Tuesday, August 24, 2021

How one powerful song helped to heal ‘Crown Heights’ 

My father was a reform rabbi in Mount Vernon, New York, a city that, in the 1950s, had a railroad line splitting it in half. On one side lived mostly white people including the Jews; on the other side were peoples of various minorities including African-American.

In 2004, I was hired to make a movie about the riots in Crown Heights that happened in 1991. I traveled to Brooklyn to begin my research and as I walked Eastern Parkway, the major thorough are in Crown Heights, I found a similar situation: on one side of the street were the Lubavitch Hasidic Jews centered around 770, the home of the last Lubavitch Rebbe. On the other side of the street lived African-American many of them Caribbean. Crossing back-and-forth felt like crossing over a border between two different countries. I'd been here before doing research about the Hasidic community itself for a film I also wrote and directed based on Chaim Potok's famous novel "The Chosen." But this time I was meeting a variety of people on both sides of the street, people who had been there during those three hot summer days of violence.

I talked with youth and elders and leaders of both communities including rabbis and pastors. And the differing ways that people responded to the same questions revealed their suspicions and judgments of each other. One African-American pastor said he believed the Jews got better treatment by the city then did his community. Many Hasids said they believed that their Black neighbors were more inclined to violence. Though both of these conclusions can be challenged, one truth is that both communities struggle with poverty issues. And some locals held the perspective that neither was getting preferential treatment, and they were open to learn about and live with each other.


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