Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Limited Retrospection

The 20-year-anniversary for the Crown Heights riots/pogroms (depending on who you talk to) is coming up and it's led to a fair bit of discussion among Jewish media outlets, particularly in New York.

Unfortunately, while the myths that Crown Heights was somehow a riot "between" blacks and Jews (implying that the Jews were out attacking blacks instead of hunkering down in their homes) or that the Jewish political establishment used all its resources to stop violent attacks happening in real-time are finally being exposed and challenged, one central myth not only remains unexamined, but continually perpetuated by people who should know better.

That is, the identity of Yankel Rosenbaum. Even this week, the inaccurate statements about Rosenbaum being a "rabbinical student" or a "rabbinical scholar" are being repeated by major Jewish news outlets. Only problem is, those are lies. Intended as compliments, perhaps, but fictional.

The son of Jews who survived the Holocaust in Poland, Mr. Rosenbaum was a lecturer at the University of Melbourne in Australia. He had done his undergraduate work there and, later, had earned a master's degree. His adviser on his doctoral dissertation, Dr. John Foster, said he was studying small Jewish towns in Poland.
The information is out there. This article was written in 1991, as was this one in 1996. Academics have verified who Rosenbaum was, and wasn't. Friends of Rosenbaum have popped up sporadically on the internet trying to clarify who he was: frum, Jewishly literate, and, while not Hasidic (nor Lubavitch, though his family were), certainly on friendly terms with Chabad.

But that is not the same as rewriting the man's life and identity and turning him into just another yeshiva bochur! Rosenbaum was a passionate young man who had created his own business and was pursuing high-level academic studies in the secular world. He spoke five languages, he had a master's, he was working on his doctorate, and he was a lecturer at the University! These details don't detract from his life or his Jewishness, they add color and texture to them. In a small way, Rosenbaum was a living model of how to successfully, and proudly, live as an Orthodox Jew in an open environment, without needing to cloister oneself in a cultural ghetto. The Orthodox world (heck, even the larger Jewish world) needs more role models like him. If nothing else, that is what is insulting about him being turned into a faceless symbol of the Haredi everyman struck down by antisemitism. It deprives us all of a wonderful learning opportunity.

Yankel Rosenbaum was an Orthodox Jew who chose to live in the non-Jewish world and had been successful at it. But for an accident of random chance (which ironically happened when he was visiting a major Jewish enclave, as opposed to all the times in Australia when he was in part of a small minority), he would likely still be here.

There are lots of lessons we can take from his life, but to do that we first have to be willing to learn about the truth of who he was. Not the myth he was turned into.

Edit-after-the-fact: Every time I write about this, I manage to find more people who knew Rosenbaum personally. (One of the blessings of the Internet!) One of them had this to say: 

I actually knew Yankel, A"H. He was a person, not a symbol, and I don't think he would have been upset at the descriptions you're complaining about.
Melbourne even today is a much more diverse community than most places in the US, and lots of people have complicated religious and intellectual backgrounds. Yankel's family wasn't Lubavitch and he wasn't the sort of person you could easily classify, but he certainly associated with Chabad. Yankel went to a Lubavitch school and yeshiva, was a counsellor at Chabad camps, and socialised with people both within and without Melbourne's Lubavitch community. None of this is especially important, but I hope it fleshes him out a bit more.

Here was my response:

I appreciate you sharing the background about your friend more.
As I've gotten interested in Yankel's life just been frustrated by what I see as attempts to put this interesting person into a certain box, when it seems like a lot of what he was about was, as you said, being involved with and interacting with various different communities. I would like to see that spirit honored and remembered when people think of him, as opposed to immediately putting him in a neat category of "martyred Lubavitcher Hasid" and going on their way.

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