Race and Religion Among the Chosen People of Crown Heights
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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My research and writing have been funded over the years by the Inter-national Migration Program of the Social Science Research Council, theLucius N. Littauer Foundation, Phi Beta Kappa of Northern California, theNational Foundation for Jewish Culture, and the Institute for the Ad-vanced Study of Religion at Yale University—as well as the generous sup-...
Prologue: “Blacks” and “Jews” at the Laundromat
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This book is about Black-Jewish difference in the Brooklyn neighborhoodof Crown Heights—a neighborhood known for its history of intermittentconflict between Lubavitch Hasidic Jews and their predominantly Afro-Caribbean neighbors, and above all for the deadly violence of August 1991.The book will focus, for various reasons, on the Jewishness of the Lubav-...
Introduction: Race, Religion, and the Contest over Black-Jewish Difference in Crown Heights
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The Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights stands out, in significantways, from its immediate surroundings—and, far more broadly, from thepatterns of racial and religious identity formation that have shaped Amer-ican life since the mid-twentieth century. There is, of course, nothing un-usual about the neighborhood’s quiet tree-lined streets and bustling...
Chapter 1: Collisions: Race and Religion, a Riot and a Pogrom
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August 19, 1991, was one of those perfect summer days. It rained allmorning, but the sky cleared by around one o’clock, and Crown Heightsresidents enjoyed a glorious afternoon. It had been a hot and humid sum-mer, but Monday the nineteenth was cool and dry, with brilliant sun shin-ing through scattered clouds.1 Neighborhood children like Gavin and...
Chapter 2: Geographies of Difference: Producing a Jewish Neighborhood
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New York City is often described, by New Yorkers and others, as a city ofneighborhoods—a patchwork metropolis made up of distinctive places,with flavors and characters all their own. “The Village” could never be mis-taken for “Midtown,” “Kew Gardens” for “Astoria,” or “Williamsburg” for“Brooklyn Heights.” The boundaries of such places are often tied to the...
Chapter 3: Kosher Homes, Racial Boundaries: The Politics of Culinary and Cultural Exchange
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As we learned in chapter 2, Crown Heights is a remarkably well inte-grated neighborhood, in at least some senses of the word. Although partof south Crown Heights is widely perceived as a “Jewish neighborhood,”this area is hardly a Jewish enclave. Indeed, the densest area of Jewish set-tlement in Crown Heights is approximately 60 percent Black. Blacks and...
Chapter 4: White Skin, Black Hats, and Other Signs of Jews
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One of the first things I noticed when I moved to Crown Heights werethe gazes and glances that often followed me as I walked down EasternParkway and other busy blocks. Like many New Yorkers, Crown Heightsresidents are avid people-watchers. The streets of the neighborhood areshot through with lines of sight—with looks that carve up social space—as...
Chapter 5: The Voices of Jacob on the Streets of Brooklyn: Israelite Histories and Identities
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Throughout this book, I have often distinguished between the racial and religious discourses of Blacks and Jews, respectively. In chapter 1, forexample, the underlying contrast between race and religion was reflectedin the distinction between a “riot” and a “pogrom.” In chapter 3 it tookthe form of “segregation” and “insularity,” as well as “culture” and...
Conclusion: “Stiffnecked Peoples” and American Multiculturalism
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While the Hebrew Bible describes the children of Israel as “a kingdomof priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6), it nevertheless paints an ambiva-lent picture of the relationship between God and his chosen people. Overthe course of their forty-year exodus from Egypt, both God and Mosesoften refer to the Israelites as a “stiffnecked people”—stubbornly attached...
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About the Author
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HENRY GOLDSCHMIDT is currently an assistant professor of religionand society at Wesleyan University. He has also taught cultural anthro-pology, Jewish studies, and diaspora studies at Rutgers University, Dickin-son College, and elsewhere. He received his B.A. in anthropology fromWesleyan University in 1991, and his Ph.D. in anthropology from the Uni-...
Page Count: 296
Publication Year: 2006