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Race and Religion Among the Chosen People of Crown Heights

Henry Goldschmidt

Publication Year: 2006

In August of 1991, the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights was engulfed in violence following the deaths of Gavin Cato and Yankel Rosenbaum—a West Indian boy struck by a car in the motorcade of a Hasidic spiritual leader and an orthodox Jew stabbed by a Black teenager. The ensuing unrest thrust the tensions between the Lubavitch Hasidic community and their Afro-Caribbean and African American neighbors into the media spotlight, spurring local and national debates on diversity and multiculturalism. Crown Heights became a symbol of racial and religious division. Yet few have paused to examine the nature of Black-Jewish difference in Crown Heights, or to question the flawed assumptions about race and religion that shape the politics—and perceptions—of conflict in the community.

In Race and Religion among the Chosen Peoples of Crown Heights, Henry Goldschmidt explores the everyday realities of difference in Crown Heights. Drawing on two years of fieldwork and interviews, he argues that identity formation is particularly complex in Crown Heights because the neighborhood’s communities envision the conflict in remarkably diverse ways. Lubavitch Hasidic Jews tend to describe it as a religious difference between Jews and Gentiles, while their Afro-Caribbean and African American neighbors usually define it as a racial difference between Blacks and Whites. These tangled definitions are further complicated by government agencies who address the issue as a matter of culture, and by the Lubavitch Hasidic  belief—a belief shared with a surprising number of their neighbors—that they are a “chosen people” whose identity transcends the constraints of the social world.

The efforts of the Lub­avitch Hasidic community to live as a divinely chosen people in a diverse Brooklyn neighbor­hood where collective identi­ties are generally defined in terms of race illuminate the limits of American multiculturalism—a concept that claims to celebrate diversity, yet only accommodates variations of certain kinds. Taking the history of conflict in Crown Heights as an invitation to reimagine our shared social world, Goldschmidt interrogates the boundaries of race and religion and works to create space in American society for radical forms of cultural difference.

Published by: Rutgers University Press


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pp. vii-8

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pp. ix-xi

My research and writing have been funded over the years by the International Migration Program of the Social Science Research Council, the Lucius N. Littauer Foundation, Phi Beta Kappa of Northern California, the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, and the Institute for the Advanced...

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Prologue: “Blacks” and “Jews” at the Laundromat

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pp. 1-4

This book is about Black-Jewish difference in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights—a neighborhood known for its history of intermittent conflict between Lubavitch Hasidic Jews and their predominantly Afro-Caribbean neighbors, and above all for the deadly violence of August 1991....

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Introduction: Race, Religion, and the Contest over Black-Jewish Difference in Crown Heights

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pp. 5-35

The Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights stands out, in significant ways, from its immediate surroundings—and, far more broadly, from the patterns of racial and religious identity formation that have shaped American life since the mid-twentieth century. There is, of course, nothing unusual...

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Chapter 1: Collisions: Race and Religion, a Riot and a Pogrom

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pp. 36-75

August 19, 1991, was one of those perfect summer days. It rained all morning, but the sky cleared by around one o’clock, and Crown Heights residents enjoyed a glorious afternoon. It had been a hot and humid summer, but Monday the nineteenth was cool and dry, with brilliant sun shining...

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Chapter 2: Geographies of Difference: Producing a Jewish Neighborhood

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pp. 76-115

New York City is often described, by New Yorkers and others, as a city of neighborhoods—a patchwork metropolis made up of distinctive places, with flavors and characters all their own. “The Village” could never be mistaken for “Midtown,” “Kew Gardens” for “Astoria,” or “Williamsburg” for...

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Chapter 3: Kosher Homes, Racial Boundaries: The Politics of Culinary and Cultural Exchange

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pp. 116-160

As we learned in chapter 2, Crown Heights is a remarkably well integrated neighborhood, in at least some senses of the word. Although part of south Crown Heights is widely perceived as a “Jewish neighborhood,” this area is hardly a Jewish enclave. Indeed, the densest area of Jewish settlement...

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Chapter 4: White Skin, Black Hats, and Other Signs of Jews

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pp. 161-198

One of the first things I noticed when I moved to Crown Heights were the gazes and glances that often followed me as I walked down Eastern Parkway and other busy blocks. Like many New Yorkers, Crown Heights residents are avid people-watchers. The streets of the neighborhood are...

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Chapter 5: The Voices of Jacob on the Streets of Brooklyn: Israelite Histories and Identities

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pp. 199-233

Throughout this book, I have often distinguished between the racial and religious discourses of Blacks and Jews, respectively. In chapter 1, for example, the underlying contrast between race and religion was reflected in the distinction between a “riot” and a “pogrom.” In chapter 3 it took...

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Conclusion: “Stiffnecked Peoples” and American Multiculturalism

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pp. 234-237

While the Hebrew Bible describes the children of Israel as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6), it nevertheless paints an ambivalent picture of the relationship between God and his chosen people. Over the course of their forty-year exodus from Egypt, both God and Moses...


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pp. 239-272


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pp. 273-281

About the Author

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pp. 282-296

E-ISBN-13: 9780813544274
E-ISBN-10: 0813544270
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813538839

Page Count: 296
Publication Year: 2006

OCLC Number: 244560486
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Race and Religion Among the Chosen People of Crown Heights

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Subject Headings

  • Crown Heights (New York, N.Y.) -- Race relations.
  • New York (N.Y.) -- Race relations.
  • African Americans -- New York (State) -- New York -- Relations with Jews.
  • African Americans -- New York (State) -- New York -- Public opinion.
  • Jews -- New York (State) -- New York -- Attitudes.
  • Social conflict -- New York (State) -- New York.
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