A play blaming Jews for the Crown Heights riots of 1991 has opened at a new theater on West 42nd Street that was built in part with a tax-exempt, multimillion-dollar city bond.
The play, called “Crown Heights,” portrays the murder of chasidic scholar Yankel Rosenbaum as a tragic accident in a fight in which Jews threw the first punch. It is a production of the All Stars Project, Inc., one of a cluster of organizations connected to Lenora Fulani, a fringe political activist who has been accused of antisemitism, and to the self-described “social therapist” and alleged cult leader Fred Newman, her longtime political ally. Fulani, 53, is a co-founder of the All Stars Project. Newman, 68, is a co-author of the play and the artistic director of the Project’s Castillo Theater.
The play begins with a video of interviews about the riots, mostly of Fulani and her associates, including her chauffeur and members of the All Stars Project staff. The clip presents Fulani herself as an arbitrator, calming blacks ready to take “defensive” measures against what she calls “chasidim throwing rocks and bottles.” “We talked to who we could talk to [for the video],” said Dan Friedman, co-author of the play with Newman, adding that the chasidim they spoke with refused to participate.
In “Crown Heights,” both blacks and Jews, played by teen actors, confront the aftermath of the death of a fictionalized Gavin Cato, the 7-year-old black child accidentally run over by a car in the motorcade of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Schneerson. According to contemporary accounts, a vehicle accompanying Scheerson’s car struck the child and his cousin, who was injured but survived. A Jewish volunteer ambulance, which was the first emergency vehicle to respond, was directed by police to leave the scene without the children, because officers feared violence from a crowd that had gathered at the scene, but left only after the arrival of a second ambulance.
The dramatized “Crown Heights” depicts the incident rather differently. In the play, Scheerson’s own car hits the child; both his car and a Jewish ambulance leave the scene immediately, implying that the Jews are guilty of leaving the children to die. “There’s a black boy bleeding,” actors sing, “as the rabbi just runs.” When one of the Jews is in turmoil over his community’s guilt (“we moved into their country”), and thus sympathetically portrayed, his fellow Jews prefer to take refuge in memories of their own victimhood. The black community, “hungry for justice,” must only judge how to respond to the Jews, “smug and safe in their white skins,” who “turned their back” on a dying child.
The play also fictionalizes Rosenbaum’s death, for which two men were convicted on federal civil rights charges. The victim, an Australian tourist, was accosted by a gang of youths while walking alone, taunted with antisemitic slurs and then stabbed to death. When two groups of young men — one black and one Jewish — meet in the play’s portrayal of the incident, they trade racial slurs until a Jew leaps at a black man. In the ensuing melee, one of the Jews runs into the knife, held by a black youth in safekeeping for a friend. This innocent teenager is thrown into jail, where — in the finale — he decides to marry his Jewish social worker.
“The play is pro-Jewish,” said Newman in an interview with the Forward. “I don’t believe in the truth,” he said, adding that the play is “not a depiction of historical events.”
A monologue opening the play itself, however, claims that the depiction is “closer to the truth than what is sometimes labeled New York reality.”
“It’s trying to have it both ways,” said Joel Levy, New York regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, who calls the production “disturbing.”
The organizations behind the play have repeatedly faced charges of antisemitism. According to a report in the Forward, a 1992 East Village production by the same theater, “Dead as a Jew,” portrayed the Jew as a “despicable creature… responsible for the present-day Holocaust of minorities and his own Shoah.” According to the weekly New York Observer, in a 1992 forum sponsored by Newman’s East Side Institute for Short Term Psychotherapy, Al Sharpton and Newman concluded that the Jewish community needed to “realize its fault” with regard to the Crown Heights incident. “The Jewish community has lied,” said Newman at the event, “and we will expose it.” In his recent interview with the Forward, Newman said he did not remember that event.
The All Stars Project’s $12 million, 31,000 square-foot performing arts center, located on 42nd Street near 11th Avenue on the edge of New York’s Theater District, was made possible through $8.25 million in tax-exempt bonds issued by New York City’s Industrial Development Agency. On November 13, 2003, the center’s grand opening was marked by the New York City Council with a proclamation honoring the All Stars Project’s “outstanding service to the City.”
The All Stars Project, Newman’s East Side Institute and the Fulani-run Independence Party share members, philosophies and contributors. The two founded the erstwhile New Alliance Party; Newman is a member of the Independence Party and the Project has given money to the Institute. The All Stars Project recorded an income of $2.5 million in 2002, without any government funding, thanks in part to support from a roster of Fortune 500 companies including Bear Stearns and New York Life Insurance Company.
Despite the numerous links between the two organizations, Gabrielle Kurlander, president of the All Stars Project, a former actress with its theater and a former patient of Newman’s Institute, denied that any money from the Project went to Fulani’s Independence Party.
Zackary Sholem Berger is a frequent contributor to the Forward and the Yiddish Forward. He lives in Baltimore.