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.