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A Young Man From Omaha, Who May Perfectly Represent Brooklyn

Susan Dominus – The New York Times

BROOKLYN, NY — Moments before Yosef Abrahamson, 16, accepted an award for the essay he’d written in a competition sponsored by the Police Athletic League, an officer approached him to complain about his fedora. The hat, an essential wardrobe item for Hasidic men, was gaudy, the policeman told him, and what’s with all these kids today and their nose rings and their attitudes. A second police officer, overhearing the conversation, came over to steer away the first one, who reappeared a few minutes later to apologize. He’d never seen a Hasidic Jew, he told Yosef.

A policeman working in New York who’d never seen a Hasidic Jew? What he probably meant, Yosef theorized, was “that he’d never seen a Hasidic Jew of color. I think he was probably making some assumptions there.”

Thanks to his Egyptian father, who left the family when Yosef was young, and his maternal grandfather, who was of African descent by way of Panama, Yosef looks African-American (though his family prefers to describe themselves as Jews of color, believing their culture to be exclusively Jewish). Yosef moved to Crown Heights only a year ago, until then having lived in Omaha, where his mother’s maternal family, German Jewish merchants, had settled several generations earlier.

Officer Olai Mataat, the 2nd officer who
saved the day with Yosef Abrahamson

If Yosef, who attends the yeshiva Darchai Menachem in Crown Heights, ever finds himself writing a college application essay, his advisers would have a hard time choosing which of his compelling story lines would most dazzle those college admissions officers: The story of growing up in the only Hasidic family in Omaha? Or the story of being the only student of color in his yeshiva? Or maybe the story of being the only Hasidic person of color in Omaha’s competitive ice skating circuit?

Despite the friendships he made while ice skating, a hobby his mother encouraged to round him out, life in Omaha was “a bit lonely,” Yosef admitted last week while eating a Kosher hamburger on Albany Avenue with his mother and his older sister, Sarah, 22. His mother, Dinah, who joined the Chabad-Lubavitch movement after seeing videos of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson several years ago, home-schooled both of her children.

Yosef was obviously sheltered from too much scrutiny from the outside world, but the surprising combination of his race and his particular form of religious observance fazed no one in Omaha — for all the average person knew in Omaha, all Hasidic Jews were of African descent, his mother said. When friends from Nebraska first visited New York, they were fascinated to meet some white Hasids for the first time.

It was easier for Ms. Abrahamson to raise her children in Omaha than it would have been in Crown Heights, she said.

“People are laid-back in Omaha,” she said. “It’s different there.”

Omaha is not, for example, a place where race relations between Jews and blacks have exploded into days of riots, as they did in Crown Heights in 1991; nor have the police in Omaha ever deemed it necessary to set up mobile command centers to monitor simmering tensions between Jews and blacks, as the New York police did last month in the Brooklyn neighborhood in response to two unrelated physical altercations.

A young man like Yosef could easily start to feel like a powerful symbol, rather than just a kid, the human embodiment of that famously controversial Art Spiegelman New Yorker cover depicting a Hasidic man embracing an African-American woman.

But life in Crown Heights is somehow less complicated than that for Yosef, a tall, athletic young man who seems to have internalized Omaha’s easygoing ways (and its broad Midwestern accent). Beyond the misunderstanding at the awards ceremony — of which Yosef said, “It was a bit strange, but really, I understand” — he says he has felt comfortable in Crown Heights from the moment he came there to advance his education.

Through summer camps and occasional trips to New York, the Abrahamsons were already familiar to the Jewish community in Crown Heights when he arrived last fall (the community has only a handful of other black families). The response from the African-American community has been, if anything, amazement. “Now I’ve seen everything,” an African-American man said three or four times as he passed Yosef and his mother and his sister walking home from synagogue.

Some black neighbors recently asked Ms. Abrahamson questions about the meaning of some Lubavitch fliers they had received in the mail. The family sensed that the neighbors had long been harboring those questions but had felt a certain comfort level with the Abrahamsons because of their shared skin color.

If there have been resentful or disapproving responses from either side, they have apparently gone as far over Yosef’s head as the references his ice skating friends used to make to movies or television shows he’d never seen.

The ease with which both communities have received Yosef seems a little unlikely, but appropriate in the year of what some call the country’s first post-racial presidential campaign. Except that the Abrahamsons consider themselves “post-racial, for real,” said Ms. Abrahamson, a Republican delegate in Nebraska who is not a fan of Mr. Obama. To the contrary, the whole family strongly supports John McCain, and Yosef will be a page at the Republican National Convention in the Twin Cities in September.

One more item to add to that list of possible essay topics.

17 Comments

  • 1. Welcoming comittee! wrote:

    Welcome, welcome!! Oh, I hope our community gets to meet the Abrahamson’s this September! Maybe while they are in the Twin Cities they will stay with our Chabad community in St Paul, MN? That would be so nice.

  • 2. CHer wrote:

    You truly are an inspiration, as well as your sister, Sarah. I know her personally, and she is truly an inspiration and a leader! May the world learn to accept an embrace all yidden of every color and background!

  • 3. Yisroel Lazerson wrote:

    I know Yosef personally … he’s a true Chasid of the Rebbe Nosi Do”reinu – May you and your family go Me’Chayil el Chayil!

    Moshiach Now!

  • 4. We Are Proud wrote:

    You are the pride of the USA in general … Crown Heights in Particular .. and especially All of those who Love the works of our Rebbe!!!

    May you continue your great studies .. and become a leader amongst leaders! The Rebbe can use every good man in his army!!!

  • 5. Way to go!!!!!! wrote:

    Bh

    yosef na dfamily way to go!!!!!!!!!!!!

    you guys are great giving the Rebbe nachas
    Moshiach now!!!!!!!

  • 6. crown heights wrote:

    wow this is an amazing kiddish hashem the rebbe would be so proud of you and Iam sure he is .

  • 7. OYVAY wrote:

    I still dont see the need to exploit yosef! there are many jews of color, Mexican, Asian, Spanish, and Ireland.

    Besides the boy is soo young he must feel so uncomfortable with you guys doing all this.
    Why are you putting him on the podium to talk about the color of his skin?
    How far will the shtetel mentality go?
    Does he have to vote for Mccain for you to accept him? PURE nonsense.. articles like these show that there is not enough to write about.
    This will only lead to hurting him in the end! this is not the jewish spirit!..

  • 8. NJer wrote:

    In response to ‘OYVEY’: YOU are depicting the ‘shtetl mentality’, there are too many racists in Crown Heights, and that is why he needs to stand up and confront the issue head on by embracing the diversity. Ask yourself this question: Imagine you were offered a shidduch for yourself/your sibling/your child, this shidduch is a lovely, chasiddish, aidel ‘person of color’, In the deep confines of your mind what thoughts do you honestly have? I think many CHers will unfortunately prefer to say no to this shidduch. THIS is why diversity needs to be introduced head on to the lovely but unfortunately small-minded people of Crown Heights.

  • 9. anon wrote:

    FARVOS KOCHT MEN AZOY FIL IN CHIZONIUS?
    CHASSIDUS ZOGT PUNKT FARKERT
    GENUG SHOYIN. ES IZ GEVEN GUT OBER…NU!

  • 11. oyvay wrote:

    Dear NJER,

    You sound like the type of person who would have a personal problem. I dont have to go to the deep confines of my mind to assert that.

    Jewish Diversity is nothing new.
    Those who are pnimim already embraced it!
    Those who koch in chitzoneus have the problem.
    its no different from red necks in the boondocks who feel superior in their own shell, until they come to the light of todays modern world!

  • 12. open eye wrote:

    “Thanks to his Egyptian father, who left the family when Yosef was young, and his maternal grandfather, who was of African descent by way of Panama, Yosef looks African-American”
    what kind of sarcastic comment is that?
    we need the Rebbe….

  • 13. anon20 wrote:

    in response to Njer:

    what really bewilders me is the fact that frum yidden of crown heights need someone like yosef to be there example! why should we need one?! we should know and be accepting already! we have spent so many years sitting at the feet of the rebbe during farbrengens….we have been instilled with the idea of shlichus!,outreach…and you mean to tell me that if someone from taiwan came to crown heights and he were a full chassidishe frum jew with yiras shamayim that crown heights….with everything that it stands for would reject that person when it comes to shidduchim?!! its a shame that its actually being said on crownheights.info. we should never need someone to show us how to be, we need to be the examples for chabad ALL over the world, ALL the time, and if we cant do that, then all of us CHers going out on shlichus is a total hoax, because we dont even live by what we preech as the foundation of chabad, oh better yet TORAH!! ahavas yisroel….i agree with oyvey, leave the kid alone to grow and to learn and have positive experiences.

  • 14. NJer wrote:

    anon 20: your false idealism is hilarious, go take a consensus around CH and tell me what you get = small mindedness, as much as I love my fellow lubavitchers I have to admit that they are small minded in certain areas.
    Your naiveity is appalling.

    oyvey: the personal problem is not mine its your fellow neighbours, I may be wrong that all people will react like that but I am definately right in saying that many or most may act like that, denying it is useless as I have encountered way too many racist CHers over the years. I on the other hand am not racist at all, I am very close with some black jews and would not hesitate making a shidduch with my child if they had children.

  • 15. MJ wrote:

    The police officer questioning him about his black hat reminds me of an earlier incident. When I was dating my future wife, we once went to Windows on the World in the WTC. The receptionist asked me to remove my black hat. I asked, “Why?” She replied, “It’s like wearing blue jeans!”

  • 16. anon20 wrote:

    in response to njer- i agree with many points you have explained in your last comment to oyvey, i know crown heights, i grew up here, i know the facts, however i wish it were ideal the way i described.

  • 17. Oyvay wrote:

    Hey Nj.
    In the last comment I will say that you did make some good points..
    However, I see gradual change in CH. It is true that there are some nasty families out there…but guess what those same families have children who wish their parents were not so jaded and backwards. those same parent who try to make their kids marry the dollar and not pure love.
    As a Father I myself would accept any jew, color or not, into my family to marry one of my daughters or sons as long as they are good g-d fearing jews pref chassidim too.
    I wish all those other families would do the same. in the end, bashert is bashert. who am I to play g-d? Torah is Torah, all else in nonsense.
    But little Yosef will not change close mindedness overnight. I still think they should leave the boy alone and let him learn with peace of mind.

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