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Race and Religion Among the Chosen People of Crown Heights

Race and Religion Among the Chosen People of Crown Heights

Copyright Date: 2006
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Race and Religion Among the Chosen People of Crown Heights
    Book Description:

    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.InRace 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-4427-4
    Subjects: Sociology, Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. PROLOGUE: “Blacks” and “Jews” at the Laundromat
    (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. The book will focus, for various reasons, on the Jewishness of the Lubavitch Hasidim, but its ultimate goal is to explore the diverse conceptual logics with which both Blacks and Jews in Crown Heights make sense of the differences that divide their neighborhood.

    Given this lofty goal, it may seem somewhat strange to begin my analysis in the laundromat...

  5. INTRODUCTION: Race, Religion, and the Contest over Black-Jewish Difference in Crown Heights
    (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 about the neighborhood’s quiet tree-lined streets and bustling commercial strips, or its brownstone row houses and low-rise apartment buildings. The largely working- and middle-class immigrant communities who make their homes there are typical, in many ways, of similar communities throughout New York and other major cities. Crown Heights is certainly not isolated from its surroundings, or from...

  6. 1 Collisions: Race and Religion, a Riot and a Pogrom
    (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 through scattered clouds.¹ Neighborhood children like Gavin and Angela Cato—seven-year-old first cousins whose families had come to the United States from Guyana not long before—took advantage of this respite from the dog days of summer and went outside to play. The Lubavitcher Rebbe also took advantage of the...

  7. 2 Geographies of Difference: Producing a Jewish Neighborhood
    (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 “Brooklyn Heights.” The boundaries of such places are often tied to the identities of the city’s racial, ethnic, and religious communities. Blackness and Whiteness are conveniently localized at symbolically charged sites like “Harlem” and “Bensonhurst,” while immigrants are imagined to live in enclaves like “Chinatown” and “The Lower East Side.” The concept of the...

  8. 3 Kosher Homes, Racial Boundaries: The Politics of Culinary and Cultural Exchange
    (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 in Crown Heights is approximately 60 percent Black. Blacks and Jews live side by side in south Crown Heights, sharing the streets of a community that can’t be easily defined in racial or religious terms. Yet perceptions of Jewish spatial difference remain. Blacks and Jews alike tend to see the Lubavitch...

  9. 4 White Skin, Black Hats, and Other Signs of Jews
    (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 shot through with lines of sight—with looks that carve up social space—as Blacks and Jews check each other out, looking for anyone who doesn’t fit in, does something unexpected, or somehow catches their eye.

    Of course, as a White secular Jew who often wore a yarmulke and other signs of...

  10. 5 The Voices of Jacob on the Streets of Brooklyn: Israelite Histories and Identities
    (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 the form of “segregation” and “insularity,” as well as “culture” and “kashrus.” It was muddied substantially in chapter 4, but reemerged in a contrast between “phenotype” and “fashion”—racialized bodies and religious dress. Given these divergent discourses of difference, it may come as a surprise to learn, in this chapter, that Blacks and Jews...

  11. CONCLUSION: “Stiffnecked Peoples” and American Multiculturalism
    (pp. 234-238)

    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 often refer to the Israelites as a “stiffnecked people”—stubbornly attached to their idolatrous ways, and fiercely resistant to divine authority. In the book of Deuteronomy, for example, as the Israelites are about to embark on their divinely ordained conquest of Canaan, Moses is careful to remind them of what he, at...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 239-272)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 273-281)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 282-282)