Crown Heights. Ir HaKodesh. Di Rebbe’s Heilike Schunah. The Chabad Ghetto.
Crown Heights means taking the 6 train to the 5 or the 4, whichever hits 14th St first. Then it’s the 3 at Franklin, past Nostrand, straight to Kingston. It means exiting the station on left side, the JCM side, because turning right will deposit you right in front of 770, and a single girl shouldn’t be seen mingling with Yeshiva bochurim, even by accident.
Crown Heights means meeting tourists at the big dreidel, a landmark that no one can miss. It means crossing the street before you get to Chocolatte, because that’s a hangout more than it’s anything else these days, and you’re trying to keep your reputation clean. It means meeting friends at Sweet Expressions, the ice cream shop on the corner of President instead. Ironically, Sweet Expressions is in better standing, even though it’s known to be the shop where the cute server will give you a scoop for free if you smile at him right.
Crown Heights means buying your produce at Mr. Green’s, because unlike Raskin’s, they accept Tomchei Shabbos coupons, and their vegetables are fresher by far. It means going to Ben-Z’s for your fresh-cut salmon, and your quality dark chocolate, and your kale chips and coconut oil, the only kosher place in Crown Heights hipster enough to sell it.
It means buying your seforim at Judaica World, where Levi the cashier always used to hold a copy of the newest novels for you until you came. It means stationary from Zakon’s, ooey gooey birthday donuts for your 5th grade class from Albany bake shop, and buying your school uniform at Little People’s where thank G-d they know you well enough to respect your credit.
It means sending your twelve year old to pick up your Shabbos liquor order from Eber’s while the rest of your kids grab Friday afternoon fries from Kingston Pizza, newly reopened by the Board of Health yet again. It means sending your boys to Lubavitch Yeshiva, the one on Crown of course, because there’s no way any child of yours is going as far out of town as Ocean Parkway. You can’t send them to Oholei Torah either, because your sons will have a secular education even if the tuition kills you, even if they have to wait until 7th grade to get it.
It means sending your girls to Beth Rivka, where their little bodies are soon swallowed up by the blue-on-blue crush of humanity that swarms through the maroon doors of 470 Lefferts Avenue every day. It means sending them to Beth Rivka Crown Street for high school where they once again disappear into the mass of black-on-white-on-green, their individuality suppressed for another four years. It means knowing they might do better somewhere smaller, somewhere freer, but the very thought of inviting stigma is a paralyzing one.
Crown Heights means double-checking that your makeup is on point before leaving the house, that even your “casually” messy bedhead is artfully styled, because in Crown Heights, everyone is watching and everyone is waiting. They are waiting for you to prove yourself worthy, waiting to introduce you to the perfect boy, waiting for you to be as excited about it as they are, waiting to squeal “Mazal Tov!” as they hug you too tightly, waiting to dance at your wedding, waiting for you to finally crack under the pressure of being watched, waiting, waiting, waiting…
Crown Heights means understanding both the utter devotion and the utter disdain something as simple as the color yellow can inspire. It means knowing the politics behind either emotion and wishing you didn’t. Crown Heights means not being afraid of talking to strangers – you’ve been asking them “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” for as long as you can remember. It means adding that extra ounce of chutzpah when you introduce yourself and say “Hi, I’m Chabad.”
Crown Heights means arriving at 770 and feeling an overwhelming rush of familiarity, of home. It means knowing that you always have a seat a table, be it in Brooklyn or Beijing. It means knowing that you are never alone, because there will always be a friend of a cousin’s aunt’s brother-in-law’s neighbor who is more than willing to open their house and their heart and their sofa-bed for you. It means knowing that for better or worse, there will always be a L’chaim ready and waiting when you arrive.