Latest update: November 19th, 2013
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.
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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