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The Kornbluh Riot

The discontent over unfair coronavirus restrictions in Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox communities is boiling over and turning inward

Armin Rosen
October 08, 2020
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Groups of protesters gather in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park to denounce lockdowns of their neighborhood due to a spike in COVID-19 cases, on Oct. 7, 2020Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Groups of protesters gather in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park to denounce lockdowns of their neighborhood due to a spike in COVID-19 cases, on Oct. 7, 2020Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A rebbe’s sukkah, with its high bamboo ceiling and billowing canvas walls, is outdoors and indoors and also strangely beyond the physical world, although the one I visited on Wednesday night happens to be in Borough Park. The tisch that happens inside the sukkah most nights of Sukkot is an unreal, sublime event. On a high platform behind the dais are the seven thrones of the ushpizin, the invisible visitors to the sukkah. Seats await Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David, and they do not feel the least bit empty, floating above the shtreimel-capped sea of guests below them.

The rebbe is the only one dressed in white. He drinks from a silver cup, and his face radiates a bliss that is almost metaphysical. His smiles are not normal smiles; perhaps only a rebbe’s face is capable of beaming with such intensity, and maybe only during Sukkot. The rebbe exudes pride at the singing and stomping and leaping students perched on the shaking bleachers, mixed with spiritual exhilaration, couched in an awareness that he is recreating a scene from centuries ago that was carried into the present only through miracles of human endurance and heavenly mercy. The rebbe’s tisch survived countless rounds of genocide, displacement, and pestilence. It is triumphing over another catastrophe right now, at this exact moment.

The tisches, of which there are a half-dozen major ones in the neighborhood most nights of Sukkot, were not canceled this year, even after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo promised a thorough lockdown in order to address a local uptick in the coronavirus positive test rate. On the night of Oct. 7, you could hear the mega-sukkahs blasting infectious Hasidic jigs from blocks away, like dueling warehouse raves. As one attendee put it, Hitler closed shuls—why should rebbes be in the business of closing them too?

One potential answer, of course, is that there’s a deadly pandemic in progress, and that the governor and mayor have promised to crack down on violators of their plague decrees, in order to safeguard public health and order. Yet canceling the tisches represents its own threat to spiritual and communal well-being, which are collectively what is known as “life” in much of the world, or at least used to be. Meanwhile the cops were nowhere to be seen, and an observer could fairly wonder whether rules as systematically unenforced as New York’s latest plague diktats actually count as rules.

The tisches represented a compromise position in Borough Park, a night after demonstrators burned masks in the middle of 13th Avenue and savagely beat a Hasidic social distancing advocate: The overwhelming majority of the neighborhood didn’t pay much attention to the governor’s new injunctions, but they also didn’t riot in opposition to them either.

The rebbes have legions of students and followers who live normal, law-abiding, nonsociopathic lives of study and devotion; Heshy Tischler, the demagogic radio host who has morphed into a kind of Jewish Al Sharpton and become a chief cultivator of the community’s anti-lockdown rage, boasts only a comet’s tail of rowdy admirers. Heshy is tall, rotund, loud, and shameless—an imposing physical presence, a human bludgeon with a sandpaper squawk and an intoxicating unconcern for the moral dimensions of what he says and does. He’s like a pathetic parody of the local rabbinic leadership.

Heshy’s comet tail can burst into a violent mob at his prompting, by way of a dark social alchemy that takes but seconds for him to perform. Just a block away from the holy netherworld of the rebbes’ sukkahs, I saw the sudden contagion of riot rage rot away a hundred Jewish minds at once, their anger surging toward someone whose mere presence was enough to trigger a terrifying and fearsomely spontaneous mass psychological breakdown.

That person is the journalist Jacob Kornbluh, of Jewish Insider. While it feels unfair to refer to his ordeal as the Kornbluh riot, Wednesday night’s uproar was unnerving and revealing precisely because it centered on one man alone. Scores of Jews decided that a fellow Jew represented everything they hated in that exact moment. They had come to the same conclusion on nearly the exact spot less than 24 hours earlier, when a man named Beresh Getz, the brother of the owner of the neighborhood’s beloved and sacred bookstore Eichler’s, was beaten unconscious.

For the second night in a row, Sukkot revelers in Borough Park embarked on a violent flight into mob justice. The sentence is an absurdity, but it is also an accurate description of events that really happened, many of which I personally witnessed. The Kornbluh riot is not the only or even the most important window into the reality of Jewish life in Borough Park during one of the most difficult weeks of the coronavirus pandemic—the tisches are a better guide to what people value and how they’re coping with the present crisis—but it is a window nonetheless.

The Kornbluh riot has its immediate origins in a threatening video that Tischler posted to Twitter on Wednesday morning. The rabble-rouser stood in the middle of a cemetery, “as a memory of all the Jews that were killed, all the Jews that were given away by kapos.” Tischler then unfolded a picture of Kornbluh. “He calls the mayor and he rats on us ... Mr. Kornbluth [sic], right here, this rat, you understand where rats belong. I’m not telling you anything, I’m not threatening you. He’s a murderer! He put a lot of our people here, this kapo, this illegal alien from London.”

It might have seemed foolhardy after such a warning for Kornbluh to attempt to cover a street party and protest on 13th Avenue on Wednesday night that Tischler claimed to have organized. Hundreds of people were already dancing and milling about by 9:45. However, this is America, and one has the right to feel and indeed be safe while doing their job in public in the neighborhood they live in. Journalists should not be governed by fear, least of all in New York. And though the crowd was not violent, a certain unease was palpable.

“We’d kill ourselves for our children’s education,” declared a thin man with long peyes smoking a cigarette and holding a cardboard sign that read “In G-d we trust”—all schools in the ZIP code had immediately been shut down when the city reimposed coronavirus restrictions. Explanations for the prior night’s nastiness were not hard to come by, and not entirely impossible to empathize with. “The only reason it’s not peaceful is people were very hurt,” a young rabbi and financier named Ari explained. “Would you be hurt if your neighborhood was shut down and picked on?”

I met up with Kornbluh on the west side sidewalk, underneath the entrance to a bagel shop. We stood just feet away from a red brick wall, whose existence would prove fateful just a few minutes later. The crowd was dotted with banners of belonging and defiance—Trump flags, American flags, a Gadsden flag, a Thin Blue Line flag. Kornbluh told me that if he happened to see Tischler, he would ask for an apology.

Was this wise? I asked. “I don’t know if it’s wise,” Kornbluh conceded. “I don’t mind the confrontation. He has to be condemned.”

These words had the eerie effect of summoning Tischler out of thin air. He stalked down the sidewalk, a Trump bumper sticker plastered over the chest of his trademark white dress shirt, and barreled directly past Kornbluh. Then, at the corner, as if realizing he had overshot his target, Tischler changed direction and powered toward the awaiting journalist, with a dozen or more followers tailing him. Tischler held a smartphone inches from Kornbluh’s face and bellowed: “This is the biggest kapo, everyone. Everyone scream: Moiser!” The crowd obliged, declaring the journalist an “informer” and his life forfeit, at least in theory.

Kornbluh has been a New York media fixture for the better part of a decade. He first gained prominence for breaking news of Anthony Weiner’s memorable faceoff with a heckler at a Brooklyn bakery during the 2013 mayoral campaign. I first met him in 2015, through a colleague at Business Insider who wasn’t Jewish. The fact Kornbluh is a Hasidic Jew stopped seeming like a novelty ages ago as his reporting skills became more and more obvious. Today, the most atypical thing about him isn’t his religious background but his ability to remain measured and unassuming in a local media environment oversaturated with over-the-top egomaniacs. Cool-headedness has been a particular asset during the pandemic, as Kornbluh has become one of the most forceful and controversial voices in support of Haredi communal compliance with plague-era medical guidelines.

“Wear a mask and apologize,” Kornbluh said, barely raising his voice as he stared down a bare-faced Tischler with almost superhuman self-control. “You’re a pig. You’re a moiser. Everyone scream ‘moiser!’” Tischler replied. Spittle rained on my notebook, though the missile might have originated from the cluster of young men now pressing in on Kornbluh. “Don’t spit at me,” Kornbluh requested. “Apologize.”

Moiser, moiser!” the crowd chanted, until the word lost all syllabic definition and the mob resembled a herd of lowing cattle. Tischler still had his phone shoved inches away from Kornbluh’s face.

The crowd began to press forward—for a moment I was crushed against the brick wall. Kornbluh seemed totally cornered. The scene resembled a rugby scrum, bodies pushing against a collapsing pocket of physical space. Kornbluh suddenly came under the protection of another Hasidic man who was much taller than him. “Get out of the way!” Kornbluh began to say, his voice nearing a shout. His guardian plunged into the wall of flesh and whisked him to temporary safety.

That’s not where it ended, though. Tischler’s comet’s tail was now a human stampede. It followed Kornbluh in fast pursuit, converging on his movements for at least two blocks. A quick-thinking NYPD officer established a phalanx on the east sidewalk with a couple of his colleagues, which succeeded in holding the enraged crowd back for all of about 30 seconds. Still, the anger of the throng and the intensity of the earlier bumrush was such that even a second’s delay might have been enough to stave off disaster.

When I caught up with Kornbluh he was being screened by a single NYPD officer, who faced an explosion of thrusting arms and stomping feet issuing from a dense and fast-moving cloud of antagonists. The cop displayed steely restraint against a mob that had very little respect for his authority or for his person. He then made a half-panicked call for vehicular backup as the semicircle of rioters, far larger than the first, tightened around him and Kornbluh.

“Go back to London!” one person yelled. “Moiser! Moiser!” shouted another. “Kapo!” “Nazi!” “Lock him up!”

For the second time, Kornbluh and his protector carved their way out of serious trouble. The journalist was whisked to the 66th NYPD precinct for his own safety. At 10:17, Kornbluh tweeted: “I was just brutally assaulted, hit in the head, and kicked at by an angry crowd of hundreds of community members of the Boro Park protest—while yelling at me ‘Nazi’ and ‘Hitler’—after Heshy Tischler recognized me and ordered the crowd to chase me down the street.” Which sounds plenty bad, but take it from someone who was in the middle of this thing that it could easily have been far worse.

In the immediate aftermath of the Kornbluh riot I figured my chances of finding Heshy Tischler again were pretty slim—despite the NYPD’s relatively thin presence I’d assumed, based on the previous five-odd minutes, that he’d been taken into custody. But there he was, walking among the free, posing for selfies, mugging for his fans.

“He tried to instigate the crowd,” Tischler claimed to me, in reference to Kornbluh. His voice was nearly gone, but he still spoke in musical Jewish Brooklynese, screeching out accelerating waves of one-man dialogue. “He kept saying you will apologize, you will apologize, he was instigating—just go away. He wants a war. And I’ll tell ya something, if Mayor de Blasio’s gonna lose, little Jacob Kornbluh’s gonna lose.” Aren’t ugly scenes like this kind of just counterproductive? I asked Tischler. “The man started a fight with me,” he countered. “What do you want me to do, stand there?”

I then pulled my rhetorical trump card, used only on the rarest and most desperate of intra-Judaic occasions: Aren’t the goyim going to see this? How exactly do we explain this to them? “You think goyim don’t fight with each other?” Tischler replied. “We fight with each other. I don’t see a problem. We have disagreements and if somebody’s gonna hurt the community for no reason— he actually lies about us—we don’t wanna hang out with him.”

Suddenly, Heshy’s name rang out from a PA system that had been used for playing music earlier in the evening. The interview was over; it was time for a speech. He thanked the cops: “Blue lives matter!” he bellowed in a grinding pro-wrestler shout. “I want to tell you we did great tonight. You were respectful, you were wonderful, you wore your masks, most of you ... I want to tell you all of course, watch my show Wednesday night at 9 o’clock. Anyways. We are going to have our shuls open. Nobody’s gonna shut the shuls. We’re gonna respect our brothers, our police officers. But you will daven. My promise to you before I start anything, you will daven in your shuls all the way till Sunday night.”

“Heshy! Heshy!” the crowd chanted.

“Yes, Mr. de Blasio,” he continued, “I was told not to call you a Nazi, so you’re just a plain pig!”

As a journalist it is easy for me to sympathize with Jacob Kornbluh, who was attacked in thuggish fashion for the mere reason of being in public. The harder but perhaps more important task is to understand his antagonists—the rank-and-file rioters, capable of violently fixating on a perceived enemy at the bidding of an obscure radio host. Jacob Kornbluh is not the source of these people’s problems, but their problems aren’t their own invention either.

Coronavirus enforcement in the Orthodox sectors of Brooklyn has in fact been haphazard and arbitrary. Threats against freedom of worship, even when they aren’t acted upon, should bother all people of faith—as well as everyone who believes in the constitutional protections that guarantee our right to free association. This is especially true when the authorities are actively encouraging certain forms of mass political protest, as if to draw a deliberate contrast in how these activities are treated. Summary closures of schools, including institutions that haven’t seen a single coronavirus case and that have spent substantial resources COVID-proofing their facilities, must seem unspeakably cruel to people who are trying to educate their children during a global catastrophe. The mere fact of Cuomo and de Blasio deciding to switch up the coronavirus status quo in the middle of Sukkot, rather than consulting with Jewish leadership at any other, less sensitive point in time, is rightly viewed with outrage.

But how had these grievances curdled into something so toxic among even a few dozen people here, never mind hundreds? Why had they rioted with so little prodding? It couldn’t just be Heshy Tischler’s talents as a provocateur—could it?

In the Kornbluh riot, and in the beating of Beresh Getz the night before, one could detect the self-defeating tedium of the fight against the same old cast of literal and figurative external enemies. For all his pratfalls, de Blasio is a lofty and distant figure; few of us are really acquainted with mayors, which means they have no ability to really betray us. Internal enemies are closer, more intimate, more known. In a time where the Manhattan skyline hardly seems to exist anymore, the stakes of protecting the very core of individual life—religious beliefs and practices and educating children in this community, for instance—feel impossibly high. Meanwhile, the abstraction of the world beyond those immediate priorities is shrouded by a thick and unending haze.

It is perhaps this sense of an embattled permanence, sharpened by the stasis and claustrophobia of an open-ended quarantine, that makes dissenters intolerable. This is especially true in a time of crisis, like the one many Brooklyn Haredi Jews believe themselves to be in, and the one that is being experienced by most of the rest of New York City and the country as a whole. Dissidents, whether individuals, and sometimes entire communities, are viewed as a danger to the only things that matter anymore—someone’s notion of religion, or someone’s notion of science, or anything real and permanent that exists beyond the haze. And yet, in either case, there is no expunging or eliminating them.

After things calmed down I tried my “what will the goyim think of this?” line on a 22-year-old yeshiva student named Yochanan. “Who cares?” he replied, a blunt statement of defiance against a disappearing wider world, as well as an honest accounting of his priorities. Then he asked another question, one that startled me too much to even attempt an answer: “How does a community of a half-a-million people feel about a snitch?” It turned out everything from the past two nights came down to simple cause and effect, he said: “You try closing up the ZIP codes, you end up with a riot and a guy with broken bones. Hopefully it stops here.”

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.