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January 22, 2017 / 24 Tevet, 5777
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The World’s Greatest Outdoor Museum

Most areas of the city have a mix of peoples living in them who have daily contact with one another and who share the space. It just makes sense to have good relations with neighbors.

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If one wants to see ethnic contact, social progress, and true turf sharing in New York City, the experience of a Hebrew charter school in Brooklyn is a perfect case in point.

When I was nine years old my father devised a game to keep me entertained. It was called “Last Stop.” We lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Whenever he was free on the weekend, we walked to the local 103rd Street stop on the IND (Independent Subway System) line. From that subway we would transfer to another train and take that to the last stop on the line.

Upon exiting we would explore the neighborhood on foot for a couple of hours, sometimes taking a city bus to further extend our trip. When we ran out of last stops on the various lines, we’d move the destination point to the third-to-last or some other stop. We played this game off and on for about five years until I began high school. That’s how I learned to love and appreciate New York City.

Over the past forty years I have been teaching a graduate course on New York City at either City College of New York or the CUNY Graduate Center. Besides reading extensively on the subject and writing papers, as part of my course my students go out walking with me for full days to explore the different boroughs. It’s a fascinating experience for them to see what I often refer to as the greatest outdoor museum in the world. The students are invariably surprised and delighted to learn that all the boroughs are unique and interesting in their own right.

Even when different groups live in the same neighborhood, appearances can sometimes be deceiving. You can walk through an Asian area and think of it as belonging to one Asian group, but closer examination reveals that it’s not.

One study of the Japanese enclave in Manhattan’s East Village found that quite a few Koreans work in Japanese-run restaurants. Moreover, the area is becoming more Pan-Asian, with Koreans, Taiwanese, Thais, and Chinese moving in. Members of these groups tend to shop in stores owned by the others.

Most areas of the city have a mix of peoples living in them who have daily contact with one another and who share the space. This isn’t a question of outreach. Rather, it just makes sense to have good relations with neighbors.

Typical is the response by a middle-age, strictly Orthodox Jewish woman in Flatbush, Brooklyn, who reports that she is very friendly with her next-door Italian American neighbor. She is wearing a long, navy blue skirt down to her feet (referred to within the community as a “floor-sweeper”), with a loose-fitting white blouse, and, covering her hair, a dark kerchief.

“Her [the woman’s neighbor] and her friends are just amazing. When I had to go regularly to the hospital for outpatient treatments, her son took me there every day over two weeks. My husband’s working three jobs, so it was a godsend.”

“But these are not people you would have over for dinner, are they?” I ask.

“Only because my husband objects, because he feels we can’t return the invitation and come to them, because we’re kosher. But I wonder about that. I mean, why can’t we come with a kosher pizza and eat it on paper plates? Or couldn’t we take them to a kosher restaurant?”

“Are the Italians different than other non-Jews?” I ask.

“I think they’re a lot like Jews. You know, the family structure and how food is important to them.” The sense you get here is that of a person who wants to be more open and friendly, but whose husband is resistant because he fears it will threaten their identity as Jews. Regardless, I heard dozens of stories from people who talked of the friendships they had developed with neighbors whose backgrounds were completely dissimilar.

* * * * *

In an exploratory study of relations between Chinese and Jews on the Lower East Side that included interviews at a senior citizens’ center, one of my graduate students, Fang Xu, came up with some interesting findings. Like the Jews and Italians, the two groups share similar cultural values – namely, respect for the family, veneration for the elderly, interest in education, and concentration in business.

Most of the Jews living on the Lower East Side in the last fifty years have been Orthodox. The Chinese have also been there for a long time, first arriving in the 1870s, even before mass Jewish immigration made it a prime neighborhood starting in the 1880s. Elderly Jewish respondents interviewed by Xu expressed positive views of the Chinese, noting their respect for the elderly, family values, and quiet nature. Both Jews and Chinese do play mahjong a lot, but they play it with completely different rules. And, of course, there is a language barrier.

One Jewish respondent spoke of playing ball together with Chinese neighbors and going over to visit each other. It appears as though there’s very little conflict between the two communities. Because the Jews are more Americanized, one suspects they will have greater rapport with the artsy and yuppie types who have been moving there recently. In fact, some of their own children may be, and indeed are, sometimes in the same communities. Nonetheless, there are a few second-generation Chinese who have become part of the art scene, though this is probably less the case with the Chinese than among the Jews.

* * * * *

If one wants to see ethnic contact, social progress, and true turf sharing in New York City, the experience of a Hebrew charter school in Brooklyn is a perfect case in point. The Hebrew Language Academy, housed in a yeshiva, has children attending from many nationalities. The school’s program emphasizes Israeli culture and Hebrew, but the students are also taught about Christmas and Ramadan. The student body is one-third black, with a sprinkling of Hispanics. With regard to religion, it is made up of Jews, Muslims, and Christians.

Aalim and Aalima, twins who are students at the school, delight in speaking Hebrew with each other. It’s sort of like their secret code, one their father does not comprehend. Aalim is happy to sing his favorite song in Hebrew: “My land of Israel is beautiful and blossoming. / Who built it and who cultivated it? / All of us together! / I built a house in the land of Israel. / So now I have a land and I have a house in the land of Israel!”

What’s remarkable is that Aalim and Aalima are Muslims. And the school they attend not only teaches songs about Israel, but it also displays the Israeli flag throughout the building and celebrates Israel Independence Day as part of its cultural program. That’s a lot more than your usual musical and culinary outreach programs with groups that have ethnic or racial tensions.

* * * * *

I’m walking up East 167th Street around Grant Avenue in the South Bronx on a Friday afternoon in late May 2010 when suddenly I see a chassidic-looking man leaving a school building. Of medium height, he is wearing a large black skullcap and has a pretty substantial, graying beard. And his tzitzis are hanging out on each side of the shirt at hip level.

I catch up to him and quite spontaneously ask, “What’s a religious Jew like you doing here?” “Me? I work at the school up the block, Middle School 22.”

“What do you do there?” I ask.

“I’m a dean,” he tells me. “As a matter of fact, I’m the dean of discipline.”

“Really,” I say, thinking to myself that he doesn’t look too big or tough, and as an Orthodox Jew, in this rough part of town, in a middle school, the kids must run all over him. How can he understand their life and culture, so different from his own?

“How are you able to control them?” I ask.

It turns out I’m wrong on most counts.

“Why not?” he answers, smiling. “I treat them like human beings. I’ve never had any trouble.” “Do they ever say anything about how you look?”

“Not really.” He gives a quick laugh. “Given the way people dress around here – I mean, the African Muslims with their skullcaps, beards, and robes – I actually fit in pretty well. I’m just another weird dresser. Up here anything goes. In fact, very often they don’t even realize I’m Jewish.”

“But what about the parents, particularly those who are Muslim?” I persist.

“I’ve never had a problem with them. They’re very respectful. They just want their kids to get a good education. The problems for the kids are often their difficult home situations, but personally I get along great with them. I deal with behavior, not religion. I love the kids and I love watching how they progress. I never take lunch, because I’m so busy resolving problems and I’m here from eight to five.

“The only issue for me is the traveling. I have to come here all the way from Crown Heights by subway.”

And then, almost as if on cue, two black kids, perhaps eleven or twelve years old, a boy and a girl, emerge from a Kennedy Fried Chicken joint. Seeing their dean, they greet him joyously, giving him a high five and saying, “Hello, Mr. T.” and “How y’all doin’?”

“That’s my nickname,” he explains, with a chuckle. “My last name begins with a ‘T.’ I’m Tuvia Tatik.”

“Was it an adjustment for you to be here, at first?”

“Not really. You see, I didn’t grow up frum. I was raised as a non-religious Jew in the Bronx and went to DeWitt Clinton High School. And I used to play basketball at the Jewish community center in this neighborhood. So I knew about the outside world and about public school. I also live in Crown Heights, which has a large black population.

“And you know who hired me? Another frum Jew who has a doctorate from Harvard, Shimon Waronker. He’s the principal and he was written up on the front page of The New York Times. Google it; you’ll get a beautiful seven-minute video. Before he came this was one of the twelve worst junior high schools in the city. And when he came to this country from Chile, he didn’t know a word of English. So when he took this job, they laughed.

“But at least he knew Spanish, and that’s very important here,” I counter.

Tuvia agrees with me. Indeed, I do remember the article.

“There’s even another Orthodox Jew in the school,” he tells me, “but he’s ‘Modern,’ ” he adds. “He doesn’t wear a kippah in the building.”

The discussion demonstrates that there’s often more to a situation than meets the eye.

Tuvia has certain informal credentials that make him particularly qualified, more so than the typical observant Jew. First, he wasn’t brought up Orthodox. Second, he grew up in the Bronx and played basketball there as a kid. Third, he’s a public school product. Fourth, he belongs to the Lubavitch sect, which is the most outgoing of the chassidic groups. Fifth, as I learn, he’s a trained psychologist who studied at Touro College. Finally, he lives in a mixed black-white community.

These characteristics stand him in good stead as he faces daily challenges.

“Why do you think there’s so little anti-Semitism in your school?” I continue.

“I’ll be honest. It’s because we’re a predominantly Hispanic school, about seventy percent. And the Hispanics have more respect for religion in general. And even with the Muslims, we talk about religion. Some are actually from the Middle East, from Yemen.”

When we part at the subway entrance, I say, “I’m so glad I met you. It was really interesting. And I wouldn’t have met you if you hadn’t come out of the building at that moment.”

Tuvia’s response highlights his faith-based approach to things.

“One of the foundation stones of chassidic philosophy is that everything is preordained. God doesn’t let a leaf fall from a tree without some purpose to it, even if we don’t know what it is. God willed that we should meet. I was supposed to leave at three o’clock because it’s erev Shabbos but I was schmoozing with the other dean….”

“What misconceptions do your friends in Crown Heights have about the kids you work with? Do they think they’re wild kids?”

“That’s the thing,” he answers. “We have kids in this school – they’relike diamonds. They ask me about my tzitzis. I explain it to them. Mostly they don’t even ask.”

To be sure, most fervently Orthodox Jews are not as tolerant as Tuvia. But that is what makes these examples so interesting. Because New Yorkers have constant contact with other groups, the possibility for such unusual and productive encounters is greatly enhanced.

This case is a great example of ethnic learning. Think of how Tuvia shapes the views of students and colleagues by virtue of the fact that the group he represents is such a stereotyped group. Chassidim (and Jews) are often viewed by blacks and Hispanics as cheap and unethical in the sense that they worship the almighty dollar. Most have no real contact with Jews, and if they do it’s as landlords, merchants, or as TV caricatures. For Muslims the stereotypes are even worse, shaped as they are by Middle East politics.

On the other side of the equation, think of how Tuvia changes the narrow view many members of his own community have about minorities.

“They’re wonderful, my kids,” he tells his neighbors. He’s a walking ambassador for his people. And the children, who are at an impressionable age, are likely to carry their experiences with him for a lifetime.

This essay was excerpted from Prof. Helmreich’s “The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 miles in the City,” © 2013 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.

William B. Helmreich

About the Author: William B. Helmreich is professor of sociology at the City University Graduate Center (CUNY) and City College of New York. His many books include “The World of the Yeshiva: An Intimate Portrait of Orthodox Jewry,” “Against All Odds: Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives They Made in America,” and “What Was I Thinking? The Dumb Things We Do and How to Avoid Them.”

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