Arts & Culture

The Crown Heights Affair

Matt Shaer explored a normally sheltered Hasidic community in Brooklyn and the conflict that is tearing it apart. Read More

By / December 13, 2011
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I meet Mattew Shaer at Pete’s Candy Store in Williamsburg Of course, this being Williamsburg, the bar serves no candy.  Shaer walks in from the cold looking a little different than his picture.  Here he looks like a more attractive version of Thom Yorke, i.e. Thom Yorke sans droopy eye, gaunt face, and instead of some impish look, a plain smile of interest in life. The bags under his eyes, slight, but noticeable, betray a sense of weariness, but his kindness suffers nothing for it. He offers to buy me a beer, which at first I deny, and we begin talking about his excellent new book Among Righteous Men.

Some necessary background to the book: currently, Lubavitcher Hasidim sport two different vigilante groups to patrol its tight borders in Crown Heights: the Shmira and the Shomrim (both variations on the word “guards.”) This small quibble of a detail turns important once you realize that each of the group represents a different strand of contemporary Lubavitcher theology. The Shmira represents the group of Lubavitchers designated messianists because of their belief that the Rebbe, Menahem Mendel Schneerson, despite his physical death, still holds the mantle and crown of the messiah, while the Shomrim represent the moderates who belief in the greatness, but not the messianic nature of the Rebbe. This division continues to tear the community apart.
The books weaves the story of six members of  the Shomrim who were charged with a litany of crimes, leading up to a gang assault felony charge. The Shomrim Six, as they became known, also faced a 150 million dollar lawsuit in civil court. The night in question, a calm night, entailed an argument over a mattress for a guest in the a messianist Yeshiva, which turned into an all out brawl. From there, the details get hazier, despite the prescience of one of the students to tape the whole matter. The trial would drag on, and appear to anyone from the outside as a normal trial of unleashed violence, but Shaer opens the reader to the deep complexity of the case.

Shaer began as the editor of his college newspaper and worked his way up through the Boston Globe, then the Christian Science Monitor, up to writing for New York Magazine and Harper’s where an article on the same topic of the book was published back in January of this year. His articles, nowadays, tend towards more immersive narratives about aspects of society we otherwise might not know about, all attended to with an exquisite eye for detail. So that, “like Calvin Trillin and William Vollman,” some of Shaer’s more admired and beloved authors, “who are masters of the accumulated detail, the meticulously-observed world. They drown you. In a good way.” The same should be said of Shaer and his work.

At the time of the trial, Shaer wrote an assignment for New York Magazine about the case. What drew an established reporter to an ostensibly small and petty case? Well, boundless curiosity it seems:

Well, it seemed to me to be a very old story: a house, divided. Perhaps the oldest story on earth. Certainly a universal story. A group of friends, split apart, a bitter feud that consumes an entire community. But in this case, it wasn’t the Hatfields and the McCoys, on either side of the Tug Fork River––it was a pair of Hasidic anti-crime patrols, which were once united under a single banner. And right here, in the middle of Brooklyn! I wanted to know what it meant for the people caught up in the fight; I also wanted to explore the clash between the secular and religious communities.

Early in the case, Shaer found himself thrust into a well protected, complex world that presented some obvious hurdles to a journalist:

My first step was to spend a few weeks at this criminal trial, in the fall of 2009, at the Brooklyn Supreme Court. I was one of the only non-Hasidic people in the courtroom, and eventually, I managed to get the Shomrim guys to talk to me. It was mostly a matter of being stubborn, I think. Of wearing them down. Lord knows there wasn’t any journalistic trick to it.

As he wound himself into the inner lives of all parties, into the intricate details of the case, he began to realize the enormity of the case:

During those first few interviews, I started to understand that it was FAR more than a simple criminal trial. Later, some of the messianist tension came out during testimony, which was interesting. It infuriated the judge, who wanted to keep community politics out of it. But in the end, that was a very hard thing for him to do. The whole situation WAS community politics, of course. There was no separating it.

Though Shaer consistently displays a healthy humility towards his abilities, he takes pride in having gained the trust of all sides of the story. Not an easy feat for a notoriously insular community. Despite feeling “alienated,” at times, despite the plethora of “dirty looks” , and despite the embarrassing feeling of door after door shutting in his face, Shaer persisted and won the trust of not only the defendants, but the plaintiffs in the story.  Shaer learned to rely on some “good old fashion reporting,” and, “was helped immensely by the fact that this trial was going on, which gave a reason for folks on both sides to talk to a journalist––they wanted their story told.”

Indeed, Shaer exudes a aura of an old school reporter. He longs for those stories that illuminate realms of life otherwise closed to the normal person, which is aided by the curiosity, comfort and trust that he evinces. For much of the supposed interview, Shaer took an interest in my life, all done without me noticing that in the end, our talk was more of a two way dialogue and less of an interview.

What emerged from all of Shaer’s effort is a genre-busting book (novelistic journalism, creative non-fiction, new journalism?) that moves with the celerity of a Law & Order episode, but with the patience, empathy, and complexity of an arc on a season of the Wire (Shaer, of course, rejects even the slightest comparison to any great artist, whether that be Mailer, Capote, or even David Simon, but I believe the comparison fits.) In the vein of The Wire, each character receives their own space to breathe, to live. Each receives their own voice, their own perspective. The bochurim sprinkle their language with Yiddish and curse words, the lawyers speak lawyerese, but Shaer does not limit them to their stereotypes. Shaer manages to pull off an amazing feat. Using the tools of both a novelist and a journalist, Shaer crafts a compelling narrative that illuminates without the need to denigrate, discriminate, or villianize.

From a fight in a dorm room, to the court room, to the history of Hasidut, and to the vacuum left by a charismatic leader, Shaer approaches each subject with respect, tact, and intelligence. Each sight under his gaze expands considerably with the stroke of his pen. Not only does this provide background for an outsider to understand the true implications of the trial, but it captures the beauty and dangers of an insular community without a judgmental eye.

I stay for the reading in a well-lit back room that fits at most 20 people. Shaer first introduces the piece, then begins reading in a demure manner. He speaks slowly, softly, his right hand clutching his left arm that holds up his Harper’s article. With time, he starts to smile, to laugh, and even attempts an Israeli accent, all in good humor. During the intermission, I walk towards Shaer to say goodbye, to thank him, and in a moment of surprising kindness, Shaer walks me out, and thanks me. I leave feeling privileged to meet such a modest, young talent, one from whom I expect many great books and articles.