Podcaster explores her own black and Jewish identities in series about Crown Heights riots – The Forward
(JTA) — (Jewish Week in New York via JTA) — The Crown Heights riots, which rocked the Brooklyn borough for four days in 1991, were among the best-documented events in New York history: media nationally and globally, the violence has been recounted by witnesses in numerous civil and criminal trials. The riots have also been the subject of countless books, essays, documentaries and a solo play.
Add to that canon now, six months after the 30th anniversary of the events, an exploration into that most modern form of media: a podcast.
“Love Thy Neighbor,” a five-episode series, was created, written and narrated by journalist Collier Meyerson and debuted this week as part of Audacy’s Pineapple Street Studios. This is a personal account of the riots by a Jew of color, describing the unrest as “a flashpoint that shaped a dark new era of politics, policing, anti-Semitism and racism anti-black in New York”.
Meyerson was just 6 years old on August 19, 1991 when a car driven by a Hasidic man accidentally killed Gavin Cato, a 7-year-old black child. A perfect storm of bad decisions, weak leadership and pent up rage sparked widespread violence. Orthodox Jews were targeted by black protesters and a yeshiva student, Yankel Rosenbaum, was stabbed to death.
Meyerson views events through the lens of his father’s work as a civil rights attorney, which included defending people swept away by events.
The podcast was born from a desire to fully explore the events of his generation, and those to come. “I was talking to a friend who had only heard of the Crown Heights riot by name and was curious about the history, background and political implications of its fallout,” said Meyerson, who has contributed to The Nation, Wired, MSNBC (where she won an Emmy), The New Yorker and other outlets.
She grew up in Manhattan but spent eight years in Crown Heights as an adult. Born to a Jewish mother and a black father – then adopted by a black mother and a Jewish father – Meyerson, like many Jews of color, sees the events as a painful clash between the two central parts of her identity.
Episode 1 begins with a 2020 retirement party for the local police station’s community affairs officer, with each of the tributes putting a positive spin on how the community has healed its wounds. But on the streets, Meyerson says, “if you pay close attention, you’re aware of the animosity just below the surface.”
Outbreaks of violence between Hasidic community patrols and black residents in the years that followed are noted, and Meyerson says it is undeniable the persistence of Jewish racism and black anti-Semitism, sometimes palpable but often more subtle.
Meyerson also explores the burning and widely disputed question of whether the 1991 violence was a two-sided clash, rather than an anti-Semitic campaign — what some have even called a pogrom — against Jews. The podcast cites eyewitnesses and media reports that the Hasidim fought back, throwing rocks and bottles and sometimes brawling with the rioters. (Reporter Ari Goldman, who covered the events for The New York Times, later wrote an essay for New York Jewish Week saying he had never seen Jewish violence against black people, and said criticized The Times for suggesting that both sides were guilty.)
“I really have a hard time telling anyone in Crown Heights that their August 1991 perspective or experience is wrong,” Meyerson told The New York Jewish Week in an email interview. “My intention was never to be the arbiter of a universal truth, but to strip the layers of two very different experiences and hopefully add context that did not exist before.”
Some people bristle at such a “context”. Chabad-Lubavitch spokesperson Motti Seligson is featured in the podcast, taking offense to the idea that the events were less of a riot and more of an “uprising” stemming from resentment among black residents over what which they saw as the oversized political power of the Chabad community. This narrative, he says, borders on the justification of violence.
“I have been told by some in the Hasidic community that even trying to give it context is wrong and I certainly respect that view,” Meyerson said. “But I do believe it was a worthwhile endeavor and hopefully one that would get people on both sides to see what happened before, during and after the riot a little differently.”
Episode 2 takes a close look at Mayor David Dinkins’ handling of the riot — or perhaps his lack thereof, which cost the city’s first black mayor re-election. The hesitant decisions and missed opportunities are explored, along with the pervasive allegation that he withheld the police in order to allow the rioters to vent their rage. This notion has never been proven in court proceedings, nor affirmed in the state’s comprehensive review of events known as the Girgenti Report. Dinkins strongly opposed this notion until his death in 2020.
“I thought he got a pretty bad rap during the Crown Heights riot and that was unfortunate because he was really a champion of so many Jewish causes and believed so much in the possibility of a Jewish alliance. and black,” Meyerson said. “I think he stumbled a bit during those four days with the Lubavitch community and that caused him to lose the support of that community.”
The episodes dive into the early years of Crown Heights as it became home to two waves of immigrants, Jews from Europe and other parts of America, and black immigrants from the Caribbean. A history of two wards emerges, as the city council district in 1976 was split in two in an apparent effort to give Jews a strong, contiguous voting block. The city treated Lubavitch Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson as a world dignitary, along with NYPD guards. “They have certain rights that we don’t have,” a black resident told Meyerson.
The riots were preceded by the tense 1989 mayoral election between Dinkins – propelled into the Democratic nomination by racial disputes surrounding the murder of black teenager Yusef Hawkins by a white mob – and Republican candidate Rudolph Giuliani, who worked unsuccessfully to portray Dinkins as weak on crime. (His strategy would prevail in their 1993 rematch.)
Meyerson views these campaigns, as well as the policing strategies of Giuliani and his successors, as steeped in racism. It was in this atmosphere that a false rumor spread that the police and doctors had left the young Cato to die, while rushing the Hasidic driver and his passengers to the hospital. We hear from the policeman who ordered the Hasidim to leave the scene, for their own safety, a reminder that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
But “Love Thy Neighbor” is as much an exploration of identity and perception as it is history. We see the cultural differences between African Americans and their Caribbean American neighbors, who never felt life as a minority in their birthplaces. We also hear from Jews who refuse to be labeled as white, such as an Iranian-born Chabad member who refuses to be “caught in a binary.”
While in Crown Heights, Meyerson says she was never approached by Chabad, which is well known for its connections to less observant Jews. “I had a joke with a friend, who is Irish Catholic, that she was approached more than me,” Meyerson says. “Awareness has changed a lot since I’ve been there, I can tell from personal experience. But at the time, because I was secular and because I wasn’t perceived as Jewish, I really didn’t have much interaction with the Hasidic community in Crown Heights. However, the West Indian community really embraced me, ironically, because they thought (because of my appearance) I was from one of the islands.
In his personal reflections, Meyerson quotes sociologist and writer WEB Dubois on “double consciousness,” or the ability of black people to see themselves as white people see them. As a black Jew, she has long been aware of attempts to “stripping me of my Judaism” by asking questions about her lineage that no white Jew would face.
Maybe that’s why in Crown Heights she seems to see a metaphor of two parts of a whole wanting to come together, but can’t really find a way to do so.
“Love Thy Neighbor” is available on the Audacy platform (www.audacyinc.com)
Adam Dickter was a reporter and editor at New York Jewish Week from 1992 to 2014. His coverage of the aftermath of the Crown Heights riots won the American Jewish Press Association’s Simon Rockower Awards in 1997 and 1999.
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Podcaster explores her own black and Jewish identities in series about Crown Heights riots