by Steven Volynets and Shamar Hill
When we started our literary project about being Jewish in Brooklyn almost a year ago, it was a venture of introspection – a search for the meaning of self in communities as diverse as New York City. As we set out to interview Jewish men and women from all walks of life, we asked what common thread connected a Holocaust survivor, a female Rabbi, a gunned down rapper, a prominent politician and others to us – two writers, one a Soviet-Jewish immigrant, the other Jewish and African American.
But when, by sheer accident, we witnessed a man paint swastikas across a payphone booth in Midwood, just days after a string of Anti-Semitic vandalism, our work gained a new sense of urgency.
On Saturday, November 19, we got together in Brooklyn, as we often do, to write and share ideas. Around 11:30 p.m. we took a break and walked to a local ShopRite. As we walked back, at the intersection of Ocean Parkway and Avenue I, we noticed a man in his late 30s, early 40s, wearing dark sunglasses in the middle of the night and tearing down NYPD posters asking for information about recent anti-Semitic hate crimes in the neighborhood. The man gave us a sharp stare and walked off, knocking over a newspaper vending machine.
We decided to follow him. In some unspoken way, we were protecting the neighborhood of our youth. As we shadowed him, we called the police. After walking several blocks, the man stopped in front of a payphone on 18th Avenue and Ocean Parkway. He banged the receiver and we could see he was doing something to the booth. Fifteen minutes later, the police had not yet come to the scene and we headed towards the local precinct. On our way back, we passed the phone. And there it was: Swastikas and ‘Kill Jews’ written in gray marker.
The initial rash of anti-Jewish vandalism began on November 11, just over a week before, marking the grim anniversary of the 1938 Kristallnacht progroms known to have started the Holocaust, when three cars were torched in Midwood and anti-Semitic graffiti was found nearby.
“People say it can’t happen, but it did happen,” Boruch Weiss, a student, told The Brooklyn Ink, standing on Ocean Parkway amid the benches still wrapped in Police tape. “People have to know that it happened. The NYPD needs to send a clear message.”
But that’s not what happened. After our 911 call was still not returned, we walked up the steps of the local 70th Precinct, still carrying bags of groceries from the supermarket. When we got there, we explained what we saw to the officers on duty. We offered to leave our information. But they refused it, claiming that this wasn’t their responsibility; that another precinct was in charge of this investigation.
We pleaded, insisting that if they hurried, if they notified officers patrolling nearby, they could still intercept this man and question him, if nothing else. But they were unmoved. Some could not even face us. It was as though we brought in the plague.
“This case isn’t ours,” they said. “Contact the 66th.”
We did contact the other precinct. And while we waited for officers from the 66 – in the cold – for some 25 minutes, we wondered: Why didn’t the police follow the man right away? Just days after several torched cars, swastikas painted on Ocean Parkway benches, a subway sign defiled to read “Ave Jew,” and a $56,000 reward for finding those responsible, why did these officers pass the responsibility on to another precinct?
Our initial 911 call was returned only hours later. By then we were already surrounded by officers and detectives of every rank and the phone booth was a crime scene with the yellow ‘do not cross’ tape blocking off the perimeter. It later occurred to us that perhaps the reason for such late response was that there were no weapons to speak of, none that we could observe, no shots fired, no visible signs of violence, just words and markings on a phone booth.
But words do matter. Even in a city rife with shootings, robberies and rape, words and symbols cannot be resigned to the banality of ads, texts, graffiti and street signs. As writers, we are keenly aware of the power words have to create meaning and shape the narrative of our city. The meaning of Kill Jews is instant and obvious, but what about the word tolerance? What does it mean to those living in Midwood, our old neighborhood, the geographic center of Brooklyn, and the only place on Earth where Jews and Muslims have lived in peace?
And, above all, what does tolerance mean to the men and women of NYPD who’ve sworn an oath to protect us?
What started out as a call to the police turned into an all-night, seven hour affair of waiting in the cold and in police cars, retracing steps, retelling the same story, trips back to the 70th Precinct to browse through more than 1,200 mug shots while exhausted and half-asleep, and more waiting. At one point we overheard an officer speaking on the phone.
“Sir, I don’t understand you,” we heard him say. “Do you speak English?” Frustrated, the officer finally turned to one of us—the one who is often mistaken for being from the Middle East—and asked: “I’ve got this Pakistani guy on the phone. I don’t understand a word he is saying. Do you speak Arabic?”
Neither of us spoke Arabic and politely tried to explain that most Pakistani immigrants speak Urdu, not Arabic.
Four police detectives from the Hate Crimes Task Force visited one of us the next day. Polite and professional, they apologized for the long and exhausting night. “That’s Seven O for you,” one of them said. They wanted to, once again, retrace the man’s steps and replay the events. On the way back, when asked about the Department’s resources in dealing with such episodes, one of them revealed that the Hate Crimes Task Force only had 14 detectives. Only 14? For all five boroughs? “We are not usually this busy,” the Detective replied. “New York is mostly a pretty tolerant city.”
Just as with previous anti-Semitic vandalism, these markings were promptly removed from the payphone. It was too much to tolerate. Yet, tolerance remains the accepted way we speak about our differences. Already more swastikas were found in other Brooklyn neighborhoods, most recently in Marine Park, Williamsburg, and Boro Park. Yet, we still don’t know whether the man we saw squiggling hateful words was in any way connected to other incidents, or why the police turned us away when we first reported it. Nor are we sure of what it is about all Jewish people – black, white, religious, atheist, rich and poor – that stirs this ancient hate. But this we learned: Tolerance is not a virtue. It is merely a word.
Shamar Hill, who is Jewish, African-American and Cherokee, graduated from the M.F.A. program at New York University, where he received a fellowship and worked with E.L. Doctorow. He is the recipient of the New York Foundation for the Arts Fiscal Sponsorship from 2008-2011; the 2008 Brooklyn Arts Council Artists’ Award; the 2008 Department of Cultural Affairs of New York City Award for Artists and the 2006-2007 recipient of the New York Foundation for the Arts Award in fiction. His work was featured on the public television series Caught in the Act: Art in Brooklyn. He has taught writing and literature at CUNY and NYU and currently teaches at the New School.
Steven Volynets is a Jewish Refugee born in Soviet Ukraine and raised in Central Brooklyn. After graduating Brooklyn College, he spent several years as news writer at the renowned PC Magazine, covering everything from gadgets to energy policy. Ultimately, his news gathering and reporting earned the network accolades from top media organizations, including the American Business Media Neal Award – the “Oscar” of business journalism. His writing appeared in major news outlets like ABC News, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, New York Daily News and others. He has also served as speechwriter and communication strategist to local officials and political candidates.