A 24-year-old Jewish Upper West Sider helps run the most important Arab-American organization in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, home to 35,000 Arabs
Though she’s lived in New York her entire life, Goldstein “thought Bay Ridge was in Queens” when she started working at the Arab-American Association. In her two and a half years there, she has become nearly as synonymous with it as Linda Sarsour. “This is the girl that I depend on for the whole life!” Habib Joudeh, a pharmacist who is the group’s vice-president, exclaimed to me one recent afternoon.
“Jennie keeps this place together,” Sarsour, the director, said. “She has a lot of energy and patience. I travel a lot, so I need to know it’s in the hands of a person like that. And there’s a mom thing about Jennie. She sees you’ve been working hard, she’ll go out and get you a rose. I’m not that mushy. We complement each other. People see two young women running this thing, one Jewish, one Palestinian.”
Goldstein would argue that she’s had the success she has had not because of what she’s done but because of what she hasn’t. The first time we met, in Crown Heights, where she lives, she was en route to smoke shisha in Queens. Don’t you get enough of that in Bay Ridge? I asked. “I don’t go into those,” she answered. “There isn’t a single woman in those places.” What would happen if she went in? “I’d get served. But they’d stare me down. People are so skeptical of my role here already that I try really hard to stay on the right side. If somebody on the street says something, I don’t answer, because I don’t know whose brother that person is.”
“If I said your job is to re-educate these people—” I began a question.
“False,” she replied. “And I learned early on not to call these people ‘these people.’ No one is successful in the world because they walk in and say my job is to re-educate. I am a guest in this community. The government doesn’t pay my rent—they do.”
When I visited Goldstein in Bay Ridge last week, she walked me around with a mother’s pride. “You know that Dave Chappelle bit about ‘gun store, liquor store’?” she said. “Well, here it’s nail salon, barber shop, halal butcher.” She could recite which neighborhood banks had been supportive of the Arab-American Association and which hadn’t. “That’s our congressman,” she said, pointing to a poster of Rep. Michael Grimm in a shop window. “He has the distinction of being the Tea Party’s first congressman from New York State. No thanks to us. The district also includes Staten Island. Without redistricting, we’ll never have a shot at one of our people in office,” she said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
The Arabs of Bay Ridge love Jennie Goldstein back. According to Goldstein and Sarsour, few know that she’s Jewish—the name Goldstein isn’t the clear indicator to them that it tends to be to native-born Americans. But that makes her no less foreign. “They have questions about me as an American,” Goldstein said. “Is this person going to hate me because I’m Arab? Is this person going to look down on me because I don’t speak English? They’re very aware of the discourse in this country.”
“Jennie is one of the easiest things about working at the association,” Roweida Jaber, a 41-year-old case manager, told me. I’d had to call her from Goldstein’s cell phone because it would have been inappropriate for a man to call her directly. She kept calling me “sir,” in the over-respectful way of a new immigrant. Of Palestinian descent, Jaber passed through Kuwait and Jordan before arriving in the United States in 2009. “I have never felt the difference between me and her, inside or outside,” she said.
Goldstein told me that she responds to the apartness of the Arab-American community not least because she comes from a people apart. Or, rather, a people that used to be apart. “My grandfather Joe was a master electrician in Corona, Queens,” she told me. “He went out of his way to hire black electricians because he knew what it was like to be discriminated against.” But Goldstein wonders if Jewish prosperity, especially in New York, has distanced some Jews from circumstances that might have made them more empathetic to the Arab and Muslim immigrant experience. “Sometimes, there’s a real inability to imagine what it’s like for the other side,” she said.
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