It’s quite appropriate that I find myself visiting New York, and particularly staying in Crown Heights, as I pen this tribute to my dear friend Yankel Rosenbaum HY”D to mark the twentieth anniversary of his murder in the Crown Heights riots of 1991. This very morning I was walking to shul with my son, who was born just the day after Yankel’s shloshim, and I pointed out the place near the corner of President St and Brooklyn Ave, where he was attacked.
The whole thing still seems so surreal. Others who knew Yankel probably remember where they were when they heard the awful news, in the same way people remember where they were when they heard the news of JFK’s assassination. We were struck with utter disbelief. Despite living in the area at the time, Yankel was surely the last person in the world we expected to be killed like this. Was G-d playing a cruel joke on us when he transformed a fair-dinkum Aussie Jew from Mont Albert North into the posthumous international poster-boy for race riots and Jewish-Black relations in the Big Apple?
Yankel was different. His family lived over thirty minutes drive from the “bagel belt” – the Jewish suburbs in Melbourne – and therefore he reflected a far less sheltered upbringing than many of his friends. While his family was frum and staunch in their Jewish values, because of where they lived, their two sons attended a non-Jewish day school. As a result, they had a brashness and street toughness that one just can’t pick up going to a school like Yeshivah College (the local Chabad day school). We were certain that Yankel would have taken it to his attackers, and not shied away from a confrontation.
He was described in the media as a Talmudic scholar, as if he was just a typical Lubavitcher bochur who lived in Crown Heights. We all laughed when we read this. Yankel was very well educated, to be sure. Like so many of the Jewish parents of that generation in Melbourne, his parents valued education as the key to having a successful life. Yankel’s older brother Norman YBLC”T was a serial university student, completing two or three degrees (well, maybe he didn’t complete all of them) over some ten years before finally settling into a successful career as a lawyer. Yankel finished post high-school studies at the local Yeshivah Gedola, then went on to completed advance university-level studies, and was undertaking research for his PhD into the pre-war shtetl. The bitter irony that he was essentially the victim of a pogrom in a modern recreation or transplantation of the very shtetl he studied was not lost on us.
The photo his parents offered to the media was from his university graduation. Yankel typically wore jeans and a t-shirt, with a hat and jacket always handy for davening. On our wedding day, he came past my house in the morning to check in, and was wearing jeans and a Mickey Mouse t-shirt. My mother, knowing that he was going to be best man under the chupa, asked if that was what he was planning to wear. With a totally straight face, he replied in the affirmative, sending my mother into conniptions at the thought that he might really do this.
Yankel rejected the social norms of dress associated with the community in which he lived. If you didn’t like that he didn’t wear a white shirt and dark pants like all the others; if you thought his Ray Ban wayfarer sunglasses (inspired by the movie The Blues Brothers) were inappropriate, then too bad for you. He was not out to prove anything to anyone, or to put on a facade simply to make others happy. What you saw was what you got. He was a pnimi.
Yankel didn’t hold back, and spoke his mind. If he didn’t like you, you would know it. And as a friend, there was nothing – absolutely nothing – he would not do to help you. All his friends valued his judgement – always delivered in a non-judgemental way – and his worldly perspective on life. I look back sometimes at pivotal moments in my life and the lives of others in Yankel’s circle of friends, and wonder how things might have been different if he were around. If only he had been around to help us deal with the many crises and challenges that life throws up.
I’ve never lived in Crown Heights for any extended period, although have visited there many times. It’s hard for a Melbourne person like me to understand the dynamic of the Jewish and Black communities that coexist in Crown Heights, and far less to imagine what it was like twenty years ago. Unfortunately, it didn’t take much to ignite the riot, and tragic that Yankel was immortalized in such a way. In marking twenty years since his murder, others have written about what it means to the local community, and its relationship with its neighbours. Time does seem to have healed some of those macro wounds. But the micro wounds still run deep.
I don’t recall what anyone said at his levaya – we were all very overcome with grief and emotion. However, Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner OBM would often say at funerals “v’hachai yitain el liboi” – the living must take to heart. What can we learn from Yankel?
Both in Melbourne and in Crown Heights, he was a person who was embedded in a frum community, yet retained the tinge of an outsider. But he was not self-conscious, nor was he going to apologize for not fitting in. He was who he was, and he wouldn’t have had it any other way. What an outstanding example of Jewish pride and identity for anyone, particularly those whose lives intersect with the broader community – Jewish and non-Jewish. If he could remain so strong to his values, if he could strike a wonderful balance between individuality and community, surely we all can find him an inspiration in that regard.
His honesty, both to himself and to others, is something we all admired. This is a midda we can all emulate, and one that starts from within.
Yankel is gone. A small piece of Yankel remains etched in my heart forever, and in the hearts of his many friends. As he has been transformed in death to a public figure, there is now enough of him that anyone can too retain a small part deep inside them – to inspire and give strength.
This article was printed in Hamodia on 7 September, 2011. Yankel's yahrzeit is 10 Elul, this year corresponding to 9 September, 2011.