The ProsenPeople

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist...James Loeffler

Wednesday, February 08, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Earlier this week, we asked Sami Rohr Prize Finalists Abigail Green and Jonathan B. Krasner a few questions about their inspiration, audience, and process. Today, we hear from James Loeffler, whose first book The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire was published by Yale University Press. The Rohr Judges agreed that James's book contained "[a] treasure trove of music, music history and general cultural materials that will help us understand what would have otherwise been only more buried evidence of the rich Jewish past in the age of the killers and tyrants." Below, James discusses the international human rights movement, Miles Davis, and electronic dance with the ProsenPeople.

What are some of the most challenging things about writing non-fiction?

For every individual story that makes it into a book of history, there are a hundred other fascinating lives that don’t. That’s a hard choice to make. And it’s made even harder by the knowledge that each person’s life is unique. Leaving someone out of the narrative doesn’t just deprive them of a spot in history, it also potentially alters the storyline itself.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing non-fiction?

This may sound cheeky, but I find the most inspiration for non-fiction in works of fiction. Of course it’s true that the rules of writing fiction are completely different. But fiction authors are, by definition, master storytellers. The purity of plot reminds me how a good narrative can truly take the reader inside a different world—like the distant past.

Who is your intended audience?

I wrote this book for anyone who’s ever fallen in love with a piece of classical music; anyone who’s ever suffered through a piano or violin lesson; and anyone who’s ever picked up a paper and found themselves counting the Jewish names involved in a story.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I am writing a book now about another arena in which Jews have played a disproportionately large role in modern times: the international human rights movement. From Amnesty International and Richard Goldstone to Natan Sharansky and UN Watch, Jews have become idealistic icons and passionate critics, tireless proponents and vocal skeptics about the international human rights community. My book seeks to go back to the early decades of the human rights movement after World War II, to retrace the forgotten story of Jewish participation in the birth of human rights at the United Nations. My aim is to shed new light on just where human rights come from in modern times and to puncture some pious, persistent myths of both the Left and the Right, about the relationship between Jews, Zionism, and human rights.

What are you reading now?

I’ve just been reading a collection of Chopin’s letters, where alongside a bunch of anti-Semitic rants I was amused to find his description of his adventures playing klezmer music with Jewish folk musicians in a Polish shtetl.

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

In high school I was a deep devotee of the music of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. And I was a semi-professional jazz musician. Yet when he died early in my senior year, my first reaction wasn’t to put on one of his records. Instead I felt the urge to grab a pen and notebook. I began writing what would become my first published essay—a literary tribute to him. It was then that I knew I wanted to be a writer. As much as music stirred my soul, the way I sought to communicate my thoughts and passions in life was through words on the printed page.

What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

Success is about the art of clarity. When the words on the page distill the essence of an idea or a question and I’ve captured reality, then I feel like I’ve reached a peak.

How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

My deep, dark secret is that even though I often write about classical music, I prefer to have pulsing electronic dance music playing in the background. The louder and noisier, the better. Somehow the beat and sound screens out other distracting thoughts and frees up my mind to concentrate better on writing.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

If they listen to one of the composers mentioned in the book, dayenu—that’s enough. But more broadly I want readers to consider delving more deeply into the remote corners of the Jewish cultural past. History is not just about reinforcing our sense of who we are today and how we got here. History is about recovering the roads not taken, and exploring where they might yet still lead us.

James Loeffler, an Assistant Professor at the University of Virginia, is nominated for his first book, The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire. He works broadly on the intersection of Jewish culture, politics, and identity in modern Eastern Europe, Israel, and the United States. He has published extensively in the field of Jewish musical studies, with a specialization in the history of Jewish folk and classical music traditions in Eastern Europe. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist...Jonathan Krasner

Tuesday, February 07, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

It's been a good year so far for Jonathan Krasner. First, he won the National Jewish Book Award in American Jewish Studies, and then he was named a finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.  His feted title, The Benderly Boys and American Jewish Education, was hailed by the Rohr judges as "[t]he best book on the history of Jewish education in the United States to have appeared in several decades.” Clearly, this is one not to be missed. Like yesterday, we asked Jonathan a few questions about his process, his audience, and the current books on his nightstand. His answers follow below:

What are some of the most challenging things about writing non-fiction?

I'm constantly aiming to balance my desire to tell a compelling story with my commitment to scholarship. I reject the notion that serious history writing needs to be "dry as dust."

What or who has been your inspiration for writing non-fiction?

When I was editor of my high school and college newspapers, I had a bit of the muckraking spirit in me and felt it was important for the fourth estate to keep the "powers that be" honest. I drew early inspiration from long form essay writers in magazines like the New Yorker and the New Republic. In college, Professors Stephen Whitfield, Joyce Antler, and Jacob Cohen introduced me to great political essay writers like H. L. Mencken, Mary McCarthy, and E.B. White as well as practitioners of the "New Journalism," like Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe. Although my interests eventually turned from journalism to history, it was the exposure to these journalists and essayists that most influenced my writing.

Who is your intended audience?

In The Benderly Boys my audience is anyone who has ever suffered through Hebrew school, fallen in love with Jewish summer camp, or wonders about the origins of the song I Had a Little Dreydl.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I am currently working on a few projects on topics ranging from black-Jewish relations at Brandeis University in the late-1960s; to the evolution of the term Tikkun Olam since World War II; and to the mainstreaming of gays and lesbians in the Jewish community.

What are you reading now?

Erik Larson's riveting and disturbing book In the Garden of Beasts.

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I can't pinpoint an exact date or place, but whatever inclination I had was definitely reinforced when the high school faculty advisor to the student newspaper started referring to my collaborator friend Jeff and I as "Woodward and Bernstein."

What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

How about being a Sami Rohr Prize finalist? .... Seriously, I am thrilled when I succeed at making history come alive while answering the question: "Why does this matter?"

How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

Ideally, I like to lock myself in a room for a couple of weeks at a time, preferably with breaks for long walks around a lake or along a beach.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

I hope they gain some appreciation for the almost fanatical dedication of the Jewish educators of the past. Today, the motif of Hebrew school as torture, recently parodied to great effect in the Coen brothers' film A Serious Man, is almost a cliche. But the pioneers of the modern Jewish supplementary school were actually steeped in progressive educational philosophy and dedicated to the revival of Hebrew and the creation of a vibrant American Jewish culture. Maybe the story just magnifies the dilemma of supplementary Jewish education in America. Or, rather, it underscores how Jewish educators today are struggling with many of the same issues that animated Samson Benderly and his disciples a century ago.

Jonathan B. Krasner is an Associate Professor of the American Jewish Experience at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. He is nominated for his book The Benderly Boys and American Jewish Education, which just won the 2011 National Jewish Book Award in the category of American Jewish Studies. His work has appeared in many academic journals and anthologies. He lives with his family in Andover, Massachusetts.

Book Cover of the Week: Second Person Singular

Tuesday, February 07, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Coming in April from Grove Press:

Acclaimed novelist Sayed Kashua, the creator of the groundbreaking Israeli sitcom, “Arab Labor,” has been widely praised for his literary eye and deadpan wit. His new novel is considered internationally to be his most accomplished and entertaining work yet.

Winner of the prestigious Bernstein Award, Second Person Singular centers on an ambitious lawyer who is considered one of the best Arab criminal attorneys in Jerusalem. He has a thriving practice in the Jewish part of town, a large house, speaks perfect Hebrew, and is in love with his wife and two young children. One day at a used bookstore, he picks up a copy of Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata, and inside finds a love letter, in Arabic, in his wife’s handwriting. Consumed with suspicion and jealousy, the lawyer hunts for the book’s previous owner—a man named Yonatan—pulling at the strings that hold all their lives together.

With enormous emotional power, and a keen sense of the absurd, Kashua spins a tale of love and betrayal, honesty and artifice, and questions whether it is possible to truly reinvent ourselves. Second Person Singular is a deliciously complex psychological mystery and a searing dissection of the individuals that comprise a divided society.

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist...Abigail Green

Monday, February 06, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

In January, we announced the five finalists for this year's Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. The winner of this prize receives $100,000 and the runner-up receives $25,000. Not too bad, eh?  We'll be announcing the winner later this month! In the meantime, we asked our finalists a few questions about their process, their audience, and the current books on their nightstand. First up is Abigail Green, author of Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero. The Rohr judges praised Moses Montefiore as "[a] monumental biography of Montefiore [that] provides a fascinating and comprehensive glimpse into the life and times of an amazing man.” Below, Abigail explains her personal connection to Montefiore and her role as a historian and a writer:

What are some of the most challenging things about writing non-fiction?

The things I find challenging are: re-reading my research notes before I get started because it’s important to do it properly but it can be really boring; wearing my learning lightly because I’m writing for different audiences at the same time; and cutting, cutting, cutting the text because anything shorter is almost by definition better.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing non-fiction?

The past.

Who is your intended audience?

It depends on the book. Montefiore is quite an eclectic book so it was meant for all sorts: Jewish readers, general readers, biography readers, amateur and professional historians. My mother was born a Montefiore and my husband’s father grew up in Yemin Moshe in Jerusalem, when it was still a run-down neighbourhood. The original inhabitants were all evicted during the War of Independence to protect them from enemy gunfire. So this one’s for my family too.

Are you working on anything new right now?

Thinking, not writing as yet.

What are you reading now?

In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S. Haasse. It’s a Dutch historical novel set in fourteenth century France, written in the 1950s. And Liberalism, a Counter-History, by Domenico Losurdo.

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

All good historians should also think of themselves as writers. I’m British and my interest in history was sparked by Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. I read Our Island Story - an early twentieth century history book for British children that is so wildly outdated that it recently came back into fashion. And I spent hours in a second-hand bookshop selling dusty historical novels opposite a medieval castle near where my grandparents lived.

What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

When a reviewer described my book as ‘one of the essential works on modern Jewish history.’ No historian could ask for more.

How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

Once I’m underway with something, I can write pretty much anywhere. I gave birth to our first child when I was half way through writing Montefiore, so I wrote a lot of it at night.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

I’d like them to think about the nineteenth century – and particularly the Jewish nineteenth century - in new ways.

Abigail Green is Tutor and Fellow in History at Brasenose College, University of Oxford. She is nominated for Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero, which was a National Jewish Book Award Finalist, a Times Literary Supplement Book of the Year 2010 and a New Republic Best Book of 2010. Her first book Fatherlands: State-Building and Nationhood in Nineteenth Century Germany, was shortlisted in Das Historisches Buch 2002. She lives in Oxford, England.

On Carrots and Fishes and Jewish Souls

Monday, February 06, 2012 | Permalink

Eric Weiner's new book, Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine, is now available. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I spent several years traveling the world, trying on different faiths, seeing which one fits. At the end of my journey, I found myself in Tzfat, in northern Israel, diving headfirst into my own faith. The ground I walked in Tzfat felt familiar and foreign at the same time.

One evening, I was invited by a family of Orthodox Jews for a Sabbath at their home. One of them, an impish young man named Asaf, listened intently to my tales of whirling with the dervishes, meditating with the Tibetans. Then he told me a story.

There was this Jew, Asaf said. We’ll call him Moshe. Moshe decided one day he wanted to become Catholic, so he walks to the local church and says, “Father, I’d like to be Catholic.”

“No problem,” says the priest. He sprinkles water over Moshe and says, three times, “You’re not Jewish, you’re Catholic.” He then sends Moshe on his way but with a warning. “We Catholics only eat fish on Fridays. Okay?”

Moshe assures him that is no problem. Except a few days later, on a Wednesday evening, Moshe develops a huge craving for fish. He can’t resist so he slips off to a local restaurant. There, the priest happens to see him tucking into a huge fillet of halibut.

“Moshe! What are you doing? I told you to only eat fish on Friday.”

Moshe, without missing a beat, says, “This isn’t a fish. It’s a carrot.”

“What are you talking about, Moshe? I can plainly see it’s a fish.”

“No, it isn’t. I sprinkled water on it and said, ‘You’re not a fish, you’re carrot, you’re not a fish you’re a carrot…’”

Everyone at the table smiles. Except me. What am I to make of the joke? Am I a fish and always will be? Or am I a carrot with fish tendencies? Or some sort of carrot-fish hybrid? The obvious moral of the story: Go forth and meditate with the Buddhists, do yoga with the Hindus, pray with the Muslims, but you’ll be back. You have a nefesh, a Jewish soul, and nothing you do will ever change that.

At first, I bristled at that notion. We are free—freer than ever before—to choose our own spiritual path, and many people (Jews and non-Jews alike) are doing just that. One out of three Americans will change their religious affiliation over the course of their lifetime. We are, increasingly, a nation of God hoppers.

Or are we? Do we ever fully change?

I don’t think so. We imbibe of the world’s wisdom traditions, from Buddhism to Shamanism, and benefit from them, but the “conversion” is never complete. We always retain, at the very least, our cultural identity—our fishiness—and that is okay. That is good. We need solid footing, or as Archimedes said many centuries ago: “Give me a place to stand and I shall move the world.”

Eric Weiner is a former foreign correspondent for NPR, a philosophical traveler—and recovering malcontent. His new book, Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine, is now available.

The Red Devil

Friday, February 03, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Matthew Shaer wrote about the genesis of his book, Among Righteous Men, and divisions within the Crown Heights community. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

In December, not long after Among Righteous Men was published, I returned to Crown Heights. The evening was unseasonably warm, and I walked east from my apartment, past the lip of Prospect Park, and down the undulating clamor of Eastern Parkway, my hands in my pockets. The neighborhood, where I had spent so many months reporting—some happy, some not  appeared largely unchanged.

There was the proud façade of the main shul at 770 Eastern Parkway, and there were the clusters of yeshiva students. There in the windows of one building hung the yellow flag of the messianists—believers in the divinity of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Rebbe of Lubavitch. In a balcony overlooking the sidewalk, two women were chattering happily in Yiddish. I remembered a snippet from Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City, the best book about Brooklyn ever written: “Yet as I walk those familiarly choked streets at dusk and see the old women sitting in front of the tenements, past and present become each other’s face; I am back where I began.”

Kazin knew that an emotional connection to place can defeat mere geography. It is the not the physicality of a neighborhood that haunts us, after all. It is the connection between that physicality and our inner lives.

I strolled south down Kingston, towards Empire Boulevard. I had a single destination in mind: a tailoring shop owned by a man named Israel Shemtov. During the ‘70s and ‘80s, when crime rates in the neighborhood were skyrocketing, Shemtov had patrolled Crown Heights under the name the “Red Devil.” He was one of the first Jewish vigilantes––a predecessor to the Shomrim and Shmira patrols active in the neighborhood today.

Shemtov, who stands just about five feet tall, was also a master of image management. Where other Hasidim shirked press attention, he embraced it, regaling reporters from the Post and the Daily News with tales of bloody brawls and daring midnight takedowns. He compared himself frequently to Charles Bronson, circa Death Wish. “There will not be a crime in the neighborhood because they know they will be dead,” he said.

In 2010, I had visited Shemtov at his storefront on Empire. By then, he was two decades retired, pale and stooped. Jamming a soft pack of Kingstons into his front pocket, he showed me into his private office, and pulled the door shut behind him. The room was in appalling condition  water damage had browned half the ceiling, and near the only window, several panels hung loose, exposing a nest of wires and cotton-candy pink insulation. “Sit,” Shemtov said.

For the next two hours, he told me dozens of stories, and sometimes the same story twice: The time he saved the life of a shooting victim; the time he faced down a gang of local toughs; the time he yanked a suspected mugger off a bicycle and beat the kid into the ground with his fists.

“I’ll tell you, since I was a kid, I was a very tough — I was ten years old, and two kids on my bicycle knocked off my helmet,” he said. “I was a little shit. They said, come over here, I want to talk to you. And I came over and beat the hell out of them. I was strong. I still am, thank God.”

Toughness was necessary for a Jew, he explained—“We’ve been knocked around for too long.” During the 1920s, his father’s family had fled Eastern Europe for New York; behind them, there was only death and destruction. “Because of that,” Shemtov said, “I knew I always had to fight.”

Now, months after that 2010 interview, I found myself galloping faster down Kingston, hoping Shemtov had a few more stories left to tell. But when I arrived at the corner of Empire, I found the storefront dark, the door locked. I knocked several times; there was no answer.

That evening, I phoned my grandmother at her home in Boston. During the year I spent writing Among Righteous Men, I had often considered interviewing my grandmother about her mother, Edith, who, much like many of the older Hasidim in Crown Heights, had escaped Eastern Europe under terrible circumstances. For a variety of reasons, I had never gotten around to making the call, but now that the book was behind me, I decided that the timing was right.

My grandmother was good-natured about the inquiry. She told me her mother had long blocked out the worst memories of her girlhood in Eastern Europe; and yet, over time, some details had emerged. Edith Springer — later Edith Rosenthal — had grown up in an area called Gubernia, in modern-day Lithuania. She had several brothers, and no sister. One morning, her father heard a clatter in the streets outside, and peering out the front door, he was run down by a horde of Cossacks. He died instantly.

Later, my great-grandmother, her brother and their mother managed to secure a berth on a ship bound for Ellis Island. During a bad storm, my grandmother told me, my great-grandmother — then only five — was found on the deck of the boat, clutching one of her Mary Jane shoes. The other had washed overboard. My great-grandmother was soaked, shivering, distraught.

But what about Edith’s father, I pressed. What did my grandmother know about that man who had been murdered, in cold blood, in the streets of a small town in Lithuania? “Matthew,” my grandmother said, “I’m sorry. I don’t know. I don’t think I ever knew, and the person who could tell us is long gone.”

So there it was: There was more, but it would remain forever out of reach, enveloped in darkness.

Matthew Shaer is the author of Among Righteous Men. His writing has appeared in Harper’s, Foreign Policy, andThe Washington Post, among other publications. He is a regular contributor to New York magazine. He tweets at @MatthewShaer.

Great Jewish Books...For High School Students

Friday, February 03, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Attention high school students and parents of high school students! Did you know that the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst has an amazing tuition-free summer program focusing on modern Jewish literature? In a week-long program, taught by Josh Lambert and Sana Krasikov, students will learn about authors like Babel and Kafka and Sholem Aleichem and Philip Roth and Grace Paley. Guest speakers include Allegra Goodman and Ilan Stavans. While it isn't necessary for applicants to have any specific Jewish knowledge, a love of literature is necessary

Basically, this sounds like an incredible opportunity, so, if you're eligible, you should definitely apply. The application deadline is March 15th and there are only eighteen spots available, so be sure to apply as soon as possible! Read more information about the program here

JLit Links

Thursday, February 02, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Something out of Something

Thursday, February 02, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

In conjunction with his new story collection, Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, Etgar Keret and his publisher, FSG, have teamed up with BOMB Magazine to host a design contest. The contest, Something out of Something, encourages readers, artists, and designers to draw inspiration from Etgar's work and create visual art of their own. The submissions are published on the Something out of Something Tumblr, where they can be commented on and viewed by other readers. Twenty-five finalists will be selected on March 15th and the finalists' work will be sold at a silent auction on April 29th, with proceeds to benefit the PEN American Center. Visit Something out of Something to view the entries, read more about the contest, and dig deeper into the world of Etgar Keret. 

A House Divided

Wednesday, February 01, 2012 | Permalink

Matthew Shaer will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.

In my last blog post, I wrote about the genesis of my book, Among Righteous Men, and the emotional connection I often felt to Crown Heights, the Brooklyn neighborhood where the book is set.

Suffice to say that the sense of connection did not last forever, at least not in that unalloyed state. As time wore on, and I spent increasingly more time in the neighborhood, the epiphanic moments––I think of them now as moments of sheer electricity––became less common. Sometimes, they were replaced sometimes by more ordinary joys: Tours through rambling Crown Heights homes, evenings in the storefront shuls and grand temples, sprawling meals with gracious hosts, small gifts of kindness from strangers who have since become friends.

Sometimes, that initial electricity was replaced by fatigue, anger, and frustration. (Hasidim have never been particularly fond of the mainstream press, and I had more doors slammed in my face than I care to count.) And sometimes it was replaced by a deep and abiding sense of alienation.

By 2009, when I signed the contract to write Among Righteous Men, the scope of the project had expanded––I was no longer interested only in the Shmira, but also in the Shomrim, a rival group of Hasidic vigilantes competing for control of the same Crown Heights turf. The Shomrim and Shmira had once been united under a single shield, but in the late ‘90s, infighting consumed the organization, and the two groups had since set up shop on opposite ends of Crown Heights. In 2009, with the apparent help of one of the Shmira members, six Shomrim volunteers were charged with felony gang assault, in a case dating back to 2007.

According to the Brooklyn DA, the Shomrim, responding to a call of distress from a Crown Heights yeshiva dormitory, had punched, strangled, and kicked their way through a crowd of rabbinical students. The Shomrim, for their part, claimed to have been ambushed by the students, or bochurim.

The gang assault trial, which began in the fall of 2009, was a particularly painful experience for the Shomrim, who believed they had been stabbed in the back by members of their own community. Making matters worse was the fact that accusers and accused fell on opposite sides of a religious schism which had roiled Jewish Crown Heights for years.

The rabbinical students, I came to understand, were messianists, who believed that the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, had been the messiah––the Jew who would usher in the second coming of man. That Schneerson was dead, and buried in Queens, did not diminish their fervor: He could still come back, they reasoned; holy men had before.

The members of the Shomrim, on the other hand, considered themselves to be moderates, who loved their Rebbe, but were embarrassed and uncertain at the fevered pronouncements of the messianists. (I want to stress that I am working here in very broad strokes. Messianist beliefs in Crown Heights, or lack thereof, fall on a wide spectrum, which encompass outspoken messianists, passive messianists, passive moderates, outspoken anti-messianists, and every stripe in between. The distinctions are sometimes described as existing on a “sliding scale.”)

In this light, the brawl at the dormitory took on a different light. It was a not just a fist-fight. It was a religious struggle––a struggle for the soul of Crown Heights itself. This was drama, I thought. This was Shakespearian––that adjective of choice of editors and jacket copy writers. It was a house divided. It was the Hatfields and McCoys, the Hasidic edition.

In the fall of the 2009, I spent several weeks in Brooklyn Supreme Court, observing the criminal trial against the Shomrim. (Want to know how the whole fiasco ended? Well, you’ll have to read Among Righteous Men.) I knew the trial would be the backbone of my book, but I felt there was much of Crown Heights that remained out of reach to me, and in the afternoons, after the court sessions had ended, I took the 2 train out to Crown Heights, to chat with acquaintances or hunt down additional sources.

I was frequently forced to perform strange feats in order to obtain an interview. Once, for instance, I spent an evening in an underground matzos factory, waiting for an potential source to finish firing the bread––a scene I describe in a 2011 issue of Harper’s Magazine. I strapped on tefillin, drank a lot of vodka, recited prayers. I accompanied a Lubavitch friend and Shomrim member to the Hunts Point Market, deep in the Bronx, at half past three in the morning, in order to hear a story about a fist-fight which my friend assured me I would find very interesting indeed. (He was right.)

I was almost always treated with respect, although there were exceptions. Because my book would deal with the rift between messianists and moderates, I needed to spend time talking with both groups. And yet Crown Heights is an exceptionally small place, geographically and otherwise, and since I was always dressed in “civilian” clothes—jeans and a fleece—my progress across the neighborhood was easy to track. I regularly received phone calls from moderates, who wanted to know what the hell I was doing talking to messianists; later, a messianist would call, and ask me what the hell I was doing with a moderate. Usually, these calls were friendly, but sometimes not. I can recall vividly one instance where I returned home to my apartment, in Park Slope, where my girlfriend had prepared dinner; no sooner had I sat down than my phone began to ring.

I recognized the number—the caller was a man I had interviewed two days before. I figured he had forgotten to tell me something. But when I picked up, he unleashed a barrage of profanities, beginning with motherfucker and ending with motherfucking traitor. As it turned out, he had assumed I was sympathetic to the messianist cause, but his cousin—“a man I trust and love, a good man”—had seen me “palling around” with a bunch of “no-good mossers,” or “rats.” Moderates, in other words.

“You should be very careful,” the man told me.

“Thank you,” I said. “I will.”

“Because,” he added, “there’s always someone watching. Do you get what I’m saying?”

“Yes,” I said, and hung up. I must have blanched considerably, because my girlfriend eyed me worriedly, and reached across the table to take my hand. “Are you OK?” she said.

I was, but the whole incident helped take the sheen off the kinetic connection I had first felt to Crown Heights. Of course, as I should have known from the beginning, despite the religious and historical aura that surrounds the neighborhood, Crown Heights is really just a world like any other, full of terrible joys and also the usual bitterness and anger.

Matthew Shaer is the author of Among Righteous Men. His writing has appeared in Harper’s, Foreign Policy, andThe Washington Post, among other publications. He is a regular contributor to New York magazine. He tweets at  @MatthewShaer.