isaac entered the building, another Hasid hailed him, “Isaac Bitton, star of the New York Post.”
“I am not a symbol,” Isaac says. “They made a big deal out of it. They put it all over the front page, and they won prizes. They like this picture because it shows for them what happened. That people beat up Jews.”
For Isaac Bitton, that was the bottom line: that a mob had beaten Jews. Yet, he also understood that his image was being exploited for purposes he did not share. So perhaps he, too, was struggling with a conscience torn between tribal loyalty and his feeling for a black friend.
“Thank God for you,” Isaac sighed. “I owe you a lot. I say that to everybody. I don’t know why the reporters, who in the beginning I told the story to, never mentioned the fact that a black guy, who was not with the mob, saved Yechiel and me.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 20, 2023