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February 13, 2004 - Image 44

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2004-02-13

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On The Tube

Overcoming Prejudice

"Crown Heights" explores conflict resolution.


Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles


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hen Jeremy Kagan met
• Yudi Simon, a Chasid, and
T.J. Moses, an African-
American, in 2001, the
young men lived just four blocks from
each other in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
"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 the mixed neighborhood in August
1991. The fictionalized film will be accom-
panied by Increase the Peace, a short docu-
mentary 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 stu-
dent, Yankel Rosenbaum.
In the painful aftermath, Moses and
Simon met in a black-Chasidic youth
forum, Project CURE — and were sur-
prised to discover they had much in
common. Moses faced peer pressure to
join a gang, and Simon felt pressured to
ignore the popular culture he loved.
When the teens discovered their mutual
obsession for hip-hop, they formed a
Project CURE band.
But their relationship.— in life and in
the film — wasn't always smooth sailing,
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 and one
of the first clergymen to register black
voters in the South in the 1960s.
Kagan 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 packed up his digi-
tal video camera and flew to Crown
Heights in 2001.
It was his first trip back to the neighbor-
hood since researching his 1981 film, The
Chosen, based on Chaim Potok's novel.
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 corn-
munity 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."

Jerry Blackman (Yudi Simon) and
Howie Mandel (Rabbi Dr. Lazerson)
in "Crown Heights"

The director met with the black and
Jewish activists who had 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 --
albeit not fatally — during the riots.
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 Howie Mandel, who plays a
Jewish musician and activist in the film,
feels the boys' relationship offers a model
for bridge building after Sept. 11. "The
key is to get the youth talking, because
they're flexible," Mandel, a Conservative
Jew, said.

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

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