Unlikely friendship a model for peace in Crown Heights

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When Jeremy Kagan met Yudi Simon, a Chassid, and T.J. Moses, an African American, in 2001, the young men lived just four blocks from each other in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights. “But the distance might as well have been 50 miles,” he said.

Their tenuous relationship is the focus of Kagan’s new Showtime movie, “Crown Heights,” set around the riots that rocked that mixed neighborhood in August 1991. The fictionalized film will be accompanied by a short documentary, “Increase the Peace,” Kagan made about the events and the real-life Moses and Simon.

The youths, then around 15, didn’t know each other that hot Monday night when a station wagon in the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s motorcade struck and killed an African American child, Gavin Cato. But both teens were traumatized as black gangs subsequently went on a four-day rampage, throwing rocks and bottles, shouting anti-Semitic slogans and killing an Australian yeshiva student, Yankel Rosenbaum.

In the painful aftermath, Moses and Simon met in a black-Chassidic youth forum, Project CURE, and were surprised to discover they had much in common. Moses faced peer pressure to join a gang, and Simon felt peer pressure to ignore the popular culture he loved. When the teens discovered their mutual obsession for hip-hop, they formed a Project CURE band with community activists (played by Howie Mandel and Mario Van Peebles in the film).

But their relationship — in life and in the film — wasn’t always smooth, according to Kagan. “It allowed me to show the potential for conflict resolution and also to make the point that such relationships are hard work,” he said.

It’s what one might expect of the 58-year-old director, who views his films as an extension of the Jewish value of tikkun olam, repairing the world. He learned the mandate from his father, a Reform rabbi descended from the Vilna Gaon, who had met Martin Luther King Jr. and was among the first clergy to register black voters in the South in the 1960s.

In person, Kagan is also reminiscent of a rabbi, with his long gray beard, spectacles and his penchant for quoting Jewish sources with his brows furrowed and eyes squeezed shut. He said he approached “Crown Heights” with the philosophy, espoused in the biblical Exodus, about “knowing the heart of the stranger.”

“I wanted to explore how one can get past the biases and fears that keep one suspicious of others,” he said.

To do so, Kagan, who has studied at the University of Judaism, packed up his digital video camera and flew to Crown Heights in 2001. It was his first trip back to the neighborhood since researching his 1981 film, “The Chosen,” based on Chaim Potok’s novel about two Jewish boys, one Chassidic, one Zionistic, who also lived blocks away and worlds apart.

In a hotel room he interviewed Norman Rosenbaum, who had flown in from Australia when a federal appeals court ordered new trials for the men who had stabbed his brother. At a community center, he spoke with Cato’s father, Carmel, who haltingly told him that when you lose a child, “it’s like your whole life is over.”

The director met with the black and Jewish activists who’d formed Project CURE at the behest of the Lubavitcher rebbe, and he spent hours with Simon and Moses, now in their 20s.

As Kagan’s camera rolled, Simon stood in front of his family’s ramshackle, three-story home and pointed out the spot where his father had been stabbed — though not fatally — during the riots. In the ensuing weeks, he said, he carried a screwdriver in his pocket for protection.

Moses, meanwhile, described being humiliated by the police and by media coverage that made it look like “blacks were [always] in the wrong, and Jews were in the right.” Nevertheless, he regarded Lubavitchers not as his enemies but as “ghosts, spirits … like they weren’t human.”

That changed when he met Simon: “I was surprised that white boy could dance,” Moses said.

Actor Mandel, who plays a Jewish musician and activist in the film, believes the young men’s relationship offers a model for bridge-building after 9/11. “The key is to get the youth talking, because they’re flexible,” Mandel, a Conservative Jew, said. “The elders are more set in their ways.”

For Kagan, the on-again, off-again friendship between Moses and Simon also provides a caveat however: “Peace is a long-term investment,” he said.

Crown Heights” airs 9 p.m. Monday, Feb. 16, on Showtime.

Naomi Pfefferman

L.A. Jewish Journal