A Lingering Division

More than three decades after the Crown Heights riot, the neighborhood’s Hasidic and Caribbean communities are still haunted.

Vinson Cunningham
September 22, 2022

Police in riot gear walk past a police car that was overturned by rioters in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, New York, August 21st, 1991.

David Burns / AP

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The 1991 Crown Heights riot continues to haunt New York City. Our current political landscape—the structure of electoral coalitions; the composition of our City Council; even the borders, invisible but real, between one micro-neighborhood and the next—developed in the city the riot helped to remake. In August of ’91, two deaths violently escalated the heightened tensions between Caribbean and Hasidic communities. First Gavin Cato, a seven-year-old boy of Guyanese descent, was killed by a veering car that belonged to the motorcade of the famous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Then, in the rageful chaos that followed, a 29-year-old Hasidic graduate student, Yankel Rosebaum, was set upon and killed by a mob of young Black men.

The riot lasted only four days, but it brought New York City to a standstill—a crisis that spelled certain doom for the political fortunes of the dignified but taciturn David Dinkins, the city’s first Black mayor. Part of the anguish of the story is in its Rashomon effect, how members of both communities could plausibly construe themselves as embattled victims. It was a clash of harrowed subjectivities, dragged into the public square by violence and pain.

For Collier Meyerson, a writer and lifelong New Yorker, the riot, which broke out when she was a child, was uncomfortably personal. The tensions and confluences between Jewish and Black identities are fundamental for her. Growing up on the Upper West Side as a Black Jew, she was made aware early of the structures that underpinned the riot.

Now Meyerson has brought to this history to life in her podcast, Love Thy Neighbor, which narrates the tense days of the riot alongside Meyerson’s personal reckonings with racism, antisemitism, religion, and cultural identity. I talked with Meyerson about the significance and legacies of Dinkins, police violence, the contemporary echoes of the riot, and our mutually beloved Upper West Side. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Vinson Cunningham: How did you start recording this podcast?

Collier Meyerson: I began in August 2020, just as the Black Lives Matter protests started heating up. That month, I went to a retirement party for a cop, which became the first scene of the podcast. I walked out into the streets and people were marching. Remember that viral video of the guy who was disappeared into the NYPD van? It was right after that. The day before, protestors had taken over FDR Drive.

I’d wanted to take a long lens to history for a while, but the events of that summer motivated me to go back and look at the Crown Heights riot. I had a childhood memory of it as a kind of boiled-over tension. Where were you back then?

VC: My family moved to Chicago when I was three, and back to New York when I was nine—first to Washington Heights, and then to the Upper West Side. Because I left New York for some of those years, I missed the Dinkins era and the riot. But I still grew up with the romantic notion you talk about in the podcast—that Black and Jewish people should be working together. Jewish people helped get my mom her job at a nonprofit housing developer when we moved back to New York. I associated Jews with the settlement house model; I had this idea that they were very philanthropic, and that their interests were in harmony with mine. It sounds like the riot was much more significant in your childhood.

CM: Definitely, as far as it goes for a six-year-old. I remember hearing the grownups talking: riots, arrests, police. It was all percolating in my head. I had the sense that something really bad was happening, and Hasidic Jews and Black folks in Crown Heights were affected. That formative feeling that something was wrong stuck with me.

VC: When you decided to tell this story, did you have anxiety about entering this morass of racism and antisemitism?

CM: As a Black Jew, I’ve always experienced a kind of double consciousness—like I was on the outside looking into all of the various Jewish communities. I grew up secular, so I always felt nervous about saying or doing the wrong thing; I wanted so badly for people to believe that I was Jewish.

When I was 12, I was getting ready for my bat mitzvah at a conservative temple. When the Hebrew school teacher met my parents for the first time, he saw that my mother was Black and asked her, “Are you Jewish?” She said no. If your mother isn’t Jewish, you can’t be bat mitzvahed in a conservative temple, so my teacher said, “Unfortunately, Collier can’t have her bat mitzvah here.” That is devastating for a 12-year-old. I had been through two years of Hebrew school with all these kids, thinking, “I’m a part of this.” And then suddenly I’m not.

The teacher said, “It’s the rule. There’s nothing to be done.” But I’m actually adopted. So my mother said, “Well, her biological mother is Jewish. Does that make a difference?” He said, “Yes. It’s beshert! Collier will now get bat mitzvahed in this temple.” But I was thinking, “That’s my mother right there. I’m not going to do this.” From that moment on, I abandoned any form of religious Judaism.

The Upper West Side is this bastion of liberal white Jews who pride themselves in a historic Black-white alliance, but I was excluded in myriad ways. What I found while working on the podcast was that, ironically, the Hasidic community—in particular, Chabad, which is based in Crown Heights—was more open to me and to so many other Jews. Chabad’s mission is to grow the Jewish people; they are welcoming to Jews of all levels of observance in the hopes that they might become more observant. I felt less afraid of saying the wrong thing.

VC: Did you engage with them before you started working on the podcast?

CM: Well, they’re the only Jews who proselytize—“Are you Jewish?” “Are you Jewish?” My gripe was that I had never been asked. My best friend is Irish, and every time we’d walk down the street, they’d come up to her, not me. I thought it was the same as the Upper West Side, and in some ways it was. But they’ve done a lot of work in recent years; now they reach out to many different types of people. We caught each other at the right time—they were expanding their view of what it means to be a Jew and what a Jew looks like, and I was trying to approach this subject with open eyes.

VC: Maybe it’s the city kid in me, but I have a vision of the city as a place to work out these questions about what difference means. There’s an idealism that comes from that adjacency, but also disappointment. In the podcast, you talk about how there are two groups of immigrants coming together in Crown Heights—Afro-Caribbeans and post-Holocaust exiles largely of Russian descent. Two groups of survivors, but they’re in a death stare with each other. The Caribbeans can see that the police deal with the Jews differently and that they have different access to resources.

CM: As someone who grew up as a secular Jew, I had a hard time getting the Black-white binary out of my head. I came into this thinking: “Of course the Hasidim are racist—they’re born in America with this particular privilege.” And I don’t want to sugarcoat it, I did encounter racism in this particular community. But when I really began to listen to some Hasidim in Crown Heights, what I heard was: “We came to the United States after the Shoah. We have experienced state-sanctioned violence. We live together, as we always have. And we view our neighbors with suspicion, as we always have.” Regardless of who their neighbor is, the sentiment would be the same: “You are an other, and historically, others have banished us, exiled us, raped and pillaged us. We can’t trust you.” And then you add in the element of race: “They’re Black, and now we understand that within this new American context, they are less than us, and scary.”

VC: The Hasidim don’t think of themselves as white?

CM: Sometimes they do, because it’s beneficial. Like any non-Black ethnic group coming to America, they know that being Black isn’t going to serve your interests.

VC: And in Crown Heights, these dynamics are complicated even further because the Black population is mostly from the Caribbean, which has its own racial dynamics not identical to those in the US. So you’ve got two groups: One group that doesn’t fit seamlessly into the American sense of Blackness, and another group that has a tenuous relationship with American-style whiteness. It’s easy to reduce it to a Black-white binary, but on both sides, there’s an uneasiness with those categories as they take shape in the US.

CM: When Caribbeans come here, they’re coming from majority-Black countries. There’s certainly plenty of racism and colonial history in those countries, but American racism can be different from what they’re used to in really harsh ways. They have to navigate being perceived as Black Americans, which is a new identity for them, and one they might not relate to. They don’t necessarily have the same politics. Many approach the US as immigrants in search of a better life; some are pretty conservative and support law enforcement. When journalists were covering this riot in the ’90s, they weren’t always considering that.

VC: I found it interesting that the Lubavitchers were initially pro-David Dinkins. He went to meet the Rebbe and they were thick as thieves. What does Dinkins’s role in this story mean to you?

CM: Dinkins is tragic to me. He genuinely believed in the possibility of a Black–Jewish alliance. He ran on racial reconciliation and healing, which the Hasidic community initially embraced. In Crown Heights, people talk about being colorblind a lot, even now. Dinkins could pander to that philosophy. They lived in a predominantly Black community, and they wanted to be able to vote for a Black man who said, “We can be together and be happy.”

The tragedy is that he really believed it—and some from that community believed it, too. But of course, as soon as he took office, all of the unfortunate realities of racism took hold. The seeds of discontent with him were sown a year-and-a-half before the riot; people were constantly talking about how he let Black people run wild in the streets. He was portrayed as soft on crime, even though he expanded the NYPD. That idea persists to this day. Almost every person I spoke to in the Hasidic community claimed that when Black Crown Heights residents were rising up following Cato’s death, Dinkins told the police to stand down and said, “Let them vent.”

VC: Is that even true?

CM: No, it’s a legend.

VC: I’ve heard that my whole life.

CM: We looked exhaustively for this quote, and he never said it. In fact, he started a Zionist organization in the ’70s—say what you will, but he really felt a kinship to Jewish communities, and overnight he got painted as an antisemite.

VC: That was possible in part because Rudy Giuliani was going after him as early as the 1989 election. But there’s also a lasting cultural narrative about Black antisemitism. There’s a very uncomfortable essay by James Baldwin, “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White.” He situates Jews as junior partners in the white supremacist power structure, which touches on a lot of nerves.

I thought your approach to handling antisemitism and was very careful—you acknowledge that antisemitic attacks are taking place in New York at the highest rate in decades, but you’re also critical of the ways that surge has been attributed to Black people.

CM: Talking about this still makes me uncomfortable. In Crown Heights, there are a lot of Hasidic landlords, and some of them may be bad, but that’s not necessarily because they are Hasidic—it’s because landlords suck. I do feel like antisemitism is ambient in this community. People will say, “My landlord is wack, and he’s a Jew.” And it makes sense that the Hasidic community, given its history, views that as plain and simple antisemitism that needs to be eradicated—I get that; it’s also true that it doesn’t take into account the particular power dynamics at play.

VC: Ironically, one of the most poignant things in the podcast is something Giuliani says in an interview—that Dinkins too often retreats to Black victimization. This raises a real question: What do you do when everybody feels like a victim? Both sides’ prejudices can be reinterpreted as responses to prejudice against them. That’s tough to untangle.

CM: Yes, that gets to the heart of it—it’s about perceptions, alongside the lived reality of racism that Black people experience.

VC: During the podcast’s thrillingly paced account of the events spanning from the death of Gavin Cato up to Yankel Rosenbaum’s killing, the police are almost a non-entity. They’re always where they don’t need to be. You found this really touching archival clip of a Jewish woman and a Black man arguing about so-called vigilante groups. She says, “It’s not vigilantes, it’s self-protection.” He says, “We don’t need these vigilantes, we let the police do that.” And she says, “Well, where are the police?” No one in this story is an abolitionist by any means. They want the police to show up when they are supposed to, but the police are always showing up at the wrong time.

CM: We should acknowledge that in the wake of the economic crisis of the ’70s, there was a breakdown in public services, including the NYPD. There was a resounding feeling that the police were not doing their jobs, and that’s why a vigilante force seemed needed. Black people felt that, too.

VC: You bookend this exchange with what we could call another riot: the police are outside City Hall, egged on by Giuliani, with a bunch of racist signs about Dinkins. Eric Adams, who is now the mayor of New York, was on the force at that time. How did this project make you think about Adams, and about New York’s politics today?

CM: Adams was a transit cop at the time, and he was at City Hall as a private citizen who was dismayed by what happened there. He called it a racist lynch mob.

I see Adams as a sort of combination of Dinkins and Giuliani. He was able to consolidate support in the Hasidic community like Dinkins did during his first election. But he continues to enjoy solid support from them because he’s so focused on law and order—the thing Dinkins was missing. The fact that he’s a cop gives the Hasidic community confidence that he’s not going to “let [Black residents] vent.”

VC: Do you feel like there are issues you resolved internally by engaging in this very outward-looking project?

CM: I’m still processing this, but I think it helped me to become a lot less, for lack of a better term, black and white about my relationship to Judaism. My husband is religious, and when I was pregnant, we would get into these cataclysmic fights about religion and how we would raise our son. Judaism is very familial. If you’re religious, it permeates every single facet of a domestic life. It affects the food in your house, the way the meals are prepared, the times you eat.

Before this, I was so hostile to any hint of religiosity. Breaking bread with Hasidic residents in Crown Heights taught me that there are possibilities outside of the experiences I had growing up, and made it okay to do some of the things that I had rejected. If you talk to my husband now, he might say we’ve found a tiny bit more harmony when figuring out how to bring Judaism into our daily life. I’m still extraordinarily secular, but we do Shabbat every Friday night. I used to just call it a dinner party, and now I ask people to come over for Shabbat. We don’t pray or anything, but it’s important to me now.

Vinson Cunningham joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2016. Since 2019, he has served as a theatre critic for the magazine. In 2020, he was a finalist for a National Magazine Award for his Profile of the comedian Tracy Morgan. His writing on books, art, and culture has appeared in the Times Magazine, the Times Book Review, Vulture, the Awl, The Fader, and McSweeney’s, where he wrote a column called Field Notes from Gentrified Places.” Cunningham previously served as a staff assistant at the Obama White House.