Matthew Shaer is the author of “Among Righteous Men: A Tale of Vigilantes and Vindication in Hasidic Crown Heights.” His blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
I did not set out to write a book about Jews.
In fact, I was warned repeatedly against it — by friends, acquaintances, publishing professionals. I remember an early phone call with a well-known editor at a publishing house in Manhattan, who told me, in no uncertain terms, that “people don’t buy Jewish-themed books.” He must have heard me collecting my breath on the other end of the line, because he quickly added: “Even Jews don’t buy books about Jews. And definitely not books about Hasidic Jews. Sorry.” Still, I considered what I stumbled across to be a good story, and I was loathe to take his advice.
In the spring of 2008, I had been dispatched by New York magazine to the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, to interview the members of a Hasidic anti-crime patrol called the Shmira (“Watchers,” roughly, in Hebrew). For the most part, the Shmira were considered a relatively benign community presence — responsible for ferrying elderly women to the bus stop, or fixing flat tires, and so on — but that spring, a couple members of the group had allegedly set upon a black college student named Andrew Charles, and beat him around the back and arms with a night stick.