Sunday, January 06, 2008

Speaking of Lazy Research Skills...

A frustrating blurb from this morning's Yeshiva World:

Max Rosenbaum Z”L, whose son Yankel HYD was killed in an assault that sparked the violent race riots in Crown Heights in 1991, has died after suffering a major heart attack at the age 85.
His son a Lubavitcher Chosid from Australia, was attacked by a mob after a Lubavitcher driver accidentally hit and killed a 7-year-old black boy in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights section in August 1991.
The AP article wasn't much better:

His other son, Yankel Rosenbaum, a Hasidic scholar and doctoral student from Australia, was attacked by a mob after a Hasidic driver accidentally hit and killed a 7-year-old black boy in Brooklyn's Crown Heights section in August 1991.

Too bad Rosenbaum wasn't Chabad, Hasidic, or a rabbinical student, all of which the media has alternately reported over the years and which some folks seem to have swallowed hook, line and sinker, even despite the man's own family repeatedly trying to set the record straight.

Max Rosenbaum and his wife spoke proudly of Yankel's achievements, and painfully of his unfulfilled aspirations. As a history student at the University of Melbourne, he was doing research in New York archives for his thesis about life in the shtetls of Eastern Europe in the half century before the Holocaust.
He had been living in Flatbush since his arrival in the United States in 1991 and moved to Crown Heights about a month before he was killed. News reports that have referred to him as a rabbinical scholar are inaccurate, said Norman Rosenbaum, a tax lawyer in Melbourne. He described his brother as a "research academic" at the University of Melbourne who could speak and read five languages.
Yankel also had a practical mind, his family noted, having received a bachelor's degree in commerce and founded a company that supplies granite for construction projects to finance the life of scholarship he envisioned for himself. His parents now run the company.

Rosenbaum was a doctoral scholar of history and a businessman who happened to be Orthodox, not a Chabadnik. Unfortunately for him, he was wearing elements of the commonly recognized Orthodox uniform in the wrong place at the wrong time:

full beard... a black yarmulke, light blue button-down shirt and black pants, with... tzitzis...

Rosenbaum was not killed for being a Lubavitcher, but for looking the part of an Orthodox Jew- just like Anthony Graziosi, a non-Jewish Italian man, who, even two weeks after the riots, was killed for wearing a beard and suit (for some odd reason all mentions of Graziosi have been removed from the Crown Heights riot Wikipedia page).

Now just for the record, finding the above information took me all of ten minutes using Google. Yet the amount of materials on the web actually taking about Rosenbaum's non-Chabad status can be counted on two hands.

Why is this important? Well first of all it demonstrates how basic facts are sublimated by laziness, myth-making, stereotyping, and the need for people to create stories that make sense to them. If Rosenbaum died in Crown Heights and was attacked for being Jewish, especially Orthodox, then he must be Chabad. If he wasn't Chabad he must be Hasidic. If he wasn't Hasidic he must at least have been a yeshiva student. People do not seem to be able to deal with the fact that Rosenbaum had NOTHING to do with either the Cato accident itself (which I've also heard, as a sort of direct quid-pro-quo narrative- he killed the kid, the mob killed him), or even with the Chabad community at large. I believe stereotyping by non-Jewish media during the early days of covering Rosenbaum's story may also have played a role- if they heard he was a "student" and he was Orthodox, then it's quite likely some bozo who couldn't be bothered with a fact-check simply assumed he was hanging out in a kollel somewhere as opposed to an actual university. Rosenbaum was actually a very educated and worldly personality whose death was more or less randomly caused by his having a beard and yarmulke during a race riot. But this story doesn't seem to be as sexy as ones pushed by the media and various Jewish organizations that continue to craft it, over a decade after his death. The story doesn't quite "sing," so people do what they always do with myths: they change it to make it say what they want to say. A meek and timid yeshiva student, a proud Chabad emissary, whatever. Rosenbaum becomes nothing more than a symbol to whomever wants to use him for their cause.

The media, and some in the Jewish community, continue to obscure Rosenbaum's real identity so he can operate as a more powerful symbol in a larger narrative about Jewish- and specifically Chabad- persecution. Who he actually was is no longer as important as how he died, and he will apparently forever be associated with Chabad simply because he happened to be killed in Crown Heights.

And there's something profoundly sad about the fact that no one seems to care enough to bother getting their facts straight about this man. Boo on all the media outlets- particularly the Jewish ones- that continue to misrepresent Mr. Rosenbaum and perpetuate myths about him through ignorance or sheer laziness.

Edit-After-The-Fact: A perfect example of what I was talking about. Someone tries to set the record straight, and they are shot down for "nit-picking" and "missing the point of the story," which is to say, pointing out that the facts run counter to the narrative that Chabad has constructed in which Rosenbaum is their martyr. Sad.

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