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 Kazins 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.