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Mordechai Lightstone

Oral history interview conducted by Zaheer Ali

December 15, 2016

Call number: 2016.027.1.04

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ALI: OK. Today is Thursday, December 15th, 2016. I am Zaheer Ali, from Brooklyn Historical Society, and I am here at 556 Crown Street, which in the -- in an office for Chabad, and I am here with Mordechai Lightstone. And this interview is for the Voices of Crown Heights Oral History Project. So even though I've just interv-- introduced you, we always like the narrator to introduce themselves. So if you can, introduce yourself again by stating your full name, your birth date, and where you were born.

LIGHTSTONE: Yeah, hi, I am Mordechai Lightstone. I was born in Los Angeles, California, [date redacted for privacy] 1984.

ALI: OK. So tell me a little bit about your family background.

LIGHTSTONE: So I grew up I guess you'd call a traditional Los Angeles Jew, in the sense that I was not necessarily very -- very observant. But my families had 1:00a -- a strong sense of Jewish identity, to the point that -- my grandparents were in Montreal, and my great-grandparents were largely from Montreal, some from New York, from England, but very much had the Montreal -- the Montreal Jewish community's very tight-knit and very traditional. And so even though I grew up in Los Angeles -- which is, largely speaking, a very secular Jewish community, more secular so than New York or the East Coast or anything like that -- we had a strong sense of Jewish self, so that even if it didn't necessarily express itself in terms of practical observance, you know, everything felt very Jewish to me as a child. I mean, to the point that as a young kid, even though I knew there were non-Jews in the world and I had non-Jewish friends, non-Jewish neighbors, everyone and everything felt Jewish to me.

ALI: What does that mean, "felt Jewish"?

LIGHTSTONE: That's a good question. I mean, I think in -- in the sense that just it was -- it would be surpri-- I -- for example, hearing, you know, childhood stories about Russia, right, where my great-great-grandparents were from. So even though, you know, there -- there were obviously Jews and non-Jews in 2:00Russia, in Los Angeles the Jewish community -- the Russian community, I should say -- is largely Jewish. I don't know the exact percentage, but I do know there's a lot of Jews there. And so to me it felt that, you know, all -- the whole Russia? just must be Jewish, must be this massive Jewish country -- even though obviously that's very much not the case. But it just -- you know, the -- the -- the sense of, you know, the Jewish -- you know, the -- the -- population-wise, where we were in the world, it just felt much bigger. Even if, you know, you knew we were smaller -- and obviously all kinds of people, and people are great -- and then the -- not a sense of any superiority or any judgment or anything like that, but just -- it to me just felt like, you know, well, pretty much everyone is Jewish, you know, four out of five people. And I don't know, I mean, I'm just, you know, applying numbers now retroactively to the way it felt as a small ki-- child. But...

ALI: Do you remember any particular incident or experience where your sense of being Jewish really came to you in a strong way?

LIGHTSTONE: Yeah, so I mean, as I said, I wasn't particularly religious. I mean, we went to -- I went to Hebrew school, I went to Jewish preschool, and 3:00kindergarten, and then after that I -- it was, like, a Sunday school that we went to and bar mitzvah training and things like that as the years progressed. But, I mean, I had all kinds of general interests, you know, Star Wars and Dungeons and Dragons and -- and things like that. That said, as [phone ringing] a kid -- [inaudible].

ALI: We can -- if you can...

LIGHTSTONE: I -- probably that's my [inaudible].

ALI: Let's pause the recording.

LIGHTSTONE: Yeah, one second.

[break in audio]

ALI: So we've resumed recording the oral history interview on December 15th, 2016, with Mordechai Lightstone, continued. You were -- we were -- I had asked you was there any particular experience that you remember, or an experience that you remember, where your sense of -- of being Jewish really kind of became really strong?

LIGHTSTONE: Right. So, I mean, as a kid, in -- in Los Angeles, Los Angeles Jewish community, Fairfax Avenue was kind of the main Jewish thoroughfare in the sense that you know, some-- someone who may not even traditionally keep kosher, 4:00if you want to buy kosher food, you want to get a challah -- which is, you know, bread used for Shabbat, the Sabbath -- or anything like that, you kind of -- you would go to Fairfax and pick up the things there. Judaica, mezuzah, you would go to Fairfax, buy it, and leave -- today, actually, Los Angeles has experienced some things, and it's shifted and moved around, but Fairfax still has that legacy. And very much when I was a kid, when -- I remember going to Fairfax and seeing observant Jews, you know, seeing Hasidic children, and, you know, I myself, I didn't have a yarmulke; I didn't have tzitzit; I didn't have any of the religious garb or anything like that, but seeing them and immediately wanting to say hello and use, you know, whatever Hebrew words I knew or things like that to reach out to them, just because, to me, that just awoke something inside of me. But in general, I mean, it felt very safe, you know, in Los Angeles for me. I was blessed and privileged, as it were, to -- to grow up, you know, in, you know, a -- a middle-class home in LA. My parents owned their home at the time. I mean, you know, they worked in the film industry, which had a certain level of prestige in Los Angeles, which you didn't necessarily have, you 5:00know, otherwise. You know, if they weren't necessarily, you know, big ranking things. My father was a production sound-mixer and things like that. But in any event -- but, you know, seeing the -- you know, the Jewi-- the Hasidic kids, you know, that aroused in me to want to say something and reach out to them. The opposite, so to speak, occurred in 1991. So I was in the car with my mother, and she's going through the radio, and I guess it had been -- Howard Stern was on, who -- today he's a household name, for better or for worse; he's a personality that's well-known. At the time, at least in LA, he wasn't well-known. I think he'd been bigger on the East Coast, and he had just come to the West Coast. And so he was -- this was probably September or something like that -- he was joking about the Crown Heights riots, about -- saying, "Oh, you know, the driver, and he has a -- he's driving, and a yarmulke fell in front of his eyes, and that's why they couldn't see," and all kinds of, like, off-color things that he would be wont to say. So for me, that was two things: that was the first time I had heard Crown Heights mentioned -- and at the time, I'd -- I mean, I'm a -- I'm a 6:00little kid. I was probably, you know, seven years old or something like that. My mother got very upset and pulled over the car. And I asked her, you know -- you know, "What's going on?" She said, you know, "This guy's joking, and Jews are being attacked in New York." And so for me that was a shocking thing to hear, that, you know, in America, in the modern day, that Jewish people could somehow be unsafe, that felt unprecedented. And that was kind of shocking to me. I won't say that it -- it shook me up to my core, because I was a little kid, and there was -- but just that idea, that knowledge that the world wasn't the way it seemed, that, you know, everyone is not either Jewish or Jewish-friendly or things like that, that there can be this sense of, you know, danger that exists for the Jewish people. And that was the first time I'd experienced that then. And -- but, I mean, after that, I kind of resumed my li-- you know, my day-to-day life. It was just this moment that occurred to me. Actually -- because of the anniversary of the riots, I spoke to my mother, and she didn't even remember the incident. But it -- just to me, it was just one of those things that, like, well yeah. But, you know, I went to public school, community 7:00magnet, Los Angeles, I went to something called -- it -- I went to Walter Reed for middle school, which is -- has something called the IHP, the individualized honors program, so I guess I somehow fit into that group. And overall I think I did pretty well in my studies. Not amazingly well; I'm, like, a B+ student, that type of thing. You know, I do well, but I don't, you know -- anyhow. But I -- after middle -- around that time I had my bar mitzvah training. And the way that it worked, in Los Angeles, Temple Israel of Hollywood, which is the big Reform synagogue that we belonged to -- so they were very -- you know, the -- I mean, there was -- it was an interesting place there. And my parents at -- around that time, around the time of my bar mitzvah, got divorced. And so money became a much tighter thing between, you know -- for the both of them. My father had a little bit of trouble with work at the time. And so leading up to my bar mitzvah, my parents could no longer afford the price that they attached to attending the bar mitzvah study program there. And also they said, "Well, you 8:00know --" -- Jonathan is my English name -- they said, "Jonathan doesn't really, you know, understand Hebrew very well, and he won't really be ready for his bar mitzvah until he's probably 14 or 15. So we could do some sort of slower program, but, you know, we're not going to be able to hit that 13-year-old date." I was 12 at the time. So we ended up going to a different program with someone else, this independent rabbi. I studied for my bar mitzvah, had a bar mitzvah. But then shortly after that, I think I took that idea of being Jewish very seriously, and the idea of a bar mitzvah being attached to the idea of Jewish adulthood and, you know, entrance into the, you know, ritual observance and things like that is something important to me -- even based on relatively what I knew to do. So in that sense we had a -- a friend of the family who had a son. They were Irish Catholic -- they were actually from Ireland -- and the kid hadn't heard of the Holocaust. So for me it was very important to take this kid -- I mean, at the time I'm 13. This kid is, like, 6 or something. I -- and we schlepped him to the Holocaust museum -- which -- I don't know if that is really 9:00actually something that a six-year-old can appreciate, the -- but anyhow, that's what I felt was an important thing to do, that people should be aware of this history and these things like that. You know, I remember lighting the menorah around Chanukah, the holiday then -- that it was also -- even though in the scheme of Jewish things it's not necessarily the largest holiday -- you know, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, they're bigger days -- but it was very important to me, you know, to go there and light the candles and just to do whatever I could do and whatever I knew to do. I have an uncle, my mother's brother. So at the time he lived in Montreal, and he was going through his own divorce. And he had kind of moved out, and he'd moved next to the Lubavitch community in Montreal. Now, in terms of the Chabad community, Montreal in -- in North America's probably -- I mean, definitely was the second largest community, outside of Crown Heights. Today Los Angeles may be the largest community outside of Crown Heights, but at the time Montreal was kind of number two. And definitely a very traditional community, in the old-school sense of things, where you had, you know, elderly Chasidim and there was just the -- I mean, people used to say that 10:00Montreal has the air of Lubavitch, meaning Lubavitch in Russia. So it had this interesting, unique feel to it. So my uncle had moved next to the community and became involved, going to synagogue and things like that as he was going through his own personal journey. And so when I was 14 years old I went to visit my grandparents in Montreal. And so I stayed with my grandparents. They're more traditional -- they kept Kosher at home; you know, they made a Friday-night meal every week. And my uncle had been spending every Shabbat -- he was every -- he was going to Snowden, to kind of the Jewish Chabad area over there. And so he said to me, "Why don't you come with me this weekend and go there." So -- and I went with him. And I -- we spent Friday night -- we went to the house -- I mean, all these things, in terms of kind of the people I met then, years later, after I became religious, which I guess we'll get to whatever it is -- ended up being -- you know, the people I met, you know, back then, I ended up meeting in -- later in life. But anyway, went to someone's house Friday night. The meal was very nice. Next day we went to synagogue. And I was very apprehensive about going to synagogue, because even though I felt, you know, being Jewish was very 11:00important to me, and ritual observance was important to me, the idea of sitting in a synagogue when you're 14 years old isn't necessarily the most exciting thing to do. And on top of that, in the Jewish law you're not allowed to carry on Shabbat. You're not allowed to -- I mean, there are specific, you know, limitations like that, but you weren't allowed to carry. So my uncle said, "You can't carry anything." And I had a book, some fantasy book, and -- "I want to bring this with me." He said, "You can't carry it." So I ended up sticking -- I had just bought a pair of pants with really big pockets -- this was, you know, the nineties, right? So you had these big pockets. And I stuck the novel in there. And I actually never ended up looking at the book. I just carried it around with me the entire day, not even looking at it. But we went to synagogue. We got there relatively late, so it was, you know, the rabbi's speech at the end, the second half of the prayers, and then there was Kiddush. Kiddush was probably, you know, after the -- all the davening, all the prayers are done. So then somebody sanctifies the day. Normally it's done with a cup of wine. In the kind of Lubavitch community, because of this tie to Russia, so very often people will drink vodka. And so when you're 14 years old and it's twelve o'clock -- 12:00which to me felt like, you know, early in the morning -- and you see someone saying, "L'chaim!" -- you know, taking a shot of vodka, even if it's not a lot, it kind of blows your mind. Like, these people are drinking first thing in the morning, you know; what's going on here? And they were eating -- at the time I was a -- a vegetarian -- of sorts. I ate chicken; I didn't eat -- I'd been a vegetarian when I was very young, and my parents kind of slowly snuck in more meat. I didn't eat red meat, though. So I saw people eating cholent, which is this kind of stew that's eaten on Shabbat, and it's made of potatoes and meat and barley and beans, things like that. And it's slow-cooked. The idea is that because you can't cook on the Sabbath, so you set it up on Friday, and it cooks until the morning. So I see these people; they're drinking vodka and they're eating, like, red meat, like, first thing in the morning -- even though it's, like, 12:30 -- first thing in the morning. It was just like this, like, kind of, like, "What's wrong with this?" or whatever. But the synagogue we went to, it wasn't a really, I would say, you know, old-school synagogue. It was a Chabad house. It was made to be acceptable and a place where people of various backgrounds could feel warm and -- you know, and come in. And so it was a welcoming environment. It wasn't necessarily a bad thing. In any event, I was 13:00with my uncle, and he said, "You know, I have a friend, this guy named Shmuel, and Shmuel's son is going to be -- have a bar mitzvah next week." So I was 14; my bar mitzvah had been the year before, and so the Shmuel's son -- I forget his name right now. Let me think -- whatever his name was -- but the son was having a bar mitzvah. So my uncle said that he's going. Saturday night he's driving me to Crown Heights. "Do you want to come?" And I figured, you know...

ALI: From Montreal.

LIGHTSTONE: From Montreal, yes. So I figured, like, for me to go to New York, yeah. I haven't been to New York in years. I mean, the time before when I was in New York was, like, '89. I mean, just in terms of my New York experience -- I think it was '89 or '88, whichever year Batman came out. Because I remember I had just seen Batman in theaters, and then we went to, you know, New York in the '80s, walking around, and I felt like this was Gotham City. I mean, the people were selling, you know, knock-off Batman t-shirts as well, so it really felt like -- because I saw the Batman lo-- you know, logo all over the place. I'm like -- and there was -- I remember seeing rats, and the smells; my mother got pickpocketed, and like -- it was just like -- I mean, it was New York in the '80s, which, I mean, people tend to, you know, romanticize. I don't think that's necessarily always the right thing to do. But in any event -- so I was to go back to New York. "Yeah, I mean, let's do it." So I -- you know, I -- Saturday 14:00night, we -- after the Sabbath was out, we made the Havdalah, which was kind of the prayer that ends everything, that separates the holy day -- you know, the mundane from the -- you know, the godly day of Shabbat. And so we started driving. And this is something that's very, very common, so to speak: the idea of Crown Heights as the central location for Chabad Chasidim. My uncle was I'd say mostly observant at the time, not entirely. His friend, was a baal teshuvah, and would become entirely religious -- you know, had a full beard and a hat and things like that. So the idea of going to Crown Heights was not strange. I mean, I can -- I know anecdotally from people, you know, stories -- you know, Montreal always used to come in. People used to drive in all the time. You know, Purim is this big holiday, and normally it's in March, the beginning of the spring. People eat a big meal. So peop-- speaking of people in Montreal, when I went to yeshiva there years later, it was, you know, who used -- in the '70s, the '80s, you know, the early '90s -- who spent Purim in Montreal? You would just drive right after you'd hear the -- you know, the holiday would start, you know, that evening, and you would just drive through the night and get to Crown Heights to 15:00be there for the Farbrengen, for the big gathering with the Rebbe and all those things that happened in Crown Heights. So the idea of coming here was very much imbued. It's actually part of almost this Chasidic -- the general Chasidic culture. I mean, I don't know how much research you're doing, if you need me to go into the background of kind of the history of the -- of Chasidic communities and things like that. But at any event, the idea of traveling to your rebbe, traveling to this person, traveling to this place, is a -- an important thing. It's almost -- you know, it's a cultural milestone, and there's, you know -- it's -- it's considered -- I mean, I don't want to compare religions, but within other religions also this idea of, you know, there's an obligation to travel to places. This idea of you're going for a holiday, you're going for a special time to be in this special place, you know, with this person and, you know, with all your peers and seeing each other and things like that is a very important idea conceptually. So the fact that here the -- for me, it's like, who drives from Montreal to New York? But this was, like, yeah -- it's like, you know, people go every day. There were these -- you know, you could probably stand outside Montreal -- I'm sure definitely have been times you could just stand outside and every day just find a ride, in theory. Someone is going at some point to Crown Heights.

ALI: So this is in '98?

LIGHTSTONE: This is in '98, I believe. Yeah.


ALI: And at the time was there, like, did you know where you were going to stay or what the details of the trip were going to be or...

LIGHTSTONE: So this was a -- really an in-and-out trip. We were leaving Saturday night, we were getting there first thing Sunday morning, and we were driving back again Sunday evening. So this was just a full 24 hours of travel, back and forth.

ALI: So this was your first trip to Crown Heights.

LIGHTSTONE: First trip to Crown Heights, yeah.

ALI: So tell me what that was like when you got here --

LIGHTSTONE: Definitely.

ALI: -- like, what was that experience like??

LIGHTSTONE: So -- I mean, we left Saturday night. It was dark out. And I remember waking up in the morning and kind of, you know, I think, trying to figure out where we must have been, because I hadn't been to New York in many years. So I'm trying to figure out now, kind of map in my head, what -- but I definitely -- we went to -- before we went to Crown Heights we went to the Ohel, The Rebbe's resting place in Queens, which -- and so we went there first. And before you've -- you go to the Ohel, and I'm -- before you visit this place, there's this custom of dipping in the mikvah. Mikvah's a ritual bath of water that you dip in. And many Chasidim have the custom to do it every day before 17:00prayer and definitely before going to the Ohel. So you -- so people make a point of going. And so even though I wasn't religious, everyone said, "You got to go dip in this pool." So I'm like, "OK, yeah, I'll go." And I get there, and it turns out, well, everyone goes, and everyone takes off their clothes together, and everyone just dips in together, and they're all naked, and it -- culturally it's completely a normal thing. When you're 14 years old and you're unaccustomed to this, it's like, "Well, no, everyone has to leave the room before I go in." And so -- I mean, it wasn't -- I mean, there are -- there are mikvaot -- there are, you know -- there are mikvahs in Crown Heights that would be literally impossible to ask people to stop going, just because there are dozens of people there at any one time. But here it was relatively empty at the time, you know; no one was really there. And so I had -- you know, whoever else was there, I waited for them to leave, and then I got undressed -- and this was -- these were these same big pair of pants that I had had the day before, and I was very proud of how I looked, you know, this kind of preppy cool look, I don't know, whatever it was. But they had a drawstring around the ankle, and I had these big sneakers on. And I couldn't -- the drawstring, I had tied it so tightly I couldn't get it off. So I actually couldn't get my pants off. So [laughs] -- but I -- no one 18:00else saw. So I'm trying to -- after a while I gave up, and I got redressed again, and, like, "OK." So I didn't go to the mikvah. But -- so we went to the Ohel -- which was an interesting experience in the sense that this is -- you know, it's -- I think in America and standard American culture, no one goes to cemetery, normally speaking. But, you know, in this community -- and with, I think, Jews in general, but I think specifically with Lubavitchers -- the idea of going to this place, the resting place of The Rebbe and The Rebbe, the previous Rebbe also, you know, where they both -- they're interred -- to go there, it's a very important, you know, thing. And for me even, as a secular Jew at the time, I got the sense that this was a peaceful place and a special place and a place you can kind of commune with that inner, you know, spirit that we all have and things like that. So that kind of spoke to me. So I was there. And then afterwards we went to Crown Heights. Crown Heights was not as clean as it is today, and I think today it's still considered one of the dirtiest neighborhoods in New York. There was a poll a couple years ago; it was, like, Crown Heights, Bed-Stuy, and some -- one other place. But it was not -- not as clean as it was today. And it still felt very much in the late '80s. In the way 19:00neighborhoods kind of get -- you know, when they redo storefronts and things like that, and so everything's still been kind of frozen from the last time. I guess communally everyone had kind of decided to really redo everything. And so I went there, and it was just this kind of awe-inspiring experience, I guess, just to see so many religious Jews in one place on Kingston Avenue, hustling and bustling, you know, up and down. We went to 770. You walk into the synagogue, and it's -- 770 technically is comprised of -- I guess it would be three main buildings -- 770 Eastern Parkway is the iconic building that's been replicated all around the world, and that's where The Rebbe's office was, and that's where initially the synagogue was. As the numbers of people expanded, they could no longer fit in one room, so then they purchased 784 Eastern Parkway and then 788 Eastern Parkway -- all this obviously being well before my time, in the '60s, '70s, '80s, whatever it was. So you walk -- you go into 770 today, when you enter it's really 788 Eastern Parkway. You go down the stairs, you walk inside, you know, just a couple steps, and it's kind of underground, and then you enter 20:00the space and suddenly you're in this huge room. Because really a big chunk of the apartment building has been opened up to allow that big space for everyone to gather. And so you go inside, and it was just this amazing experience for me. And it was there that I got to put on tefillin for the first time. So in Jewish ritual observance, tefillin -- the Greek word that's used is phylacteries, which is pretty much meaningless, if -- anyway. So tefillin are boxes of leather. They're perfectly shaped, certain specifications. Inside there are these parch-- there are parchments with the words from the Torah written a specific way, rolled up, whatever it is. And the idea is that Jewish men, 13 and above, put them on every day. They put them on their arm opposite their heart. It's wrapped seven times -- three times around the bicep, seven times around the arm -- and then it's placed on the head. And that -- there's actually a -- in Montreal later on I met a man who had written to the Rebbe about his own -- he wasn't religious. His father was actually French Canadian and his mother was Jewish. So he was -- Jewish law, he was Jewish. He had said that he felt a certain dissonance in his life, that there was this lack of -- kind of he felt all over 21:00the place. So The Rebbe had written back to him, saying that tefillin represent this idea of unity, that what you're doing is you're taking your actions, your emotions, your thoughts, all these different points where the -- this ritual object kind of touches and then sits across from, and you're uniting your thoughts, your emotions, and your -- and your deeds together to kind of connect to God. So I put on tefillin for the first time there. So...

ALI: Now at the time you were doing this, what did it mean for you?

LIGHTSTONE: So to me it was very -- it was just -- it was -- it felt -- on one hand it felt very, like, strange, obviously. I mean, it's these boxes, and people sometimes think you're taking their blood pressure when you put them on and people aren't accustomed to seeing it. You know, so it definitely was not something that I was necessarily, you know, accustomed to do at all. On the other hand, it also just felt like, "Well, if this is Jews -- what Jews do, this is right." And so to me that connected and it resonated -- so much so that afterwards, after we came back, my -- I saw my uncle putting on tefillin again a couple days later, and I put on with him then. And then I decided I wanted to 22:00get a pair in Los Angeles as well when I went home. And that was kind of -- I mean, this -- we finished up in Crown Heights. I don't have very many other memories. One other memory is that we went to Judaica World, which is on Kingston Avenue. It was one of the larger Judaica stores. And I went there, and I got a picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, which was -- I looked at some of them, and -- you know, in retro-- when I saw that picture, and I realized -- in Los Angeles there was an Israeli man who for years had been paying to pay a large billboard of The Rebbe in -- Los Angeles has its own unique history of billboards. There are various other celebrities people have, so he decided he was going to put a picture of The Rebbe that said, you know, "Do acts of goodness and kindness to hasten the coming of the Messiah," or something like that. And so I'd always seen that -- as a kid, even, I remember seeing that billboard. And there were, I think, a couple of them in LA, but it was one of those things I remember, somewhere on La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles, seeing that billboard and just kind of like -- you know, that it was also something that I was just kind of accustomed to doing. So it was a kind of -- getting a picture of The Rebbe didn't seem strange or out of place to me at all, because here was this face I'm used to seeing on my commute to school in the morning. You know, it's just that -- on that -- whatever. So I got the -- I got 23:00a picture of The Rebbe, which I put in my wallet. I actually still have it today -- different wallet but same picture. And I decided when I went back to Los Angeles I wanted to become more Jewishly involved. And so we moved back. It was right before Rosh Hashanah. We went to a friend's house, a close friend of mine. And his family was always the more religious family. It's -- they also weren't Orthodox to any extent, but they were the ones -- they made sure every Friday night to have a Shabbat meal. You know, we -- you know, growing up -- so it would happen, but it didn't always happen. And sometimes -- it would happen, sometimes the TV would be on, things like that. They, you know, made a point that Friday night they're having their meal. So we -- I, very often, my family and I, we would go to visit my mother and my father's sister, we'd visit them for the holidays, because they were always doing the meals. And so I went to them for Rosh Hashanah, which is the Jewish New Year, and it turned out that my friend's grandfather had just passed away. And when the grandfather passed away, they'd been cleaning up, and there was a pair of tefillin from my friend's uncle, who had passed away many years earlier, from -- and so they said, "You 24:00want these tefillin? You can take them and use them." So I had this little pair of tefillin that, you know, were probably given to this guy in the '50s or '60s or -- I don't know when exactly they had been, you know, first used, but they were very old. And I started putting them on every day. In the meantime I started a new semester in public school and had -- this would have been the eighth -- the -- the tenth grade. And there -- I was looking for something Jewish to get involved in. And so there was a -- my -- at the same time it was also time for my sister's bat mitzvah. So my mother decided, well, since, you know, my uncle was going to Chabad, and I've had this encounter with Chabad, let me call Chabad in Los Angeles and see if they can give my sister a bat mitzvah. Now, a bat mitzvah in the Reform tradition has been taken -- or not -- I shouldn't even say "tradition" because it's a more recent thing, but within the Reform Judaism, they've -- they basically decided to take the bar mitzvah the way it's performed by boys and have a girl perform the exact same thing. Traditionally that's not necessarily the case. So my mother calling up Chabad, I 25:00don't know what she had in mind for my sister to do, but -- because Chabad is obviously an Orthodox, you know, movement -- but she called them up, and they started Hebrew classes for my sister, I think in general just to kind of, you know, get her up to speed with things. And in the meantime they found out that I was -- that I was going to this university high school, this public school, and, you know, "Hey, we want to start a Jewish club there, so we're going to get you in touch with these rabbinical students," you know, guys who are probably in their, you know, late -- you know, 19, 20, 21, something like that, that were going out and helping during the summer -- they were helping out. And so they dec-- so I met these two guys. One was -- his name was Shmulie Fuss, and the other one was Chayim Mishulovin. Mishulovin was from Los Angeles; Fass was from Crown Heights. And I met them. And I -- they said, "Yeah, we're going to start this Jewish club." And neither of them actually planned on being there for the year, but they were setting up this club to get it going. And the local Chabad rabbi, Baruch Hecht, who also was from Brooklyn originally -- he'd been in Crown Hei-- in Los Angeles for many years -- he was going to come and make the Jewish club there. So he -- so they set up this club. And I want to get involved. And 26:00obviously the way just the kind of secular high school system works, obviously when people want to apply to colleges, they want to pad their resumes and then look really good. So then these two students who were older than me, and they were applying to colleges -- I don't know if they were juniors or seniors, whatever it was -- and they were -- they -- they wanted to -- they -- that they were the head of the Jew-- they wanted to be the president and the vice president of the Jewish club, and I ended up being the secretary or some other position. And obviously as soon as they sent in all their college applications, they didn't care any more about the club. So they dropped it right away, like a stone. So I said, "Well, something has to happen over here." And so I -- you know, I call up the rabbi; I said, you know, "Chanukah's coming," and he brought donuts and a menorah, and we wanted to light Shabbat candles, but you can't have fire in school, and things like that. In the meantime, as the year was progressing -- so I have these tefillin, and I want to get them checked; I want to see if they're kosher. Because all these ritual objects, they're handwritten with a quill and ink on parchment, and they break and fade as time goes by. And 27:00so I said, "Please check these tefillin." Now a pair of tefillin, they were probably not a very expensive pair, and not a very, you know, precise pair. They'd been made in the '60s and had been sitting in -- probably in a basement for years. They were not kosher at all. And so the rabbi said, you know, "Here's a kosher pair of tefillin that you can get." Now, tefillin, they vary in price. You can probably -- the cheapest pair you can get that's kosher is probably -- today, in 2016 -- maybe $350, something like that, and they go up to a thousand or more per set. And this is for the arm and the head. Chasidic Jews, we put on actually two pairs of tefillin, so it's two sets. But -- so at the time I got a pair of tefillin. He said, "They're free, but not -- they're not -- rather, they're not free -- I'm going to give them to you. You can pay whatever you're able to pay, but I want you to pay something, because I wanted you to attach some sort of value to this. It shouldn't just be a free thing." This is actually something that the Lubavitcher Rebbe had spoken about, that he didn't want people to value the -- value these things as nothing. So therefore you can give them out, but someone should give $18 or $36 or something to show that it means something to them. Actually, I don't even know if I ever gave money in the end 28:00for them. But they definitely meant something to me. And I started putting them on every day, and it just became part of my, you know, daily ritual, that I get up and -- first, I think, I put them on every now and then, and then I remembered that there -- I had -- there were two different buses. I took the city bus in Los Angeles, and there was a girl I had a crush on. And so I wanted to -- I used to go to the bus that was farther away in order to be able to ride the bus with her. So I figured if I'm waking up 10 minutes early to be able to go on the bus and see this -- to ride -- sit on the? -- you know, sit and have this conversation with this girl, so for sure I could wake up 10 more minutes earlier than that and put on tefillin every day for God. You know, that I can do. Which is funny, actually. I've never said this story before. But -- so I started putting...

ALI: That's what oral history's about.

LIGHTSTONE: Exactly, yeah. [laughter] So I started putting on tefillin every day. And, you know, kind of the year progressed. As the year was going on -- so I wanted to apply to a foreign-exchange student program. I was...

ALI: So while this is happening --


ALI: -- are you having any conversations with your family about what might be a 29:00-- or do you think you're undergoing a transformation --


ALI: -- during this time?

LIGHTSTONE: So I think it's interesting. At the time my parents had also gone through a divorce. And so my mother's family was always much, much more traditional. I mean, it was my mother's parents and my mother's brother that I'd had this kind of Crown Heights experience with and these Jewish experiences. My father's family was much more secular. And so my grandparents were shepping nachas, to use the Yiddish term. They were, you know, very happy, and they were delighted to see that, "Oh, he's putting on tefillin! Oh, he's going to Shabbat!" and things. Even if they, you know, weren't necessarily very religious themselves, they appreciated that.

ALI: Now, was your dress changing, your style, your appearance?

LIGHTSTONE: No, at the time I was still -- I still wore all my -- you know, my baggy pants and whatever, my spiky hair, and all the things like that. I never really ate meat, and so I never really -- and I had consciously decided I definitely didn't like to eat -- I didn't feel comfortable eating pork and shellfish, but I didn't necessarily eat kosher meat. So chicken would be -- you know, it was still regular, non-kosher chicken and things like that. But I began to feel more, you know, conscious about it. I remember every day, when I -- 30:00after school, I used to -- there was a Japanese restaurant nearby, and I used to order whatchamacallit, the -- cucumber rolls, because it was the cheapest thing, and it was, like, four bucks or whatever it cost. I had to get a cucumber roll every day after school. And then one day, she -- I'm coming in every day, and this -- the lady sees this, you know, high school student come in, and say, you know, "Here, let me -- you know, here, have some --" -- and she gave me gyoza, which are, you know, the -- you know, potstickers. And so I ate them, and then it was meat. So I said, "What is this?" She says, "Well, it's pork." I'm like, "Oh, I can't eat that." And that was the first time that I never would have eaten it, because I never felt comfortable eating it -- and not necessarily from a Jewish sense, but I think that as well. But definitely at that point in my, I guess, evolution or in my personal journey, I -- it -- it bothered me much more that was there and that I had eaten that. And so -- but my family had been very supportive over all. I wasn't speaking to my father regularly then. Now we -- we're much closer, but at the time we didn't speak for -- hadn't spoken for over a year. So when I decided I wanted to go on this foreign exchange student program, I think it was me kind of questing and looking in and trying to see 31:00things. At the same time, you know -- so at first I wanted to go to Japan. Japan was very popular, filled up right away. Then they said, "Maybe, you know, there's a slot in the Netherlands," but I didn't get -- and I was behind in my application because of my parents' divorce, so I had to get my father's approval, which was taking some time just to get in touch with him. And so that also wasn't -- didn't happen. So then they said, you know, Budapest -- and this was already -- the summer was coming up at that point in time, and I was becoming -- I was more interested in Judaism as well. She said, "We're going to send you to a Jewish family in -- in Budapest, so that way you could experience a Jewish family somewhere else in the world." So I thought, "OK, that sounds very cool." And so there was also -- around that time there was a movie that came out by Darren Aronofsky called Pi, which has -- features Chasidic Jews in it. The reality is they're tropey; they're not really that accurate. There are some problems with it. I think even, if I recall correctly, some of the Hebrew was just, like, wrong in it. But, I mean, it has religious Jews that played a central role, and to me that fascinated me. And I really, like -- I watched it a couple times, and I was just this -- my grandparents had given me a documentary about these 12 lost tribes, where this guy goes -- Simcha Jacobovici or 32:00something like that -- and he goes -- he's from Toronto -- and he went to Afghanistan, and he went to all these different places looking for these lost tribes. And so I was very interested in all these different things like that. And so I had just watched Pi, probably the second time or something like that. I was very excited. And the phone rings. And it's Shmulie Fuss. He'd been the rabbinical student who, at the beginning of the school year, had gotten me involved with the Chabad club, which essentially was what it was -- the Jewish club, Jewish student union, on campus. And so he said, "What are you doing this summer?" So I said, "I'm going to Budapest." He said, "Budapest, Shmudapest --" -- you know. I don't know if he really said that, but it felt like he said that. I said, "You know, what's --" -- you know. And, "You know -- well, you don't want to go to Budapest. Budapest is a disgusting town. It's a waste of time. You're not going to do anything there. Don't go to Budapest. Go to this camp. There's a camp in New York in the Catskills. This is the camp for you." I decided to listen to him. I'm behind on the foreign exchange student program, and it wasn't even clear if I was going to get into Budapest or not, that I'd be able to go there. And here is this camp, and it looks and sounds good, and I could always go next year; I can go to Budapest. So I said, "OK, you know something, I'll check out this camp." The irony is that that year -- the way the 33:00Chabad yeshiva system works is when you finish your normal yeshiva studies, bef-- you then go a year or two to help out in a yeshiva abroad, as a mentor and older student. So Shmulie Fuss, this guy, he ended up being sent to Budapest for that year. He found out right afterwards. So he went to Budapest, and I went to New York. And so we were in the Catskills. And that was really, I think, the transformative summer for me. That was the -- you know, I...

ALI: And what year was this?

LIGHTSTONE: This would've been in -- I'm thinking right now -- this would've been 2000.


LIGHTSTONE: So 2000, summer of 2000. And so on Gimmel Tammuz, on the third of the month of Tammuz on the Hebrew calendar, was The Rebbe's yahrzeit, so we went to the camp, went to Crown Heights. So this would've been six years after The Rebbe's passing. And so we went to Crown -- went to Crown Heights, went to Queens, you know, the Ohel and all that, and then we went to Crown Heights proper. And again, I mean, just Crown Heights always struck me as being very, very busy. At the time the Jewish Children's Museum, which today is on the Eastern Parkway in Kingston, was under construction then, so it had all been knocked down, and there was an empty lot with, you know, these -- the wooden, 34:00you know, boards up over there, and there was -- you know, we -- you know, I remember going into the offices of NCFJE, which is the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education, also on Eastern Parkway, because the camp was just, like, kind of run out of this organization, and eating bagels and cream cheese and just having this kind of -- you know, I went to Judaica World, and I got a siddur, and I just had this very, very intensely Jewish summer. And even though I never particularly said, "Well, I want to be more religious; I want to start, you know, wearing a yarmulke all the time or wearing tzitzit all the time," but, you know, here's a yarmulke. So I kept it on my head. I didn't want to take it off after that. Here are tzitzit -- you know, these ritual strings that people wear with the garment. I put them on; well, I'm not going to take them off. And so as I was doing things over the summer, and I assumed them, they automatically clicked towards, you know, my identity of who I felt that I should be as a Jew and as a person, and therefore I kept doing them. So then when the summer ended, suddenly I realized, "Well, am I going to go to public school or yesh-- or yeshiva, or to, you know, a Jewish school?" And that -- I had never made a conscious decision at one point, "Well, I'm going to, you know..." It was just like I had done enough, so it just made sense. And so there was a big question when I came back home -- I'm sure to my mother's shock -- 35:00even though she, to her credit, handled things very well -- you know, she sent, you know, Jonathan, and Mordechai came back home -- and Mordechai being my Hebrew name.

ALI: So your name change happened at --


ALI: -- the time?

LIGHTSTONE: -- my name change didn't happen at the time, per se. The reality is that in Jewish tradition, when a -- a baby boy is circumcised at eight days, and -- or a girl -- you know, when someone goes to the Torah the name is given, and that's the Hebrew name. So in Crown Heights people just have Hebrew names overall. My children only have Hebrew names. In -- you know, but for me, I had an English name, which was after one great-grandfather, and I had a Hebrew name after the other two great-grandfathers. So my English name was Jonathan Samuel; my Hebrew name was Mordechai Shmuel, Shmuel and Samuel being the same name, and Mordechai and Jonathan being -- being two different great-grandfathers. And so I always had this Hebrew name. Actually, when I was a kid and I, you know, wanted to sign my name, so I used to sign my name JSML: Jonathan Samuel Mordechai Lightstone, because I always knew there was this Hebrew name, which was always kind of there. Ironically almost -- because when I wrote my name in cursive -- 36:00so it was JSM -- JSL were all connected in script, and the M I would sign floating on top. Which, you know, you can make from that what you will, but, at any event, eventually the M became the -- the dominant letter. So when I was done with the camp, yeah, I was -- you know, I was Mordechai. And that wasn't even much of a question; it just made sense, you know, that it was the name I was going to use. And all this to say that -- that everything religious just kind of clicked with me, and I always just felt that this was a continuation of what I had always been striving and looking to do, and this was now being expressed -- that it wasn't something kind of foreign, and I wasn't trying to take on something that wasn't me. This is just who I am, and I'm, you know -- I've clarified it for myself. So when I came back the question was where should I go to school? Because the reality is is to go to a yeshiva -- to go to a traditional, you know, Jewish, you know, high school, rabbinical academy, whatever you want to call it -- you know, you have to be able to read Hebrew fluently, you have to be able to read -- to understand -- Aramaic is -- at least in the Talmud, is written with the same characters as Hebrew, but you have to understand Aramaic fluently, which is a separate language -- even though they're 37:00very similar, it's a separate language. There's a lot of Yiddish, which in some places is more necessary than others. So there's a whole host of things that I really didn't have the background, because I -- I mean, at the time, I'd learned to read Hebrew a number of times, from my -- in Sunday school, for my bar mitzvah. I -- I'd forgotten each time. In camp I learned to read Hebrew again, but incredibly haltingly, and I didn't understand it; I could just read letters, make sounds. But I said, "No, I want to go to -- to Jewish school, and I don't want to go to a Jewish high school," which are these kind of mixed schools that have, you know, half a day secular studies and half a day -- "I really want to go into yeshiva. I want to do the full thing." So in Los Angeles happens to be very lucky for me that the Chabad yeshiva over there actually has a very good secular studies program as well, which was important to me definitely at the time. It was important to my mother and -- you know, just to, you know, drop everything and just go Talmud, you know, the full day, would be intense. But I went to yeshiva. And yeshiva's incredibly long hours. It starts at 8:00 in the morning, and it goes on until nine o'clock at night or so. Formal studies end at nine o'clock. Regular -- you know, people elect to learn later in the night as 38:00well. So it definitely is this intense program. Obviously there are breaks throughout the day. I mean, I remember speaking -- I had a camp counselor. His name was Motte Fradkin. He was from San Diego. His parents had both been from Crown Heights, but he was in San Diego. And he kind of said -- you know, I said, like, "How can you do it? You pe-- you people aren't normal." He said, "No, what do you mean? We also like to play basketball and we also like to have a good time. You know, listen, you go and you -- there are breaks," and the -- and the reality is the schedule overall makes sense. At least to a certain personality type, you know. Somebody who has ADD and has a hard time sitting and things like that, it could be more difficult. It's definitely geared -- traditionally; the day yeshivas are much more accommodating to all kinds of learning styles and things like that -- but it's definitely geared to a certain type of person. I happen to, I guess, fit in that thing. I could sit down, and I can, you know, sit over a book with someone and discuss something for two hours, and that doesn't bother me. I don't feel the need to get up and run around. But we had breaks. We played basketball, and we did all the things that you expect, you know, normal teenagers to do. So I went to yeshiva then. And that was kind of -- you know, was just this new world. And I dove in. I mean, I think by the end of the year I had caught up. Interestingly, when I had a good friend, and he was a 39:00couple years younger than me, so his bar mitzvah was that year. And he went to Temple Israel of Hollywood, which was this big Reform synagogue that I had, you know, gone to Hebrew school and didn't want to perform my bar mitzvah, if you'll recall. So I went to -- I decided that, you know, before I started yeshiva, I was going to walk to Temple of -- Temple of -- Temple Israel and take part in his bar mitzvah. So I walk there, and I show up, and this time I have a black hat, and I have a jacket. And I don't know if I look 100% the part, but definitely to an outsider, you know, I look Chasidic, you know, full-on. And I was basically -- for all, you know, intents and purposes I was observant then. So I walk inside, and I'm standing in the back and, you know, like, when Jewish law says you stand up, so I stand up, and I sit down. And most Reform synagogues not everyone knows that, so everyone is seated. But I'm, you know, standing up and sitting down when I have to, and the rabbi looks over, you know, and he sees this guy in the black hat in the back, and he's like -- he leans over to the -- my friend's mother and says to her, you know, "Who's this, like, you know -- there's, like, a real Jew here," apparently he said. This is what I was told later on. "There's a real Jew here!" So she said, "Well, you know him." And he goes, "I know him?" And she says, "Yeah! It's Jonathan Lightstone." And he goes, 40:00"No way!" [laughs] He was -- so here they told me that, you know, I wouldn't be -- I -- maybe if I entered the program and I tried hard enough, by the time I was 15 years old I'd be able to have a bar mitzvah. The reality is that by the time I was 15 years old I was, you know, reading the Talmud fluently in Aramaic. So -- anyhow. That was that experience. But yeah, I went to yeshiva. And in yeshiva -- so Crown Heights -- because that's obviously the purpose of this conversation -- even though I was in Los Angeles, Crown Heights was very central to everything. You know, Crown Heights isn't about the neighborhood. It isn't about the blocks or the geography or things like that. It's really -- it's a spiritual geography which is mapped onto a physical place. So that -- so, I mean, even if you speak to Chasidic Jews, you know, Crown Heights always had different borders than the legal borders, you know. When I went to Crown Heights with -- you know, throughout the years -- so Crown Heights was always -- it was from, you know, Eastern Parkway, maybe Lincoln or St. John's -- that's where it started -- and the reality is, I mean, historically, as you would know, that the borders were actually always very fluid. And so when you speak to most people, 41:00they went to yesh-- the old Chabad yeshiva from the 1940s and '50s was on Bedford and Dean. Today that's, you know, the hipsters, that's Crown Heights! Bedford and Dean is like -- but everyone always said, "No, we didn't go to yeshiva in Crown Heights. We lived in Crown Heights, went to yeshiva in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Because that was considered then -- people from that generation, that wasn't even Crown Heights. Definitely as it changed, kind of the demographics changed, so for sure that wasn't Crown Heights. Crown Heights was always, you know, started, you know, a little bit -- a little north of the parkway, and it continued down until Maple or so or something like that. And Crown Heights started -- I mean, maybe theoretically in my mind and people's minds it kind of started, you know, maybe as far, you know, west as Grand Army Plaza or something like that. But, you know, really Crown Heights was Nostrand until Utica. And that was kind of the -- the Crown Heights. So -- but it's -- it's been mapped onto this physical place, but really it's this spiritual concept.

ALI: So at that point when -- when someone said "Crown Heights," you thought primarily in terms of its meaning...

LIGHTSTONE: Crown Heights was The Rebbe. I mean, that was it. Crown Heights was -- you're going to Crown Heights. You're not going to Crown Heights. Crown -- 42:00you're not going to New York. You're definitely not going to New York. You're not going to Brooklyn. If Crown Heights -- Crown Heights is The Rebbe. You know, you -- it's a byword for something much bigger and larger, which has been manifested. And I think this ties very much into -- today, what I understand in general to be Jewish understandings of godliness and things like that. I mean, the -- Jerusalem isn't Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the -- is the Holy Temple. It's because of the godly space that is there. And just like in the Holy Temple, so the -- the Holy of Holies, this inner sanctum within the Holy Temple, you know, was considered to be Nimna HaNimnaot, which means that it defied physical space, that even though, yes, you know, well, the -- the room is, you know, this many cubits, you know, across and wide, and the ark is this many cubits, yet somehow the ark doesn't take up any space, because this is the holiest place manifest, you know, in a physical place. And that's -- the beauty of it is that you have this, you know, infinite godliness in this physical place. And I think Crown Heights, to a certain degree, embodies that. Not to compare the two, but that -- that it -- it fits into that -- that way of understanding the world, that Crown Heights is, you know, is not Crown Heights, you know, 11213; it's Crown Heights. 43:00It's this -- it's a different place with this different space. And when you go to Crown Heights, you don't go there to eat at Kingston Pizza, and you don't go there to go to -- it doesn't exist any more -- Nosh World, which was, like, the one candy store that was here back in the day. You know, you went there to -- for 770, and for the yeshiva, and farbreng, and to gather together. Farbreng means, you know, this kind of gathering -- to gather together and to be inspired and to get that inspiration for the entire year. So that when you go to Crown Heights, it's "What am I going to gain?" And you prepare yourself. You know, you're -- before you go in, before you come to -- and you travel to New York -- so Yud Shevat, the tenth of Shevat, is -- on the Hebrew calendar is the date when the Lubavitch Rebbe assumed leadership in 1950, 1951. His -- his father-in-law passed away in 1950. He formally assumed in 1951 -- assumed leadership of the Chabad movement. And so when people come for that date, to visit -- you know, to visit and to be there, and -- you know, before The Rebbe passed away, before my time, you know, you would go there, and The Rebbe would speak, and he would elucidate the -- Chasidic discourse that his father-in-law 44:00had -- the last one his father-in-law had given out -- and speak about it and use that as a way for understanding the time. You know, time is not understood through calendars. Time is understood through The Rebbe explaining and elucidating, you know, how -- you know, the biblical portion that's read then. You know, if this week is about Jacob leaving, you know, leaving Israel and then -- and traveling out to, you know, to -- Babylon or whatever it is. That's the time. And that then reflects and is mapped out onto secular time, and things are understood through those events. So when you we-- before you went to Crown Heights, you prepared yourself. The discourse that wou-- everyone's -- the -- the previous rebbe, Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, who came to Crown Heights in 1940 -- so he had had this -- the last discourse he gave had 20 different chapters. And so The Rebbe throughout his lifetime, every year, on the anniversary of his father-in-law's passing, would elucidate a different chapter. And so he went through the entire thing once, for the first 20 years, 1951 to 1971, and then he started over again, and until, you know, the next 10 cha-- the 45:00next 20 chapters, he -- were basically done until his passing. I mean...

ALI: So how -- what happens or what ha-- what was happening in the absence of The Rebbe?

LIGHTSTONE: Yeah. So, I mean, I think from a spiritual sense, for Lubavitchers, the -- I think The Rebbe very much made clear, the -- there are talks The Rebbe gave between -- from when his father-in-law passed away until he assumed the leadership. The Rebbe as a person -- and I think it's -- it's critical you speak to other people who, you know, had these close relationships -- but The Rebbe as a person very much didn't want to assume the leadership of the Chabad movement, so much so that it wasn't until his wife to-- one of the things that he credits -- he said that his wife told him, you know, "What's going to happen? Everything that my father-in-law faced -- you know, Soviet oppression, and was, you know, going to be killed, and he got out. And he fled the Nazis, and he came to America, and America was not a place where you could be -- necessarily express religion. And he -- you know, he stood for so much -- the previous rebbe stood for so much; how can you not take on this mantle of leadership?" That's not something The Rebbe necessarily wanted to do. He, you know, shied away from that idea. He had an older brother-in-law and -- and things like that. But he felt -- 46:00but -- in that year, between this -- you know, his father-in-law's passing, the previous rebbe's passing, and The Rebbe assuming leadership, The Rebbe spoke about how you can have a connection to a holy person even after they pass away. And this is something that exists in -- in Jewish thought, really from the very beginning. When you speak about -- it says that when Moses sent spies to investigate Israel -- so you're speaking about, you know, 4000 years ago, whatever it is -- that these spies, when they went out -- so it says that Calev, one of the spies, went to Chevron, went to Hebron, where the forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, are buried. So the -- Rashi, who's this French biblical commentator from the Middle Ages, he said, "Why'd he go to Hebron?" So he quotes the Talmud, Masechet Sotah -- whatever -- I mean, you can look that up. But says that -- there in the Masechet explains that he went in order to be able to literally prostrate himself, to visit the burial place of the forefathers and pray that he should have success in whatever happened. The idea 47:00is that visiting the burial place of a holy person and having that connection is something that has existed within Jewish thought since time immemorial. Definitely within Kabbalistic thought and Chasidic thought and things like that, it takes on more nuance and meaning. And so these are things The Rebbe's spoken about in terms of his father-in-law, that he used to regularly travel -- initially it was twice a month -- he would travel, I think, you know, on the eve of the new month and then the middle of the month he would go to visit his father-in-law's burial place in Queens, by the Ohel, and he would read, you know, prayer petitions that people had given, and pray to God, obviously, but you're at this holy site. That's something that he did throughout, you know, his lifetime, and especially in later years. There were times that he went every single day during the week. And so that's not a foreign concept, per se. So even -- there's obviously very much a void that people feel -- a void that I feel, even though I never met him personally. But there's this void of -- of, you know, The Rebbe not being there and being able to give new insight and new understanding, things like that. At the same time, I think The Rebbe very much prepared people. There was a talk he gave in 1988 after his wife passed away, Shabbat Parshat Terumah. So he speaks about there, that, you know, I -- I don't 48:00have any kids, so what's going to happen? So, you know, you -- there are obviously other rabbis in the community, and you should approach them, and every person should have his own -- or his or her own -- personal mentor. And when you go to that mentor and you ask that mentor for advice, that that person is answering -- is, you know, in my place. And this is actually not a -- I mean, there are -- as the Chabad movement grew and there were more Chasidim and The Rebbe became an international figure, you know, to world Jewry and just to people in general, you know, of all backgrounds came to visit him, so The Rebbe's time was in much more demand. And he wasn't able to meet people individually like he had in the early years. So even during his own lifetime, he said that everyone needs this personal mentor, because I can't be there to physically answer every single person's question, devote the time. You get this mentor. And this is something he spoke about. And there were people -- you know, elderly Chasidim who had survived Stalin and been in the -- the gulags for 20 years and, you know, The Rebbe said that I need to get a -- a mentor, so I'm going to get a mentor, even though I'm 80 years old. Well, I'm going to get a mentor now, someone who's 85, you know, and I'll have him -- he'll be the person I ask for advice. So I think The Rebbe set into play a lot of the dynamics that 49:00allowed the movement to continue to -- to -- not just to function and to exist on life support, but actually grow and blossom and --- and do things.

ALI: So the time, as you are just kind of entering this movement, did you select a mentor? Did you have a mentor? Were there people that you saw as your mentors?

LIGHTSTONE: I definitely always had mentors, yeah. I mean, I should say that, on record, that I -- maybe I'm a rebel that I've never been able to find one person, per se, to answer, you know, that one question. I've always kind of had my brain trust of people. But there are various people I've always asked for different things. So early on there was the -- the head of the yeshiva in Los Angeles, Rabbi Schochet, Ezra Schochet. So he was sent by The Rebbe to Los Angeles in the '70s to -- '70s? I think the very late '70s, early '80s -- to establish the yeshiva over there. And so he was someone who I very much -- I mean, I still look -- I still, you know, look up to him, but I don't have that same interaction. When I was a student there, I was in awe of him. He was just 50:00this person -- he's a big person physically, and he was someone who I always very much asked for advice and then guidance and things like that at a certain point early on. There were other teachers in the yeshiva that I asked for different things. Today there's kind of -- you know, I mean, I -- the -- there's the rabbis I ask for questions on Jewish law, rabbis I ask for kind of philosophical questions and things like that. There are people that I ask questions for. There's a rebbetzin, which would be a lady who my wife and I both ask a lot of questions from as well to kind of get her guidance. I mean, in general, the -- the idea of having, you know, various people to go to or to turn to for advice, definitely something that I did then and then continue to do today.

ALI: OK. So your -- your time at yeshiva is, like, paralleling what high school years would be?

LIGHTSTONE: So it would have been...

ALI: Because you started in -- at 16?

LIGHTSTONE: Halfway through, yeah. So I...

ALI: You were -- you were 16, I think you said.

LIGHTSTONE: I was 15 --

ALI: Fifteen.

LIGHTSTONE: -- I think, when I went there. Because my --


LIGHTSTONE: -- birthday was before --


LIGHTSTONE: -- my birthday's [date redacted for privacy], so I started the school year, you know --


LIGHTSTONE: -- September whatever.


LIGHTSTONE: So I was 15. Yeah, it was 2000 still, and everyone was all excited 51:00about, you know, Y2K and all that other stuff that didn't happen. And so -- yeah, I went to yeshiva. And -- I mean, it was interesting. It was -- I mean, I think my experience -- my knowledge of New York also changed. Because the reality is I went to New York -- Yud Shevat. That would have been January, February of 2001. And we had the -- the trip in; I went to the matzah bakery and -- and various things like that. And I was very excited. I bought a hat before I went in because you're going -- you're going to The Rebbe; you're going to Crown Heights; you're going to get a hat. The reality is the hats in Los Angeles were three times the price and half the quality, and I should have waited -- everyone else said -- they said, "You're crazy! Why are you buying a hat now? Buy a hat in New York, and better hats at -- you know, at a better price." But I'm like, "No, I can't go to New York without a..." You know, I had a hat, and it was, like, a hand-me-down that someone had given me, and it was sloppy, and it was really -- like, I -- I want a nice hat. So I bought a nice hat then. And I -- I went to -- you know, we were in Crown Heights. We came back. And then -- I mean, the next year, the beginning of next year, September 11th already happened. So New York itself also kind of changed, the dynamic. I mean, definitely the traveling -- because, you know, the yeshiva, the entire school, is traveling 52:00every year. So that security change -- the whole experience of coming to New York became a different thing, a different type of experience.

ALI: What was your reaction to 9/11?

LIGHTSTONE: That was interesting. So we were in -- it was -- 9/11 happened during the -- the Selichot, which are the preparatory days before Rosh Hashanah. There's a period of time -- starting from the Saturday night -- first Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah until Rosh Hashanah, every morning people get up -- Saturday night after Shabbat is over, everyone stays up late; 1:00 in the morning you say the first kind of preparatory prayers of, you know, supplication, forgiveness, things like that. And then after that every morning you wake up very early in the morning. Not really that early for the students -- you know, we -- normally if you start the day at 8:00, you start the day at 7:00. But you get up, you say these prayers -- not very long, even, maybe 10, 15, 20 minutes. And then you would go about the day as normal. So I got up for -- we got up early, because it was during Selichot, and we -- so we went to the mikvah, right, to the -- everyone's undressing, and it's like, you know, a locker room, so to speak; everyone's getting undressed and going in the water and that. I had a friend named Mendel, and he was going to London that year to 53:00study in yeshiva. But even -- since London -- he wasn't going to London till after the holidays were over. So he was staying at home. He was sleeping at home and coming in the morning to, you know, do a -- have a normal yeshiva day with us. And so he walks in, you know, that morning, and he says, "You know, I don't know what happened. I was driving to, you know, yeshiva in the morning, and someone said on the radio --" -- keep in mind that, you know, it -- it happened very early in the morning in Los Angeles. The first plane struck -- was it nine o'clock? Whatever time it was -- a little after 9:00. So that had been 6:00 in the morning in -- a little after 6:00 in LA. And so the news was going on, but it was completely unclear what was happening. So he said -- you know, he -- he said -- right away he said that a -- I think he'd said a plane hit, you know, the World Trade Center, and someone else said, "No, I heard that it was, you know, the Empire States Building." You know, no one really knew what was going on. And when everyone said a plane, everyone thought it was, like, a prop plane, like a little, you know -- just a little, you know, Cessna or something had crashed in. And then, you know, this -- then we found out that, no, second plane hit. And this information was coming in. The radios were on all day. There was no TV in yeshiva. So no one actually saw any images, in my sense, in my case. So it was just -- we were -- I mean, everyone was glued to the radio all day. There was this one guy, you know, he -- his father -- he -- he felt like a big shot; 54:00he probably wasn't. His father was -- felt like a big shot; he probably isn't. But, you know, he was saying, "My father heard from somebody he knows who works, you know, in the Israeli Consulate, who heard from the Mossad this happened..." Like, all these rumors were going on, and things were happening. And it wasn't very, you know, clear what -- you know -- I mean, obviously we got a clearer picture what was going on. No one had seen any images. I went -- my friend, actually, the friend who had given me tefillin -- his father had given me tefillin -- you know, this -- this family -- so at this point in time I'm now much more religious than they are, but it was my friend's birthday. His birthday's September 11th. So it was his birthday, so I went to his house. And I walk in, and they're all sitting in front of the TV, and I say, "How are you guys -- how are you guys doing?" And they look at me awful, like, "Who asks that question?" And, I mean, I knew, obviously -- I mean, the idea of how many -- I mean, no one really knew anything, but the idea of what happened, but I hadn't seen any images. And so when you didn't see -- when you didn't see the images of what had happened, it felt somehow less real. And then suddenly I walk in, I look at the TV, and for the first time, you know, nine o'clock at night or something -- or I think it was a little bit before 9:00. It was the evening; it was like seven o'clock or something. I'd gone during dinner. Six -- like -- and you see that video on loop and all those things happening, it was like, "This is 55:00much more -- this is very different." And they printed out a bunch of, you know, pictures and articles for me, and I brought them back to the yeshiva. And I had some roommates, and, like, we all gathered, and we look at these pictures. And it's like we're saying psalms now; we're saying prayers. Like, this is -- as everyone knew, it was serious and whatever it is, but when you suddenly saw those photos for the first time, printed out from, you know, the New York Times -- I know it's probably, you know, who knows how small it was, given the internet then, but it was -- suddenly it just became a very, very different experience. But yeah, I mean, it felt unreal. I mean, everyone, you know -- "Does this mean, you know, the Messiah's coming? Does it not? You know, how do we change our lives? Is it terrorism? How does Israel fit in?" All these different questions kind of people had at the time. It was obviously very strange experience. When we went in for Yud Shevat, that January, you know, it was a couple months later, but, you know, it -- you know, sitting in the airports, and then everyone had -- you know -- you know, you had soldiers with guns and -- you know, it was probably all security theater, but, you know, it felt very real. And it definitely changed that experience and coming in and things like that.

ALI: So when you would come into New York as part of these trips, or come to 56:00Crown Heights, did you ever -- did you just stay within, like -- with the people you were with and within the -- the kind of -- your defined Crown Heights, did you interact with people outside or -- do you know what I'm saying? Like, what was your interaction with greater --

LIGHTSTONE: Crown Heights?

ALI: -- Crown Heights --


ALI: -- or Brooklyn or New York?

LIGHTSTONE: So when I moved to -- even when I moved to Crown Heights -- I mean, just New York in general -- I don't think I went to the city for the first three months that I moved. I moved to -- I moved to New York. I came in on, you know, either Kennedy, LaGuardia, whatever it is, came to Crown Heights. I didn't go into the city for at least the first three months, if not longer. I don't think I ever went into the city. I don't recall ever going into the city when I went there with yeshiva. We came to Crown Heights, and it was that space within Crown Heights. Crown Heights felt different. I mean, I think -- it was different then. I mean, in the next year, in 2002, I went for the holidays for the first time. I went for Sukkot, which is, you know, kind of the celebratory holidays, the fun holidays, as it were. They're all fun. But, you know, it's much more exciting, and there's dancing on the street in the middle of the night and singing and 57:00things like that. And so I went for Sukkot that year after Rosh Hashanah, right? So I go -- I went to -- I went there. And then the way it works is when you're -- at the end of Sukkot there's the holiday Simchat Torah. Simchat Torah is, you know, an even greater day of rejoicing. And so The Rebbe instituted this practice where the people walked to synagogues all over New York to -- literally all over New York. I know people walked to the Bronx from Crown Heights, which is intense, but some people did that. Basically you'd go to any synagogue -- synagogue you can, and you'd dance with the Torah scroll over there, and you'd dance with the people there, and you -- you speak to the Jewish people, and you inspire them, and you -- you share some of the light of Crown Heights, as it were, with them. And so we walked to the Lower East Side, via the Williamsburg Bridge. And when I was going back -- so I was -- it was a big group of people. The idea is that everyone going to the Lower East Side all walks together, and there's normally a police escort or whatever it is. You're a big group and you go. So on the way back, we were walking, and this was between Atlantic and Eastern Parkway, meaning that it was actually in Crown Heights. And I don't -- 58:00it might have been Franklin Avenue, actually. But the -- whatever it was, we were -- either Franklin or Bedford, one of those streets -- we're walking, and we become separated. It was a smaller group. It was maybe five of us, something like that. And I'm walking across the street, and it's one of the narrow, you know, Brooklyn streets. And as I'm crossing the street I see, like, a beer bottle roll in front of me. I'm like, "That's -- why is a beer bottle rolling in the street?" And suddenly these -- there were, I think, three Israeli guys or two Israeli guys, and one other American guy -- suddenly they start screaming. I look up, and there are some non-Jewish people throwing glass bottles at us. They're laughing and throwing. And we started running. I mean, it was -- it was frightening. And we ran and ran and ran. And there were some other kids down the block, said, "Oh, those guys behind you are crazy!" Like, we just started -- we ran until we hit Eastern Parkway. And when we crossed the Eastern Parkway and got to the island on the south side of Eastern Parkway, then we saw the Lubavitchers, and then we felt, like, "Now we're safe." But, I mean, I definitely had that experience of just these, you know, kids throwing -- they were probably kids.

ALI: I mean, did you ever wonder -- I don't know what -- where the Chabad 59:00communities were located in Montreal or in Los Angeles, but in your early visits here, did you ever, like, notice the contrast -- I mean, you know, the Chabad headquarters is basically smack dab in the middle of a predominantly Black neighborhood, right? Like, to the north, to the south, to the east, to the west, right? Like, did you ever -- I mean, what did you think of that? Like, what'd you think of that?

LIGHTSTONE: Right. So I...

ALI: Because I -- what -- you know, like -- I -- and there was, of course, a historical process that results in this being the way that it is. And I don't know if it was like that in LA or it was like that in Montreal, but, like, it is a very unique place for this community to be located in terms of its surroundings.

LIGHTSTONE: Right. So I would say as follows: I think in terms of other communities -- in general Orthodox Jewish communities tend to be tight-knit. Just, it's -- it's a practical thing. If you have to walk to synagogue, you can't be far away. And, you know, you have -- you need to have kosher stores; you need Judaica stores; you need schools -- everything is -- ends up becoming 60:00very, very close. And so -- even Los Angeles, which is a city built around cars these days. So things are still -- you still walk around. You know, it's still, you know -- it's -- it's all relatively close, even if the houses are physically farther apart. And so the community's always tight-knit. That said, most of the communities are -- Los Angeles is -- was in a largely, I think, White neighborhood. Today everything is gentrified. The whole world is gentrified, to use the buzzword that -- I don't know if you're marking on the timestamp. But -- so the -- you know, Los Angeles was very mixed, the area. Montreal, I think, had a Southeast Asian community. There were, you know, Pakistanis around there, things like that. But they weren't as close. And they -- you didn't notice them. Crown Heights, the reality is that Crown Heights -- I mean, in terms of demographics, no part of Crown Heights, I think, is necessarily as Jewish as -- even as people's ima-- people imagine. I mean, even this -- the building we're in right now, even though we have an office here and it's a predominantly Jewish 61:00building, you know, there are non-Jews who live here as well. And so everywhere in Crown Heights there's a certain amount of mix that you notice, and the contrast is obviously much more different, for many, many reasons. That said, I think in people's minds -- and I think this is based on a certain amount of historical precedent or history, as it were -- that in people's minds, Crown Heights is a Jewish neighborhood. It's not -- it doesn't happen to be in the middle of a large community of Caribbean Americans and African Americans...

ALI: Right. So when you're saying "people's minds," you mean in your community's minds.

LIGHTSTONE: In -- in the community's minds, yes, and in the -- the mindset of the Jewish community. I mean, historically speaking about Crown Heights, right? So, I mean, there is the history the Lenape lived here. And you had the Hessian troops were camped out over here on Bedford Avenue or wherever they were. And there were all these different types of things going on here. There was the jail here, Weeksville over here. I think Weeksville is a fascinating and important lesson in terms of, you know, people of color and -- and their journey and struggle and things they face in America. Crown Heights as Crown Heights -- not as Crow Hill but as Crown Heights -- is -- historically definitely was a Jewish 62:00neighborhood, in the sense that it was marketed and sold for immigrants from Eastern Europe and first-generation Americans, largely ended up being from -- European, largely Jewish. And until 1960, whatever it was -- 1960 it was 70% White, largely Jewish, 30% people of color, and that flipped by 1970, where it was 30 and 70, and continued, obviously, to -- the White population continued to diminish. But in the sense of the Jewish community, this was a -- a Jewish neighborhood. And I don't think that means to say that other people aren't welcome here. I definitely -- I mean, there's a letter from the Lubavitch Rebbe which I saw recently, where somebody said, "Well --" -- this was during a blockbusting, and -- "--some, you know, people who are Black moved next to me." And The Rebbe said, "I don't know why you're worried. Number one, they're good people, and number two, many people who look more like you -- like you can be, you know, worse," in the sense, I think, maybe he was referring to White people. You have Aryans; you have, you know, Germans; you have whatever it is. So the fact that, you know, "These people, these are good people, and you have nothing to be afraid of." So that's a letter -- a letter The Rebbe had written in the '60s. I saw it somewhere.

ALI: So I guess -- I'm -- you know, so I -- I wonder, when you were coming, your 63:00sense of the boundaries of Crown Heights. You know, because you said that -- like, that in-- that incident you had, where people were throwing beer bottles at you, and then you and -- and the people you were with, like, ran, and then you didn't feel safe until you reached a certain space. Like, did you have a sense, when you were visiting Crown Heights, like, you know, like, you know, here's the area that I should -- that I'd feel most comfortable staying in, and venturing outside of that area meant, you know...

LIGHTSTONE: Yeah, so I did -- when I was -- I didn't -- even though geographically I was in Crown Heights, in my mind I was not in Crown Heights then. You know, I didn't realize I was in Crown Heights until, you know, in retrospect, understanding when I became more knowledgeable of the official borders of the neighborhood, "Oh, that was in Crown Heights." My mind I was in Bed-Stuy; I was not in Crown Heights. And I was not in Crown Heights until I came to the south side of Eastern Parkway -- even though, you know, the Jewish school is on the north side of Eastern Parkway, and I knew I was in Crown Heights, I didn't feel safe until then. And definitely, as you would wa-- I mean, I had -- whenever I'd come to Crown Heights -- when I was in Montreal we 64:00went more often. We went for Rosh Hashanah, we went for Yom Kippur, we -- and Rosh -- Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We'd go again for, you know, Yud Shevat, you know, this day in the winter. We'd go -- I mean, because it was closer than Los Angeles, we'd go, you know, a couple times a year. And I had a good friend who lived on President Street, between Schenectady and Utica, right by Utica. So he was on President and Utica, with all that's implied over there. And walking to his house, I used to feel very nervous, you know, walking at night. And it's not that -- you know, it's the sense of the unknown, I think, in general. You know, it's interactions with people, and people are generally friendly, of all backgrounds and races -- races and religions and creeds and things like that. You know, I don't think it's a question. I think most people would agree. It's just this sense that, you know, you don't know what could happen. And things do happen. I mean, I was, you know -- things have happened less -- I mean, just last week, for example, we were walking, and my kids were running on the street. And they ran in front of a lady, Caribbean American, I think, and she said, you know, "You fucking Jews, why don't you watch your kids?" and whatever it is, you 65:00know. And obviously, as a person that -- you know, I like to consider myself fair-minded -- obviously I know that everyone has a bad day, and everyone can have an experience like that. And even that person who said those awful things to me isn't a bad person, per se, and is just -- you know, she got up on the wrong side of the bed and some crazy kids run into her, and that's where life has put her, and she's saying those things, and it's a -- it's a sad thing that she said that. I mean, I wouldn't -- I personally wouldn't say that for any kid running at me, because I'm more used to kids, but whatever it is, you know, it's -- I'm -- I personally -- I mean, the reality is that today in Crown Heights, I -- the block we live on, which is Lincoln, between Utica and Rochester, we were the first Jewish family to move there since -- I mean, on Rochester and -- and Lincoln, there is a large church today. That church is built inside of a synagogue, a massive synagogue that had been sold, I think, in the '60s or something like that. And so even though it's a church, you know, and it says, you know, something Pentecostal Church or whatever it says on it, you know, there's still a Star of David, and the stained-glass windows still show Old-Testament biblical motifs and things like that. It looks like a synagogue -- because it was. And the house that we -- we ended up moving into now -- so we -- 66:00the -- you could see on the doorframes of the entrance, there had been mezuzot -- the scrolls that are put, you know -- that Jewish people put on their doors had been there from whoever the -- I don't know the original owners or owners up to a certain point. Obviously when we bought it we bought it from an African American family who'd bought it as an investment property, and they decided at the time -- "Would you like to sell it?" They sold it to us. And so we were very blessed, and we were privileged, even within the Jewish community. The reality is most of my friends can't buy houses. We had, you know, the unique, you know, financial things helping from our parents and things like that that we were able to do that. So, I mean, we're privileged all around in that sense, and blessed. But we were the first Jewish family to move there definitely in a ve-- you know, since people moved out, as it were. No one -- none of my neighbors -- you know, ever recalled, you know, any Jews living on that block. But I think that things have also changed in Crown Heights, because today, I mean, Cro-- you know, today, with the changes in the neighborhood, people no longer necessarily -- I think it's kind of, you know, united by a common threat. You know, in the past, people would fight over, "Well, I want the, you know, this housing; I want that 67:00housing; I want this space, that space," you know, whatever it is. Suddenly well, one second. Well, we've both been here longer than you guys with your -- your fixies and your -- your, you know, hipster beards and whatever it is, you know, you know, and so there's a common sense that both, you know, I think the Jews and the Caribbean Americans and African Americans acknowledge -- acknowledge that, you know, there's an outside presence that is a much bigger threat to the both of us combined. I don't think that -- I mean, I think it goes beyond that as well. I mean, I -- I try very hard to have a good relationship with all people, people of all backgrounds. My job and what I do, you know, I'm -- I speak to people -- I mean, most -- most -- I probably speak to more Jews who are not religious than Jews who are religious, because I'm online all day, talking to them and -- and speaking to them. You know, I speak to people literally all over the world. So I think in that sense, you know, I'm very happy on my block and where I live and my neighbors around me. And there is a -- there's actually construction from people -- they're from Williamsburg -- that -- that are construct-- they're doing a lot of construction around here. So Will-- the Jewish community in Williamsburg, is largely Satmar, which is from 68:00Hungary, it's, you know -- they actually have their historical tensions with Lubavitchers. So they're very into real estate, as it were. Most people in Crown Heights are not into real estate, the vast majority. The vast majority of Satmar people are also not, but, you know, whatever it is, these people happen to be Satmar; they're doing constru-- they're doing -- they're renovating a building. And I saw the guy doing it in charge of the projects, so I said, you know, "Who are you renovating it for?" So he said, you know, "Whatever," you know, meaning, you know, hipsters. And I said to him, "What about, you know, the people that are here?" He said, "Listen, you should be happy that the hipsters are moving in and not other people," you know, meaning probably people of color. And I said, like, "Go to hell." Like, "Who are you? You think that some hipster is going to be better to this neighborhood and better to me than, you know, the people who are invested here? My neighbors, they're invested in this community. And this is -- you know, they live here. And they actually live here. And they want the good for the -- the place, and they want the good for the -- their children to be here and their grandchildren to be here, and they're invested in this being a good neighborhood. Somebody comes in, even if, well, yeah, these people are going to bring in money and they're going to bring in more police protection, 69:00you know, and all the different things, all the different advantages -- which, there are advantages to gentrification. But, you know -- but the reality is that they are going to leave in six months and someone else is going to move in. And they're going to do everything else and -- well, yeah, I guess, yeah, the value of my house goes up, or I don't know what, but it means that as a whole, it's very difficult for both, you know, the Jews and -- and the non-Jews, and since, you know, the -- the Black community here to stay here, and that becomes -- "Yeah, well, you're not doing me any favors, buddy."

ALI: So let -- let's talk about the circumstances that brought you to -- to live in Crown Heights. And we haven't talked -- so -- so you -- you were in -- I want us to kind of -- like, if we can, like, zoom through...

LIGHTSTONE: Yeah. [laughter] Yeah, because I could be here for six more hours.

ALI: No, no, no, this is -- like I said, the -- the thing about oral history is for me to speak as li-- as little as possible. So you're a very good narrator. But I -- so I -- I want to find out, how did you end up in Crown Heights permanently --


ALI: -- right? So you were in yeshi-- yeshiva --

LIGHTSTONE: Yeshiva, yeah.

ALI: -- school for -- and you would finish that with the sa-- at the same age 70:00that people would finish high school, [overlapping dialogue; inaudible].

LIGHTSTONE: The way yeshiva works is you -- there's three years. I mean, it's basically [inaudible] four years and only three years of rabbinic high school.


LIGHTSTONE: There are thre-- three years of rabbinic college. Then you spend a year abroad helping out in -- in the Chabad system -- it's unique to, you know, our community -- but you spend a year helping out on shlichus, it's called. You're sent out. The Rebbe used to send students and them to Australia, send them to different places. I was in Warsaw, Poland, for a year. And either you are a -- you are a -- a mentor for younger students in the yeshiva high school or you are a -- you're active in the local Jewish community in terms of helping -- kind of doing Chabad activities. You're reaching out to the Jewish people, making Jewish programming. Warsaw, Poland, where I was, was just -- there were nine guys there, and we were in charge of making the Jewish -- [inaudible] Jewish programming for the Jewish community in Warsaw. It was the first yeshiva since the Holocaust, all different things like that that had happened there. So there's that year. Sometimes it's two years, depending on the school and where you go, but for us it was one year. And then I -- after that I started formally 71:00training to be a rabbi. Meaning you can't sit down and become a rabbi in one year. You -- it takes many years. But the formal -- the -- studying for the test to become a rabbi -- it's a test normally divided into three, four parts, whatever it is -- that test, you spend one year intensively studying for that test and focusing on the topics that the test is about. And so then [inaudible] I was ordained as a rabbi. And this was in Los Angeles, actually. I went back to LA to study there when I was done. So then you're of marriageable age. So the reality is the lar-- single largest place for young Chasidic singles, young Lubavitchers, is in Crown Heights. That's one thing. The other thing is 770, besides being the main synagogue, is also the central yeshiva, and it's the highest yeshiva, as it were, within the community. And therefore you can continue your post-rabbinic studies there. So I came here to study. I mean, here are all the great men-mentors are here. I mean, you have Reb Yoel Kahn, who was -- since we speak on -- when -- on Shabbat, nothing can be recorded. So when The Rebbe used to speak on Shabbat, he would sit down and speak for hours on end, 72:00and these are things that people all over the world, the Chasidic diaspora -- because you think about Crown Heights, you know, the Crown Heights community is not just the 20,000-odd, you know, Lubavitchers that live here; it's, you know, the -- the hundreds of thousands of people all around the world -- want to hear what The Rebbe said on Shabbat. You can't hear that. During the week it was all recorded. I mean, there's a -- there's a system set up in the '80s for it to be broadcast live over the phone over the world. But during the wee-- you know, but during Shabbat and holidays, how could people hear what The Rebbe said? So Rebbe Elkhan moved from -- to Crown Heights from Israel in 1950. He came right after the previous rebbe passed away. He actually left in order to see the previous rebbe, but he came -- he arrived after he'd passed away. And he has a pheno-- phenomenal memory. And so he's a human tape recorder. So he would sit there, and he used to sit and listen to what The Rebbe would say. And along with the team, they would reconstruct -- this is oral history, almost -- but they would reconstruct, you know, virtually word for word -- you know, sometimes later it would turn out that during the weekdays, even, they would do this reconstruction. And maybe in the early years things weren't officially recorded. So they've actually -- they have -- you know, today they have audio transcripts, and the -- transcripts of this audio that someone had -- had recorded quietly, 73:00and, you know, have the reconstruction transcripts that [inaudible] and his team -- Rebbe Elkhan and his team -- had put together. And you see -- I mean, it -- it's stunning this man's mind that he could sit there and -- you know, six hours of a talk, five hours, four hours, however long it was, he would sit there and have it all down by memory and -- and have it all transcribed. So he -- I mean, we're blessed he's still alive, still among us. And so as a yeshiva student, you go and you can learn from him. I mean, this is a brilliant person, and you could sit there, and then you'll study with him. So there were -- there are many reasons to come to Crown Heights -- so to learn in the yeshiva here and to be able to date as well and all those things like that. And so it's very standard for everyone -- even if you were -- you know, you're from Israel; you're from Australia; you're from, you know, Argentina, you're going to come to Crown Heights for a year or two and study here. That's assumed that's what you're going to do unless otherwise. You know, the -- the novel thing is, "Oh, well, you know, this person didn't go," you know. For whatever reason that's what he or she -- women al-- you know, ladies also come here as well, to study and take part in different things. So that's why I came to Crown Heights. So I was there 74:00for two years. First year I tried to study to be a dayan. A dayan is a rabbi who can preside over civil cases. I mean, when you're ordained, you're ordained for questions of Jewish law: Is this kosher, is this not? Can you do this on Shabbat; can you not? But a dayan is, well, you know, you know, Moshe, you know, owes Yankel, $50, and he says this and that. You know, it's from kind of civil things and tort cases and things like that. So I started studying to be a dayan. A dayan is normally like a high-level rabbi. But I didn't finish that that year, and the next year I decided to be focused on something else. I started learning shechitah, which is a ritual slaughter. So there's a shochet, a slaughterer, here; his name is Reb Leibel Turk. He's an elderly gentleman, and I very much enjoyed being able to learn with him. He taught me how to shtell a challef, which means you take the knife, how to sharpen it, and there's this -- to me that spoke to me a lot, that ability to kind of -- like this -- this ritualistic thing, to take a knife of incredibly sharp steel, and you run your finger over it, make sure there's no nicks, all different things like that. So I started learning shechitah with him. So I started learning -- for the first couple of months you study various -- he kind of tests you on things that you know conceptually and teaches you how to sharpen the knife. Once you've learned how to sharpen the knife and you've studied the law -- you know, the different laws of slaughter -- then you can start practicing. You go to either a halal or a 75:00Chinese slaughterhouse. Those are very common here in Brooklyn. We went to a Chinese slaughterhouse, because I guess for whatever reason the Chinese community is also into slaughtering meat and various other things like that, and halal is very similar to kosher. It's -- I think kosher's a little more exacting in terms of the details, but overall, you know, they're -- they're similar processes. So you go to those slaughterhouses, and they let you come in, and you can slaughter for free. I mean, for them it's great. It's free labor, you know. These rabbis come, and as long as they don't, you know, bruise the chicken and do a bad job, they can practice slaughtering the chickens. So I went there, and the first time I was there -- you have to be able to hold the bird to slaughter it. This was in -- this was on Myrtle Avenue, so, you know, north Brooklyn. And I'm sitting there. And I couldn't do it properly. And the Latino, you know, guys there, they do this all day. And they also use knives. It's not necessarily, you know, as -- this -- as sharp and whatever, but they said, "Ah! watch this," and they went like that, and I couldn't get -- I couldn't do tefisa -- I couldn't grab the bird properly. That was that -- you know, one week. Next week I go back, I go do it again. And another guy says, "Here, let me show you." And he does it. That night, I had the first date with my wife. And so my wife had been 76:00told that, like, you know -- well, you know, he can't see you till, you know, this time in the evening because he's shechiting -- he's slaughtering birds. And I -- she was like, "Oh my God, who am I dating?" [laughter] But we went on a date. And it's very common to date -- you don't date in Crown Heights, because wi-- within Chasidic dating, the idea is that it's very much focused on marriage. You don't date to be boyfriend or girlfriend or to hang out; you get to know each other...

ALI: It's more like a courtship.

LIGHTSTONE: Yeah, exactly. It -- it's to get to know each other to -- someone will either, will, you know, do some research -- the families research each other beforehand. You meet each other. It's very, you know, focused on marriage. And therefore...

ALI: So how did you -- before you went on this date, obviously, or -- based on what you've said, like, there's all this background stuff happening --


ALI: -- that leads up to this -- date. How -- how did you -- I don't want to say choose each other, or how did -- how did that --

LIGHTSTONE: So there --

ALI: -- come about?

LIGHTSTONE: -- so there had been -- there were various Shadchanim. Shadchanim is a person in charge of doing this shidduch, putting these people together, this matchmaker. So there were various matchmakers that had kind of approached my mother. And since that -- even though I had became religious, my mother and 77:00sister both became religious as well on their own later on. Kind of in conjunction to my journey, they too-- they went and they had their own as well. And so my mother was involved in -- in the pictures. So people would approach -- people would approach me; I'd say, "Speak to my mother." I didn't want to have to deal with it, you know, in terms of researching and things like that. And that's -- I mean, that's definitely a blessing. In terms of the way the system is set up, it's definitely set up around people who have these intact family structures and are able to do these things. And so some -- a couple -- I'd gone out with, you know, someone who'd been a dorm counselor where my sister went to religious seminary -- to, you know, Chabad seminary in Montreal. So I dated that girl, and then I we-- and, you know, that didn't work out. And there was someone else, and then -- so for the third name that was proposed -- that was proposed to me to look into was that of my wife. So what had happened was there was a lady from Los Angeles who called up my mother and said, "I know the perfect person for your son." And my mother's like, "You don't know my son!" She's like, "I know enough. He's a writer." She says, "Well, yeah, I guess he's a writer." "Well, she's also a writer." Turns out my wife isn't really a writer, but this lady figured she --- my wife was a writer. So she suggested, and we looked at each other and said, you know, we'll -- we'll give it a shot. We'll try and we'll go out. Yeah, so I went out with my wife a couple times and then, you know 78:00-- it's a very fast process.

ALI: Are these outings chaperoned or...

LIGHTSTONE: They're not chaperoned, no.


LIGHTSTONE: So it's -- different communities have different things. You go to Williamsburg -- so they'll meet, you know, only a handful of times. It's pretty much predetermined, and it -- they sit and they meet someone, you know, in the parents' living room. We're different in that sense. You know, in our minds, in the minds of the Chabad-Lubavitch community, they're crazy; they're extreme. You know, we -- you know, we date eight times, and then we get married. That's normal! [laughter] You know, someone else here says, you know -- someone who's not Orthodox says, "That's crazy! What do you mean? You date for six months and then you get married. That's normal." And then, you know, someone -- a secular person will say, "You're both insane. You date for six years, and then you realize that forget it, this is too complicated, and you each put 'It's complicated' on Facebook, and you're done," [laughter] right? But that -- that was the -- you know, and so we ended up dating -- over the course of two week -- weeks, we went on, I think, six or seven dates or something like that. And we were basically ready to get engaged then. But my in-laws -- my future in-laws, 79:00at that point in time -- were out of town. And so my wife said, "We can't do anything, whatever it is, until you meet them first." So even though they're not religious at all, you know, there was that kind of formal thing, well, you know, I can't just get engaged, you know. And so they came -- they came back -- so we waited two weeks. And then they came back. They came -- they flew back. They were on vacation or whatever it is. They flew back to Chicago -- my wife is from Chicago. I flew into Chicago for one day. I checked in on Foursquare. And somebody said, "What are you doing in Chicago?" I'm like, "Nothing. Going -- I'm going to the dentist." They're like, "What?" I'm like, "Yeah." This is going to very much date this to 2016, because when someone listens to this in, you know, 2116, they're going to say, "What the hell's Foursquare?" But, in any event, they -- they -- so I was in Chicago. I met my in-laws very quickly, and I was there -- I was there overnight. I flew back. This was on the eve of Purim. Purim is this holiday that's, you know, at the beginning of March, normally. So I go -- I came back. Purim happened. And I remember I had a friend who had come over, 80:00and he said, like, "Mordechai, what's going on? You got to get married." So I said, "That's it!" I said, "I'm sick of dating. I'm not going to date ever again. I'm done with it. I am through. I'm not going to date anyone." He's like, "No! You can't say that." He says -- he's from Holland. He's very serious, very, you know, kind of -- very much a Dutch Jew, with an emphasis on the Dutch. I mean, he's Jewish; he's fully religious; he's a Chasidic guy, but he's very Dutch and very formal. And he's like, "Well, you -- you can't say that, you can't say that!" I said, "No." I said, "I'm done, I'm never going to date again." And then of course right after Purim was over I got engaged, and he was like, "Oh, OK, now I see why..." But -- yeah, we got engaged. And then I had -- in Los Angeles there was a model matzah bakery that takes place every year, and they have this something called Exodus, which is this kind of performance thing. So when kids come in to see -- it's not real matzah; they make pretend matzo -- but when the kids come in to make pretend matzah, in order to educate them about Passover, that holiday, so we have a whole show that -- that they made, where they get up and Moses comes, the kids go back in time. It's this whole kind of -- like, Sleep No More that people go to today, really Chabad invented it. Because in the -- the '80s we had this interactive theater where kids would come in, and you have -- so I had been Moses for a couple years. And so the guy who 81:00did it said, "We want you to be Moses again this year." And it was great. You come out to LA -- you actually don't get paid very much at all, but you get, you know -- you get to go out to all the restaurants in LA, the great kosher restaurants in LA, and they rent you a car, and guys drive around, and it's a good time when you're -- you know, you're 21. It's a -- 22 -- it's a great experience. So he said, "Why don't you be Moses?" So I said, "Yeah, but listen, no one knows this yet, but I'm going to get engaged next week, so can we -- can I start being Moses a week late?" He says, "No, I need you to be Moses now." I'm like, "Well, what about the engagement?" He said, "You -- is it going to be -- you're going to fly in after the engagement?" I said, "Yeah, it's after the engagement." "OK! So after the engagement." So the day after I got engaged I flew to LA. I told my wife, you know, "I love you." It's not my wife, my fiancée -- "It was nice to get engaged to you, but I'm off to LA." And she was understanding. And I -- we'd spoken about it before, and then -- I hadn't just made this unilateral decision -- but I went to LA to be Moses for one last time.

ALI: You're like, "The burning bush is calling."

LIGHTSTONE: Yeah, the burning bush was calling. That's it. It was...

ALI: So you -- this is -- so this is all happening after you moved to Crown Heights [overlapping dialogue; inaudible]?

LIGHTSTONE: [overlapping dialogue; inaudible]

ALI: So when you said you came to Crown Heights to study in 770, this is in 2006? [overlapping dialogue; inaudible]

LIGHTSTONE: This was in -- so this would have been at the end -- 2007. It would 82:00have been --

ALI: Two thousand seven.

LIGHTSTONE: -- the end of --


LIGHTSTONE: -- it was the end of 2000 -- let me just think -- 2000 -- 2005 to 2006, [inaudible] fall 2005, summer 2006 I was in Poland.


LIGHTSTONE: So 2006, 2007 I was in Los Angeles, and September 2007 I moved to -- or August 2007 -- I moved to Crown Heights.

ALI: OK. And when you -- when you came at the time, did you expect that, like, this is your final destination, or you thought that --


ALI: -- you would be here for a while?

LIGHTSTONE: This was -- I was going to be here definitely for dating, until whatever point I got married. And I was going to be -- after people get married -- so they go to something called Kolel is kind of this more post-rabbinic studies in a sense that various communities do in different ways, but in the Lubavitch community, The Rebbe felt very much that couples need a transition year, that you can't just take this married couple, throw them out in the world, and say, you know, "Go get involved in the 9:00 to 5:00 and all the stresses that exist." People aren't necessarily used -- you're not used to living with someone in general, for sure someone of the opposite gender and things like that, and so this was a -- you know, so there's this idea of Kolel, where you enfor-- where it's basically the idea that this is Jacob. Before Jacob went and 83:00left Israel he spent a year studying -- or more than a couple years, whatever it is -- he spent this time studying to prepare himself and fortify himself internally. And so you spend this year in Kolel where you're dedicated to your studies and you're married, and you get a stipend, and you're able to really focus on your studies before you go out into the world. People after Kolel will go get jobs. People will become educators. People will become ritual slaughterers. People, you know, go to law school and become lawyers. A lot of people become shluchim -- they become this emissary network that Chabad has all around the world. And so my wife and I very much wanted to bec-- to be Chabad emissaries. And so at the time we felt we wanted to go to college campus because, you know, that was the demographic that spoke to us and, you know, that's what we wanted to do. So as time went by, various things came up. We always moved to this place, to that place. It didn't really work out. It never ended up clicking. In the -- in the meantime, before I was married -- so I started writing for Chaba-- lubavitch.com, which is one of Chabad's two central websites, based in 770. And I had...


ALI: What kinds of things were you writing?

LIGHTSTONE: So I'd wanted -- I'd approached the -- his name is Rabbi Joseph Friedman. He's in charge of Kehot, which is the book imprint that Chabad runs here in Crown Heights. And it's the largest publisher of Hebrew books outside of Israel or something. So we -- I'd approached him, saying that I -- you know, I want to translate Chasidic discourses. I want to write these books -- which everyone does. Everyone, even if their English isn't very good, says, "Well, I want to write -- you know, translate Chasidic discourses in English." And he's like, "Well, that's a good idea, but a better idea'd be if you wrote news for us." And so I said, "I don't write news, but I'm a blogger, so yeah. I know how to write these things and write what's going on." And I started writing these news pieces. I approached it backwards, in the sense that I -- for example, the first thing that they said, "You have to write about these rabbinic interns that are going out to communities around the world for the summer." So I said, "OK. It's going to be called 'Have Tefillin, Will Travel.'" Turns out, like, that's not even an original thing, because a million people have already written articles, "Have Tefillin, Will Travel." And here is the -- the -- the picture that's going to be the headline image is a picture of me from last summer putting tefillin on a guy in front of the -- you know, in Rome, in front of the 85:00-- whatever it's called over there, you know, by the Coliseum. You know, here's me putting on tefillin on this guy there. And this is like, they're, "Great, great! You know, what about the article?" "Yeah, I'm going to do the article." I ended up, like, pushing it off, and I ended up writing it last-minute, and they weren't -- weren't very happy. But they kept me, and I started writing. Because of the blogging and things like that, so I was on Twitter then. I was on Facebook. This was in 2007 -- 2008. This was in 2008. So I said that -- you know, like, if I started writing articles, and I put it on Twitter. And, you know, Twitter was much smaller then. And I said, you know, "If I'm putting this on this network for my personal account, we should be there as well." And so Chabad has been always incredibly forward-focused as a movement, in terms of harnessing technology. This ties into the idea that as a religious belief, technology doesn't exist for people to talk about Star Trek. Technology exists for people to -- or to look at cat pictures or things like that. Technology exists to spread godliness in the world. Technology is here for us to be able to harness it and use it for a higher purpose. And that's why in 1988 Rabbi Y.Y. Kazen, who started Chabad.org, the organization that I work for, he started 86:00posting things on the BBS system. This is before the bulletin boards. This is before the intern-- the World Wide Web didn't exist then. He was doing that. They started a website. Chabad.org as a website was one of the first, I believe, 500 websites. The exact things are -- is very unclear, but I'd say within the -- 1992, there was the first -- you know, the World Wide Web was launched, so by '93 we had a website. So this was one of the first ones ever in existence in the world. And so that idea was very much there. So when I said, "I want to put things on Twitter," they said, "We don't know what Twitter is, but go for it. Like, you know, if you can use it to write and do it right, then, you know, whatever it is, then do it." So I started a Twitter account. That -- so we started it in November, formally -- November 2008. A couple weeks later, there was the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India.

Obviously Gabi Holtzberg was from Crown Heights origi-- originally he was from Israel, but he grew up in Crown Heights most of his life, lived in Mumbai, India, terrorist attacks over there. Chabad house was targeted, and he and his wife and their guests were killed. But Twitter played a kind of a nascent role in -- in terms of getting information out then. This was, like, one of the breakout moments for Twitter. And so I was -- I began tweeting then, you know, 87:00what was going on, and I was getting information and official reports, things -- you know, the -- the FBI would brief -- would -- would brief Chabad headquarters; they would tell me something; I would put it on Twitter. And so this was like this -- it was on -- the New York Times interviewed me afterwards, because this was like -- it was -- you know, this Chasidic Jew is using Twitter! But that's what we -- we were there, because if it's there to -- I mean, that was obviously a very tragic experience, but... So I started doing these things like that. I was writing articles and doing social media. And as I kind of wrapped up my year in Kolel studying, so then that's when I began to -- writing more and doing social media more. And it basically began to make sense that for me my presence with -- so they wouldn't be going to other communities outside of the world to work here in -- in the headquarters, in Crown Heights -- and be here. And so I ended up, you know, becoming very involved with the Chabad headquarters and eventually -- you know, I'm working for Chabad.org, which is our educational site, our flagship site, doing social media there. And that's 88:00basically -- that's my fulltime day job, as it were, is to do, you know, Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat and all those things. On top of that, my wife and I, obviously being -- even though we -- we are formally recognized as emissaries. You know, you have the Kinus Hashluchim, International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries, takes place twice a year, right? The women are in February; the men are in November/December. So this just happened now, [inaudible] date that we're speaking. So there's this class photo that's taken, where everyone gathers outside and you have, you know, thousands of people on Eastern Parkway in front of 770. And so I'm in that photo because I'm, you know, formally a Chabad emissary, even though I'm not in Mumbai or Japan or Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, or wherever it is. Or -- you know, I have a colleague, actually, of Chabad, who just moved to North -- to South Dakota, which is the last state to get a Chabad emissary -- and the last state to get a rabbi, a permanent rabbi, in general. But -- so I'm here. But I'm part of this -- this, you know, outward-facing movement. So on top of doing the social media, my wife and I make events for people in tech and digital media. And the happenstance is 89:00as the community has changed and young people move in -- young people, normally White -- a lot of Jews, therefore, as well -- Jews aren't necessarily White, and that's a whole 'nother conversation -- but, you know, a lot of young Jewish people are moving to Crown Heights, so -- and a lot of them are involved in either digital media -- they work for these various digital media outlets -- or they work for tech startups and things like that, and they're moving to Crown Heights. So we've been in a place where the community that my -- that -- that I reach out to, so to speak, has now come to me. So we're able to be here and stay here, and we ended up buying a home, and we're invested in this -- in this neighborhood while still being able to do that type of communal work that we wanted to do that normally, until recently, had been -- you couldn't have been, you know, a Chabad shaliach, a Chabad emissary, in Crown Heights. How could you be a Chabad emissary in Crown Heights? They -- there -- you know, I mean, I have a friend who does young professionals. He's here all the time doing that stuff. You know, today you could stay in Crown Heights. And in that sense, it's -- it's returned to what it was in the '50s. I mean, the -- the previous rebbe, when he 90:00moved to America -- so they told him, "Rabbi, you're older. You have survived, you know, all these different things. Move to Lakewood." Lakewood, New Jersey, today is known to have a large Orthodox -- not Chasidic, but Orthodox -- community. At the time Lakewood was like the Catskills. It had fresh air; there was a lake nearby; it was quiet; there were trees. It was a place where everybody basically told the rabbi to retire when he came in, the previous rebbe. And he said, "When I -- in Europe, where I come from, the Chasidim, the followers, don't tell The Rebbe what to do; The Rebbe tells the Chasidim what to do. And I'm not going to move to Lakewood. Where is the neighborhood that has the largest, you know -- you know, most beautiful established Jewish community?" They said, "Well, that's Crown Heights." He said, "I want to move to Crown Heights." Nobody moved to Crown Heights if you're religious. If you were an Orthodox Jew with a beard and a hat, you didn't move to Crown Heights. Crown Heights was for the -- you know the -- the -- you know, the "allrightniks," the Jews who didn't keep Shabbat, didn't keep kosher, necessarily, had, you know -- maybe they went to synagogue. I mean, the -- the Brooklyn Jewish Center today is the Chabad School, but then it was this massive Conservative synagogue. And the previous rebbe said, "I am moving here because these are my people. My people aren't only the Chasidim --" -- the people with the black hats and the coats, 91:00things like that -- "-- my people are all Jewish people, and therefore I'm going to live in the premier Jewish neighborhood in Crown Heights." And so there was a Chasidic minority -- there wasn't a minyan -- they didn't have 10 people here originally -- that were davening in Chabad headquarters. So in that sense, things have certain-- have returned, to a certain degree. The Rebbe used to tell people, "When you walk down the street, invite your neighbors in for a Shabbat meal. Tell people don't be open on Shabbat." In 1980 that wasn't the case. In 1980, if you were Jewish, you were pretty much Chabad or Chabad-adjacent, and that was it. Today you have young Jewish people here with -- don't necessarily have that background at all or any level of observance. And so my wife and I try and play that role in par-- in our parts to -- to invite these people in. I mean, we -- I mean, obviously that extends to the larger population as well, to all people, Jews and non-Jews and people of all backgrounds being able to access the things that we know we want to share. But that particular passion definitely is for -- to allow Jews to have that access to their heritage and their background and be able to fully explore it and experience it. So that's what we 92:00try and do today in Crown Heights.

ALI: OK. So how -- I mean, what -- what do you think drew you in particular to adopt social media? I mean, you know, like, was there something like an interest that you had? I'm -- because -- I guess what I'm interested in thinking about, a lot of the perception of the Chasidic community that it's insular. And what -- in the minds of many who, when they think of insularity, they -- you think of a kind of isolation from --


ALI: -- the -- I don't want to say outside world, but from the --

LIGHTSTONE: The greater world, the non-Jewish world.

ALI: -- [overlapping dialogue; inaudible], yeah, non-Jewish world. So social media is kind of counter-intuitive to isolation and insularity -- although there is a way [laughs] to silo yourself in your own social networks.

LIGHTSTONE: Yeah, that's also true.

ALI: [laughs] But so how -- tell me how you kind of navigated that --


ALI: -- medium.

LIGHTSTONE: I mean, I would say first of all, it's just like when the outside 93:00media speaks about Crown Heights, and they speak about the Black community here, right? And I say "Black" purposefully because most -- very often you'll see publications, especially in the past, that say "African American." The reality is Crown Heights is not a majority African American; it's a majority Caribbean American. I think it's 70-30 or something like that, somewhere around there. But to the outside world, if you're Black you're Black. It doesn't make a difference if you were born in Africa. I mean, our tenant is from Senegal. He has a very different experience than someone who grew up in South Carolina or whatever. And so -- but they're all lumped together. And that's what happens with the Jewish community as well, that when you see a Chasidic Jew, people say Chasid-- you know, "They're all Chasidic." Well, no. This person could be from Lithuania, and this person could be from Hungary, and this group could be, you know, from there, and you could have Sephardic Jews from the Middle East. And they're all Orthodox; they're all observant, therefore they're all lumped together. And the untrained eye, well, yeah, they look the same. To me, I look, and I say, "No, no, no. This person is, you know, from -- is Satmar. This person is, you know -- then Satmar comes from the kind of Hungarian-Romanian border. This person here is a Gerrer Chasid, comes from the middle of Poland. This person over here, you 94:00know, who isn't even Ashkenazi; he's Sephardi." Yeah, he has a beard and a hat, but his family's from, you know, Morocco or -- or Yemen or some other country. And so they often all get lumped together. So in that sense, you know, the greater -- you know, Orthodox Jewish world, the greater Chasidic world, is very insular. I think the question is how people deal with the realities -- how people deal with the -- with trauma and cultural trauma, the trauma of the Holocaust. So following the Holocaust, many Hasidic Jews -- especially, you know, the Satmar community in Williamsburg, the communities in Borough Park -- looked to blame the -- blame themselves and the flaws that exist within them and the outside world. You know, they felt betrayed by the outside world, and therefore how do you av-- avoid the -- the danger of the outside world is by saying, "I am going to have nothing to do with you. I will not speak English. I will -- you know, I will only speak Yiddish with a very thick Hungarian accent and preserve the particular things that isolate me from that world, because that world can't be trusted." And that's how they've dealt with that trauma, by and large. I think the Lubavitch community has dealt with that trauma differently, that it's not how can you, you know, hide yourself from the outside world, but 95:00rather how can you subvert the outside world? How can you subvert the forces of negativity and transform them and reclaim them and use them for positivity? And so in that sense we've been -- as a community have been willing to tackle, you know, to go to -- people went to Times Square to put tefillin on people in the -- in the '80s, went to Times Square in the '80s. You know, no reputable person would want to go around there unless you had to be there. But no, the Jewish people over here said, "Well, I'm going to go there and put tefillin on them, even though this is a place that spiritually is dangerous," right? So there's been always -- been that willingness and that dedication to -- you know, to -- you're go-- you're going online. Well, yeah, if I'm going online to check, you know, you know, sports scores or things like that, then that's not using the internet for the purpose for which it was created. It wasn't created for that purpose; it was created for a higher purpose and a godly purpose. And therefore I'm actually misusing the internet when I -- when I choose to go online and use it for wrong things. That doesn't mean I'm a perfect person. Obviously we all have our temptations, things like that. But by and large, you know, the communal belief is that if this is a means of communication, a means of accessing the 96:00outside world, that I'm going to use it for the right purpose. There is inherent danger in there. The reality is is that all human beings in society have to deal with how we're changing culturally in the face of the internet and how we relate to each other and how we have on-time and off-time and how we unplug. And these are things that's not -- they're not Jewish questions; they're human questions. And they af-- you know, affect each and every one of us. And so we in the Chasidic community have to battle that as well. How -- well, how do you want to use this? You want to subvert it and use it and elevate it and make it, you know, a godly thing. Well, how do you do that while balancing out the real dangers of wasting your time and negative influences and trolling and all the other different things like that that can exist? And it's a struggle, and it's a question today how should it be used. I mean, I -- I personally would say that I don't think -- had me, as someone, you know, as a yeshiva student when I was 19, said, "Well, I want to go online and do this," I would say, "No, that's not your business to be there." You know, that's what -- I would have been told then, and that's what I would tell my kids also, is that spending time -- when I was in Montreal and I wanted to check my email, I would call my sister in LA and say, "Log into my -- my email account and then read the latest emails to me." And I 97:00would do that once a week, and that's all I needed, you know. And the -- there was a -- a phone service called Tellme -- it was purchased by Microsoft later on. You would call up, and it would say, "Tell me," and then you would -- you would say, you know, "Tell me the sports scores, and tell me the, you know, stock market, and tell me the news," and I would get my news from Tellme. I didn't really spend time online. And I think that makes sense when you're dealing with younger students, that this is your time to delve into your studies and into, you know, godliness and learning and, you know, Talmud and all these different things like that. And therefore it's not your place or purpose to be online. When you're later on in life and the needs are greater -- I mean, you have to pay your bills online these days. You know, banking is online. Everything, you know -- communication is online. So, I mean, down the road, I think younger people are going have to deal with internet more, but at least, you know, at the time and place where the internet was and where I was, you know, I -- until I needed to be on it for, you know, this higher purpose, you know, it wasn't -- you know, I shouldn't have been on it. I didn't have a need to be on it whatsoever. And I think the community as a whole says that, you know, if this thing is here, and you have the ability to use it, then it's your 98:00responsibility to use it properly and to teach other people to use it properly. And so therefore that -- you know, that's what I try and do. I mean, I haven't really faced resistance in terms of what I do, you know? My kids go to school, and everyone -- I mean, it's not a question of, like, you know, well, I'm on the internet. Most people are on the internet because it's a necessary means of communication today. I mean, if anything, you know, when people speak about, you know, Chasidic Jews, you know, this and that, I say, "I'm verified on Twitter and I have, you know, this number of followers, and I've been on it since 2008. You know, who are you that you have, you know, 20 followers and then you think that's an accomplishment and -- but don't tell me that just because I -- I'm -- you know, I'm not ultra-Orthodox." I mean, that's, for example, a term that people bandy around that we as a community find offensive. We consider it to be a slur and a pejorative, because you're saying we're extreme. We don't see ourselves as extreme. I don't think it's the place of outside people to put that label on us, you know. We have terms that we go by -- you know, Chasidic or Jewish Orthodox or traditional or whatever it is, but -- yeah, so I mean there is this perception, you know, are you -- you know -- "You're online?" "Well, 99:00yeah, I'm on Snapchat. Are you?" And -- so, I mean, that's kind of how I deal with it, you know. I mean, it's not a qu-- in the community it's not so much a question. The outside perception, I think, is just a misconception. And it's, you know -- I mean, there are the communities that take a very strong anti-internet stance. I think it's a stopgap measure. I think for the time being maybe it'll work. I think, you know, 50 years from now, when everything has to be online, then you're just pushing off the inevitable, and you have to figure out how to do it properly. So the hope is that right now we are in a place -- I mean, I -- I've -this is something I've spoken about. I -- I've gone to South by Southwest, the tech festival, and it's not a religious thing at all, and I've spoken about how I think that the internet can be used for a higher purpose. And so it's a human journey, but that's kind of where we are in it.

ALI: So I have a few more questions about just in your experiences in Crown Heights if you can tell me what was your -- tell me about either a or a first 100:00experience with Labor Day on Eastern Parkway.

LIGHTSTONE: Labor Day on Eastern Parkway. Trying to think of when that was. It probably would have been when I moved here. I was aware of it beforehand. I mean, it's a -- it is the day, so to speak, that everyone knows about. I have very mixed emotions about Labor Day in the sense that, on one hand, I think that what makes Crown Heights beautiful is that it's a place of people of all backgrounds able to say, "I'm here, and this is my tradition and where I come from." So for me, as a Chasidic Jew, I'm here, I'm a Chasidic Jew, and this is my tradition. I'm going to say to the world, I don't care, a hat and jacket and beard, whatever it is. If someone says, "I'm here. I'm from the West Indies, and this is my tradition and where I come from --" -- I mean, Eastern Parkway is -- is a parade ground for the greatest parades of people expressing their identities. In that sense I celebrate Labor Day. The actual applications, the way it's -- it's celebrated, it's done here, I don't think Labor Day fits -- it -- it's grown beyond what Crown Heights is able to physically accommodate. I mean -- and so my wife and I, we just leave town every year, because you -- you cannot get out. You're stuck. I mean, you can't cross Eastern Parkway in that 101:00sense. There's violence associated with it all, which plagues the, you know, Black communities as -- as well. And there are problems, you know, questions about how can we handle this? In that sense, Labor Day was definitely not a experience that I look forward to. You know, I don't have a problem with Labor -- the Labor Day parade. I think it can be handled differently. I mean, Errol Louis, I've seen also on-- online.

ALI: Have you -- I mean, were you -- have you ever been here during...

LIGHTSTONE: Yeah, no, I have. I --

ALI: So --

LIGHTSTONE: -- I've -- I'm saying I -- so when I've been --

ALI: -- [overlapping dialogue; inaudible] your reaction of, like -- so your first time he-- I mean, you hear-- you'd heard about it. But what was your feeling; what did you see; what did you witness; what did you --


ALI: -- how did you respond?

LIGHTSTONE: -- I mean, it's the one time of year that...

ALI: Tell me about a specific --

LIGHTSTONE: Yeah -- yeah.

ALI: -- [overlapping dialogue; inaudible].

LIGHTSTONE: So I'm -- I can't -- I mean, I can tell you the general experience.

ALI: Yeah.

LIGHTSTONE: I mean, the first time, you know, it -- it definitely is that one time -- the first time that Crown Heights didn't feel Jewish to me -- even if there're non-Jews here, and their space is their space -- the first time where the -- the secular space, the space that is normally either -- for most people 102:00is either a shared space or a Jewish space, and we use it for our things, it's that -- it's the one time when it really becomes, "No, this is a -- a non-Jewish space." The music is overpowering. You wake up in the morning; you can hear it shaking your bedroom. The smells are -- they go from -- I mean, I know it's not ko-- jerk chicken is not kosher, but the smell doesn't bother me -- you know, to -- you know, a heavy smell of marijuana and just cars driving around and exhaust and people -- you know, so the -- the smells assault you in various ways, for better and for worse. The pageantry is definitely not fitting within Jewish laws, the idea of looking at -- that people kind of celebrating, you know, displaying themselves in that mode of dress is not considered appropriate to look at. So -- even though, I mean, I've seen it, I'm aware, I know where -- what's going on, but I don't sit there and people-watch and look at the parade. I think it's -- I mean, listen, I and so it's definitely something that I've experienced -- it was exactly what I thought it would be, in that sense. A lot of people are afraid to walk around on Labor Day. They're -- they're afraid to 103:00go out because of that history of violence that's happened there. I do it within reason, you know. I mean, when I experienced my first Labor Day, I guess, I'm pretty sure I was on -- in my house, Utica and President, which is pretty much in the heart of Labor Day, not within the -- which -- not on Eastern Parkway and Kingston or something like that. So to walk out of my house, there's a whole bunch of people, and that's fine. You know, it is what it is. You know, we're not going to drive anywhere. I'm not going to go anywhere, and either I leave town early in the morning or I'm there for the day and, you know, we run to the subway right away, and that's it. I mean, I -- you know, I think that if Labor Day could scale better, I would be happier with it. You know, if Labor Day could exist and even block -- you could block Eastern Parkway. We block Eastern Parkway. That's fine. But if it could be in a way that I could, you know, more easily get around, then that would be better. You know, if -- I don't know how policing could be done properly or community policing or whatever it is to make it safer for everyone. I mean, the reality is that, you know, if Jews experience violence on Labor Day -- at most, normally it's maybe an assault, maybe a -- you 104:00know, some sort of burglary or something like that. We don't get shot at, you know. People of color get shot, and it's awful, and how -- you know, that has to be solved also. No one cared, and -- no one cared when Jews were killed. No one cared when Black people were killed. People only cared when the hipsters move here, and then it became, you know, "Well, now our -- our kids are in danger, and now --" -- whatever it is, and that became an issue. So, I mean, I think all those things have to be addressed. I don't know how they can be, but yeah, something like that should at some point happen.

ALI: What have you found to be the most important institutions in -- the non-Jewish institutions, either city organizations or, you know, secular organizations within -- in terms of -- of shaping Crown Heights's history? Or -- or Crown Heights now. Like, in terms of -- I mean, have you had to interact with any offices or city agencies or...


LIGHTSTONE: That are physically in Crown Heights?

ALI: Yeah. Or just -- you know, in the con-- in the context of living here.

LIGHTSTONE: I mean, we go to museums. You know, we go to MOMA and the Met and the Guggenheim and whatever and the various Jewish museums, the Brooklyn Museum, and we go to libraries. I mean, all those institutions we have access to and we use pretty regularly. I mean, the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. In the sense of -- post office here is God-awful. [laughs] But in the sense of those institutions, we don't use them regularly. I mean, I think on a communal level, the Brooklyn Botanical Society is the one institution that -- in the early days The Rebbe himself used to go there and do tashlich, which is this Rosh Hashanah ritual, used to go there. So that is very much ingrained in people's minds as a place that's actually been kind of used and has a part of Lubavitch history. And it was locked one year, and no one could -- it was raining, no one could go in. So The Rebbe actually climbed up the fence and jumped over. And then everyone's like, "Oh, OK, so I guess if our rebbe does this, we're going to do that too." And they all jumped the fence and went to the lake. This was in the '50s. And 106:00then the -- maybe Prospect Park, to a certain degree. I mean, Lincoln Rochester Park is the park around the corner from us. That's where we take our kids. But they don't -- I mean, if they -- within the physical space of Crown Heights, if any one of those institutions weren't there, I don't know if I would miss it, per se. If Lincoln Rochester Park -- you know, I'm not attached to that park because it's that park. It's the park nearby. You know, if it was, you know, Brower Park, that'd be the park nearby. I'm not, like, you know, tied to it, you know, on an emotional level. Most institutions here are not -- you know, I wouldn't -- I appreciate them and what they have. You know, the local library, I get books from it and things like that, but I don't necessarily feel it's shaped my life, you know. If it was -- it could be supplanted by something else, and I would -- wouldn't feel its loss, per se.

ALI: OK. So that's an interesting way of framing it, when you say you wouldn't say it's shaped your life. But it has been part of your life.

LIGHTSTONE: Oh, it definitely has been part -- I mean, every--

ALI: Yeah.

LIGHTSTONE: -- thing -- I mean, it's been part of my life. I mean, listen, I -- Lincoln Rochester Park's the park around the corner --


ALI: Yeah.

LIGHTSTONE: -- and my -- we take my kids there --

ALI: Right.

LIGHTSTONE: -- at least once a week, and we play there, and, you know, when it's snowy out and everyone goes, we have a sled, and we go --

ALI: Right, right.

LIGHTSTONE: -- So there's this experience there. But to me that's not, you know -- if the, you know -- the yeshiva was gone, so there would be a hole in Crown Heights, to me. If Lincoln Rochester Park was gone, so I'd walk to the blo-- the -- the park that's, you know, five blocks further away and [inaudible] the five blocks further from the park. So it's not part of the -- it's not -- it doesn't leave an indel-- you know, it's a -- it's an intera-- it's a transactional experience. I mean...

ALI: I see. So what are the essential places in Crown Heights for you?

LIGHTSTONE: Jewish as well, or...?

ALI: Just for you. How are you...

LIGHTSTONE: No, I understand [overlapping dialogue; inaudible].

ALI: Yeah. For you. Because you characterize if the yeshiva were gone, you'd feel a hole. So --


ALI: -- essential in that way --


ALI: -- in terms of the things that -- that make this your place [overlapping dialogue; inaudible]...

LIGHTSTONE: Right. So actually I would say there's -- there's one exception to the previous question. I think Eastern Parkway as an entity to me that makes 108:00Crown Heights. If Eastern Parkway were not there, then there would be a hole, if it was just a regular street. Eastern Parkway is one place where I feel -- it fascinates me. Especially, like, in the early spring and the summer when you walk around, it's nice out, and you just see so many people passing by, and before it was filled with bikes, then you could really walk around, not have to worry about getting run over. And you could -- I mean, the bike -- people on bikes then were nicer also, so -- anyhow. But it -- you know, it was just this place, you could kind of stand there. And everyone's in their little bubble, but if you kind of look out of that bubble, then you could see it's, like, a bunch of pearls, you know, on a chain or something. I -- so I -- Eastern Parkway is one place that speaks a lot to me, you know, the malls on Eastern Parkway. Seven seventy Eastern Parkway, obviously, 770 being what makes Crown Heights, to me. You know, Crown Heights isn't Crown Heights without 770 being at the forefront. I mean, it's -- I mean, even though right now we're on Crown Street, but this is a -- a temporary office -- my actual office on my business card says "770 Eastern Parkway." I mean, I get mail to that address. That's the place that I, you know, I -- that everything is based around. I mean, so much so that it took 109:00me a long time to really get north and south in Crown Heights because 770, you know, was at the -- was the beginning, you know, so to speak. So everything that was really south of 770 for many years, until after I got married, "Well, that must be north, because 770's here, and that's just above 770. And what's below 770, well, that must be south," even though really that's north. You know, that was just the experience that I had, and -- yeah, if I look at a map, [inaudible] it was the way [inaudible] because it was such a central space. I mean, I literally went to school there. I was, you know, there every day for hours on end. So to me that's definitely a -- you know, a really impor-- that -- that is Crown Heights. And within it there are different subsections in 770 -- the actual building, 770 Eastern Parkway, as opposed to the adjoining offices. So in the back there's a room. It's called the World -- it's called WLCC, World Lubavitch Communications Center, or World Learning Communications Center. That was in the -- 1971, when The Rebbe celebrated the twentieth year of being -- you know, of assuming the mantle and the leadership of the Chabad movement. So 110:00people in Israel wanted to hear what The Rebbe was saying. And so how are you going to hear? So what they did is they took a phone -- that room had a phone. They hung it into the main synagogue, and they attached the PA system, and they basically created -- they hacked into the phone lines to create a broadcast system so that people in Israel could gather in Israel and be able to hear it. And as it evolved, it so became a thing that by 1992, by the time of The Rebbe's stroke, when he stopped speaking -- so there were 420 different lines that were activated to reach, I think, something like close to a thousand different communities around the world so people could listen. And so that space, you walk there -- I mean, I could even take you physically if you ever want to see it -- you walk in and it's just a bank of phones and this whole computer system. I mean, it -- it's frozen in time. It's late '90-- early '90s, I should say -- early '90s, you know, computer systems, but it's those computer systems set up to allow this broadcast to take place and for people to be able to hear and dial in and -- so that room -- I mean, it speaks very much to what I do in terms of kind of internet usage and things like that. But this is the -- this is the predecessor of -- you know, of what I do today. That room speaks -- I mean, the Rebbe's room -- there's the actual office the Rebbe had that -- when the 111:00previous rebbe moved to Crow-- you know, to Crown Heights, he was here -- so he was really on the second floor. That's where he lived, and that's where -- and he met people on the second floor, and things were mainly on the second floor. The Rebbe was on the ground floor had an office there, it was considered a side room. When the Rebbe took over or something, this room became the room. That's where the Rebbe would meet people. And -- and that's a place -- it's like a holy place. When you -- you know, you go there; people go there for their prayers held there three times a week: on Monday, on Thursday, and then on -- on Shabbat. And then on holidays as well. And so you're able to go there. So recently the Simchat Torah, which is another -- that holiday at the end of Sukkot -- so my son said, "I want to go to the Rebbe's room; I want to go to the Rebbe's room." Which to me felt like it was a victory, like, yeah. So -- because, you know, you go -- you go to the synagogue that I go in -- when we go to synagogue, you know, on Montgomery Street, there -- there's candy. And his friends are there. He's like, "No, I -- you know, it's not about that. I want to go to -- I want to go to this place." And you go there, and it's probably about the size of the room we're in now. So, I mean, I'm horrible with numbers, but it's not a very large room. And it's packed with dozens of, you know, well beyond the legal limit of how many people can actually be in there. And it's 112:00just -- I mean, people just -- you know, so my -- there's a -- the antechamber was packed. I mean, he's like, "I want to go in the actual room, not just the antechamber." I'm like, "Well, I'm sorry, Berel --" -- my oldest son -- "-- we're not going to be able to --" -- I had my two -- my oldest and my second oldest, the -- Beryl and Mendel. "I'm sorry, Beryl --" -- and Mendel's with me. You know, they're six and four -- "-- I can't get you in further." They're like, "No, we want to go in." So some old guy says, "OK, you want to go in?" And he starts to -- "Move! These kids are coming in." I'm walking with them, holding their hands, and we're shoving them in. And we get from out the antechamber; we get into the actual room itself, and that's even more packed. I mean, it's like literal sardines. And there's an old Russian Jew there, and he's like, "Oh," and he starts speaking to me in Yiddish. And he's -- you know, he's saying -- well, I can speak Yiddish, but -- and he's like, you know, "What's going on?" I'm like, "The kids..." "Are your kids OK?" Like, he doesn't know who my kids are, but, you know, OK, "Where are the kids?" So we pass the kids, like, you know, what do you call it, like at a -- a mosh pit, when people crowd-surf, we cra-- we pass my kids overhead so they can get a place in a corner. There's, like, a pedestal for kids there. And so my sons were over there. And then we were in -- you know, we did the Hakafot. We did the dancing over there in that room. And so 113:00that space to me -- I mean, it's -- it's an incredibly special space. I don't go there very often otherwise, because I -- I want it to remain this -- this is the place where The Rebbe was many, many hours during the day, and physically until -- right up until his passing, he was in Beth Israel Hospital, but till that point he had been in his room. And so that's a -- a very special place that I don't want to get used to, so to speak. So when I go there, I want it to be a meaningful, impactful experience. So that room is definitely -- his room with -- you know, this building on a block, his room inside it, whatever it is, is, you know -- that's it for me, so to speak. That's the -- the place where you have this exalted experience. So that is definitely -- I mean, the library attached to it is an archive that has, I think, the second-largest collection, private collection, of Judaica in the world -- is here in Crown Heights. And so they have a showroom that most people don't know about but you can go to. You can go in the showroom, and there's a suggested donation, but you can really go in for free, essentially. And they always have a display of various things from the archive. So you could see, you know, a page of the Talmud that was handwritten, 114:00you know, over a thousand years ago, and here are the tefillin that the Ba'al Shem Tov, who was the founder of the Chasidic movement, put on on display, and here is -- you know, and every year they -- they -- they do a different theme. Either it's about this or about that or, you know, various themes within the Chabad history and within greater Jewish history that showcase some of the things in the archive. So you can go in there and you can actually see that. That's another place that very -- very much speaks to me.

ALI: You recently moved. Tell me about the circumstances of your moving. Where were you living first?

LIGHTSTONE: So when -- when I'd first moved to Crown Heights, before I got married, I was in a basement. You know, it's very common for people to rent out their basements. It was refurbished; it was, you know, set to -- you know, it was -- it was turned to living space for a bunch of guys. We all rented various rooms. We were friends. I rented a basement. I got married...

ALI: And where was that?

LIGHTSTONE: That was on Montgomery, between Kingston and Albany --


LIGHTSTONE: -- closer to Albany. My wife rented her own private basement, actually on Montgomery, between Albany and Troy. We didn't know that until 115:00after, you know, whatever. But -- so when we got married -- so we were going to move into an apartment. It wasn't ready right away. So we stayed in the basement she rented -- had rented for the first month, because it was just us anyway. Very quickly we moved to the apartment we were in until now, which is -- was on President, between Utica and Rochester, like five houses down from Utica. It's closer to the Utica side, on the north side. So we rented that. It was the second floor of someone's house. They rented it out. Really that floor's subdivided. It's three -- I mean, really it's a three -- three-unit building. So the -- our -- we shared the top floor with the -- the other family that rented the other half of the unit up there. And so it was a two-bedroom apartment, but it was small. But it was also a thousand dollars a month, which, when we started, that was, like, well, yeah, it's a thousand dollars, is a little bit less than what's normal because, you know, it's on Utica, and most people want to be closer to the heart of things. You know, they don't want to have to walk 10 minutes to get kosher milk. Yeah. So, you know, it's a thousand dollars. But 116:00-- but what happened is as we -- when we realized that we're not going to be moving to another city or another country right away, that we're going to be here longer, well, suddenly a thousand dollars a month, because that was locked -- I mean, it was actually a little bit before -- below a thousand, they raised the rent a little bit, but by the time we left it was a thousand a month. You know, that was an amazing rate. That was -- you couldn't move. It's like, yeah, it's two bedrooms, and we now have four kids, and we cannot leave -- but we can't leave. You know, if we're -- you know, we literally -- you're going to move out and your rent is going to jump to 2200 a month. And that's an insane increase. So yeah, this is -- we're living on top of each other, but at least, you know, we can afford it. And so we were there for, you know, it must have been -- so six years we were there. Because we were privileged in the sense that, you know, my -- our parents were able to help -- help us out and afford a down payment to the house. So we began looking. We kick ourselves in the head because, you know, ultimately, you know, what we were able to do with that -- that gift that, you know, we were able to cash in on from our parents became 117:00much less by the time we actually started looking for a house seriously in Crown Heights; rent had already started to go up. On Twitter I saw a real estate agent tweet, you know, "House on Lincoln --" -- or it was a house somewhere. I think it's at Lincoln. I contacted him. He said, "It's not available right now; they're not sure if they want to sell." We -- I -- you know, I called him back again, I stayed on his case, and with all these things you have to be -- I mean, you have to be fast, because things go very quickly. People come and try and flip properties. So I said, "Listen, when they -- if they change their minds, give me a call right away." So he gave me a call a couple weeks later. He's like, "Yeah, you can check it out." So we saw it, and we -- right away my wife and I said -- my wife and I said -- it's not exactly what we wanted, but it's actually physically very close to where we lived. It's also between Utica and Rochester, on Lincoln. It's a couple blocks north. And the neighborhood's -- it's a nice block. It's a quiet block. It's a residential block, and the house is ready to move into. Because the reality is that even with whatever it is, we couldn't afford to do massive renovations or anything like that, so this is something we're able to do -- let's do it. And we signed a contract right away. 118:00They signed right away. We didn't give a deposit right away. What happened was that the sellers -- this had been an investment property that they had had -- he went for a family funeral -- the uncle or someone -- like, out of town. When he came back, other family members had told him, "You're crazy to sell to these people for, you know --" -- it was $770 -- $770,000 -- "-- you know, for, you know, that amount. That's insane. You can get, you know, at least $200,000 more. Sell to someone else, you know? We'll find a better..." We had this contract. The State of New York was unclear, you know, if that contract is enough because we hadn't given a down po-- a down payment yet. A deposit, I mean. We ended up -- you know, there was some back and forth, and we ended up offering mo-- a little bit more, and we were able to get that house. The reality is that even after we bought the house, I mean, it went up in value by the time we -- from -- by the time we signed, to the time we -- you know, from the time we had agreed on the price to the time we actually closed. So that -- I mean, people -- I mean, I -- we won't sell it because it's our house and whatever it is, but, you know, people knock on our doors, and the amount they offer when they knock -- you know when the amount they offer when they knock on your door, if it's more 119:00than what you paid for it, then something has changed in between. So we...

ALI: So people are knocking on your doors...

LIGHTSTONE: It happened once that someone knocked on the doors. You get mail -- mail, Corcoran, all these different other organizations. Once somebody knocked on the door. And I have a -- I installed a ringing doorbell, so I can ans-- I'm sitting there in this office, where we're sitting right now. I looked up; I said, "Who's there?" And I saw these guys and said, "Go away." [laughs] But...

ALI: So you said that you were fortunate -- so are -- are there -- what kind of housing pressures are there in your community?

LIGHTSTONE: Right. So the -- as follows: I think it -- it's worth noting that there are Orthodox Jews, Chasidic Jews, who are active in the real-estate market. You see a lot of them, actually, are based in Williamsburg, from that community. The perception of people -- and this is propagated by the -- the press as well -- is that Chasidic Jews are into real estate. Any fair-minded person, I think, would say, "Well, just like, you know, 20 years ago you would say, 'Well, Chasidic Jews are into diamonds...' Yeah, a lot of Chasidic Jews are into diamonds. When you apply the perception of wealth and power that's inherent 120:00in diamonds, and you say, 'Well, all these people are, you know, diamond merchants,' that's an awful anti-Semitic trope." Real estate, people don't say that. So the Village Voice in 2007 said a thing, "Why are Chasidic landlords the worst landlords in Brooklyn?" and a picture of a brownstone with a Chasidic hat and peyot on it. The reality is that there are Chasidic Jews who are bad landlords. There are also -- if you look at the -- the list -- the city puts out a list. You know, there are a dirty dozen or whatever it is of these -- you have Indian landlords; you have African Americans; you have Chinese; you have people of all backgrounds. You have Jews who are not religious. There are Chasidic Jews on there as well. But the perception is, "Well, Chasidic Jews are into real estate." To me that's diamonds. That's -- that's an anti-Semitic trope. That's, you know -- but that exists. And so then when people speak about issues of displacement and gentrification and things like that, on one hand, what we face is not the same thing as that of people of color. I'm sure they're able to speak about their story. It's not my place to tell their story. I mean, they can tell their story better than I can. But we also face, I would say it's fair to say, similar pressures in the sense that -- and everyone who lives in Crown Heights and has lived here since, you know, the '60s, took advantage of something very unique, that for both the Orthodox Jewish population and for the Caribbean 121:00American/African American population, everyone wanted to move to Crown Heights because it was the beautiful, upper-class neighborhood. But now you could afford it. Now you could live here, and now you could actually build institutions and create community here and live in a nice -- a menschliche house, to use the Yiddish term. You know, you could live in a -- a place that you felt at home, and you could live properly at a price that was affordable to working-class incomes. You know, they've -- they've done studies, even during the times of the riots, when there were these -- there was also a very strong perception of an imbalance in terms of wealth and -- and things like that. The reality is the two communities were very much on par in terms of, per household, how much people made. I think the Chasidic community is -- is unique in the sense that we're not -- you know, everyone wants to be around here. So therefore you would have a person who's a millionaire living next to a person who's on food stamps and Section 8. But they both are members of the Chasidic community, and when it comes to their praying, you know, in the synagogue, well, you -- you know something, that guy who is, you know, a multi-millionaire maybe gets a certain amount of respect if he's using his money to support charitable institutions, 122:00but, you know, this guy who's on Section 8 is also a brilliant scholar, and people are turning to that brilliant scholar. And so there's a certain amount of democratization that occurs within the synagogue. And you would therefore have of immensely different, you know, social -- I should say economic classes, but on a social level, they're much more on par with each other, within -- within the Jewish community. And so you have people here that are able to live in gorgeous houses in Crown Heights, and they can afford it, and they can do all kinds of things like that. Most of my peers are people who are, you know, working middle class. They are either -- people are in e-commerce; people are a lot of teachers; you know, people who are -- the various Jewish professions in the Jewish community and that -- those institutions -- I mean, I fall within that. I work for a Jewish institution -- non-profits. And so we -- you know, the squeeze is very, very strong. I had a friend who was crying to me once, saying, like, you know, "My great-grandparents were here, my grandparents were here, my parents are here, and I can't live here any more. And I've come to the realization that I cannot live in Crown Heights." People are moving either to 123:00East Flatbush, to Brownsville, to a certain degree, East New York a little bit -- you know, those areas. The East 90s, all that stuff. Or they're moving out. They're moving to Pittsburgh, to -- you know, Florida there's cheaper housing. In Monsey, in upstate New York. They're moving to these other communities because there they can actually afford, to -- with a family, to be able to live in a space that fits them. Otherwise, in Crown Heights proper, I don't think you're going to have -- people aren't buying houses here any more. I mean, it's -- it skipped -- you know, we bought a house in Crown Heights, but our ne-- our new neighbors moving in now, who are not Chasidic and they're not Black, and they're -- or -- you know, they're hipsters. They're other -- they're different -- different background. I don't think that -- I think that in the long term, on one hand, Crown Heights is going to be -- 770's not going anywhere. The yeshivas aren't going anywhere. The ritual institutions aren't going anywhere. So on a superficial level, Crown Heights, I think, is always going to be -- until the Messiah comes, until you have some sort of massive change, Crown Heights is going to look like Crown Heights, the way it always did. But then if you -- when 124:00you drill down a level, you're going to see, well, yeah, but it turns out, you know, the majority of people are, you know, walking 45 minutes from Brownsville to, you know, be able to be in Crown Heights. You know, there is a diaspora taking place that visibly may not be as obvious as it takes place with that of the -- the African American Caribbean community -- American communities. But there's -- certainly there's a displacement that happens as well. And that's going to continue to happen. I think it's inevitable. I mean, it's just -- it's -- the reali-- I mean, I -- I was wondering -- I mean, people always announce, you know, Friday nights when a baby boy is born, there's something called a shalom zachor, which is you welcome the new baby before his bris, before his -- the circumcision on the eighth day, on that Friday night. And so there are always shalom zachor announcements, you know, "So-and-so, you know, in Crown Heights." So it used to be "So-and-so in Crown Heights on Montgomery Street," on, you know, Empire, on Lefferts, on Maple in Crown Heights. On -- and I started wondering, well, when is it going to stop saying -- so someone got past Linden Boulevard, and then they stopped saying Crown Heights. But, you know, Crown Heights expanded, and then it stopped expanding, and people have come to the realization that you can only expand Crown Heights so far, and I guess after Linden it's -- it's definitely no longer Crown Heights, according to everybody. 125:00[laughter] This is some other, you know, area. And so that displacement is real. And it -- it's hard. I mean, people are -- it's -- it's the most common thing that people speak about. I mean, when the -- the anniversary of the riots were taking place, so I was -- I mean, because of what I do, I speak to people in the media to a certain degree. And the Jewish media was obsessed about, you know, "How are your relationships with our neighbors?" I said, "Our neighbors are fine," because we're both being pushed out. So I said, like -- I had to ask somebody. I said, like, "Why don't you write an article about the displacement within the Jewish community?" The New York Times, in November, I think, two years ago, did a massive study where I think they followed 30 families or something like that. I forget the name of the journalist, but she -- you know, followed like 30 different families and displacement and people moving to Brownsville. And what happens there is an awful thing, and nobody should displace, and no one should move to a homeless shelter and all those things like that. She didn't mention there was a Jewish community in Crown Heights at all. And I asked on Twitter -- I tweeted the article, and I said, like, "What's going on here? If you don't put us into the picture, then people assume that we're -- we're not there for a reason. And these negative tropes come in -- 'Well, obviously, well, the Jewish community, they're the ones profiting; they're the 126:00ones displacing; they're the ones, you know...' And the reality is that we're also being pushed out." Maybe not on the same level. I mean, thank God that -- you know, I don't know of anyone in the Jewish community that's been pushed to a homeless shelter. But in terms of being pushed out of the neighborhood and not having a place anymore, that's definitely happing -- happening -- and at an accelerated rate. And that's not discussed at all. So I asked the reporter, a Jewish -- for a Jewish publication -- I forget -- and the New York Times may not be woke to that, as it were. But, you know, the -- the Jewish publication write about it. She said, "Nobody cares about Hasidic families that can't afford to buy houses." I said, "It's not about buying houses. It's about rent as well." But the reality is, yeah, listen, nobody cares about a Hasidic family being pushed out, because they -- there is a certain social safety net that we have, well, that if you're being displaced, so you're going to be displaced to another place. And -- well, on -- that is a privilege. And I think everyone -- you have to acknowledge that. At the same time, there still is a displacement. And if you refuse to acknowledge that displacement, then that's also a problem, and you're allowing it to happen, and you're allowing people to move in here and to say, you know -- somebody said there's, like, a new synagogue that op-- it was a new 127:00-- it was a synagogue that had been here for a long time that the Chabad community had kept running. And then when they started expanding and they took over and this -- this was kind of an internal Jewish thing -- so one of the guys there said, "Well, our -- our community was -- has been here since 1927. You know, 770 was an empty lot then, in 1927." I said, "Excuse me. Number one, you were from Rochester. You moved here last year. Don't tell me that your community has been here since 1927. Number two, your community was ready to shut down because the Jewish community on Franklin Avenue was gone. The synagogue could not support itself and was going to be sold to a church. Lubavitchers walked from Lubavitch Crown Heights, as it were, to Franklin to keep that synagogue going. It's there because we took part in it. And to say, 'Well, we've been here since 1927; you were an empty lot,' well, my house was built in 1920, so I guess I'm an older community than you are. Have a nice day." But, you know, like, there was just this, like -- people don't acknowledge that. And I think that's every -- every community has a story that has to be told, and I think the one in the Jewish community has widely been ignored. I think it's partially because -- I mean, I think for good reasons, there is now a focus in the national dialogue 128:00about what's happening to people of color and things about Ferguson and -- and police brutality, and, you know, the school-to-prison pipeline. And these are real, real issues that have to be addressed. And -- but it's very easy to say, "Well, these are real, real issues that have to be addressed; let's project them onto Crown Heights." Crown Heights has many of these issues. It also has its own unique things. I mean, that's why with the riots -- and people speak about the riots. Everyone said this was a -- you know, "This was a Black versus White thing." Well, to a certain degree it was. Definitely from the point of view of the Chasidic community, this wasn't a Black versus White thing, because there are Black Jews. There are people who either converted to Jerusalem or they're -- they're from Ethiopia or their great-grandparents converted to Judaism. They are Jewish. Or, you know, their father is not Jewish and their mother is, and they're Black. And they -- all the-- I mean, they have a -- double trouble, in that sense, because, you know, all the disadvantages that the Jewish community has and that of a person of color. But it's not a Black versus White thing. It's a Jewish versus non-Jewish thing. And you're projecting your perception of what's happening here. You are -- therefore you're silencing our voices in the thing. And then therefore all of the understandings of what happened in 1991 129:00then get projected onto, you know, our community, and, well, that's not our experience. You know, it wasn't -- it -- you know, it -- this wasn't a -- you know, this -- the questions aren't the same. The conflict isn't the same.

ALI: Right. Right. Yeah, I mean, I think part of this has to do with the -- the context out of which people are kind of framing or understanding what's happening, right? So in -- as you've explained it, your context is Jewish/non-Jewish. Like, that's -- that's the way that you understand the differences of people.


ALI: Right?

LIGHTSTONE: And that's why -- I understand --

ALI: And so...

LIGHTSTONE: -- that a person of color would not view it that way.

ALI: Right. So that's not accessible -- like, the accessible way of understanding difference is -- is a different kind of framing --

LIGHTSTONE: The -- for...

ALI: -- so the -- I guess the -- the question is how do -- how do you convey to each other that there's a different -- do you -- you see what I'm saying?


LIGHTSTONE: Yeah, I mean, so -- to -- just to...

ALI: Because for -- for African Americans, or Afro-Caribbeans, or Caribbean Americans, who have lived, you know, in the United States for a period of time, certainly in New York City, the differentiating factor that has had the greatest impact on their life chances, livelihood, educational opportunities...

LIGHTSTONE: [overlapping dialogue; inaudible] one of color [overlapping dialogue; inaudible]...

ALI: Right -- has been one of Black/non-Black, or Black/White, right?


ALI: And so, you know, it's -- it's a -- the challenge is how do you say to -- you know, just like your experience is Jewish/non-Jewish, they're -- and you -- you assert that as really very important to understand your experience, they're going to assert that as well.

LIGHTSTONE: No, for sure. So let -- let me -- to clarify, when I was speaking, I wasn't -- I'm actually -- I'm aware, very much so, of the difference in perceptions.

ALI: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

LIGHTSTONE: I was -- I'm speaking specifically in the terms of the way the media 131:00perceives it.

ALI: Right, right.

LIGHTSTONE: That -- I mean, I write, and my -- before I did social media as my main thing, I was writing articles. And when you're a journalist and you're in a rush, it's very easy to take a -- an existing story that has, you know, these certain segments and things like that, and then to take, you know -- and then to drop in to that story, you know, the actual events occurring. And so what happened was the clashes within Crown Heights, right? Why are they called "clashes"? Because the -- those were the terms used by the media, and it became very simple to say, "Well, this is --" -- you know, I mean -- to be frank, for example, the New York Daily News did a twentieth-anniversary retrospective about Crown Heights. And so since the New York Daily News has always used the template of what happened here is that Blacks and Chasidim, or Chasidim and Blacks, you know, cra-- clashed in the streets of Crown Heights, right? That alliteration, the "clashed" and the "Crown Heights" and -- right? And -- so that -- and the reality was there were -- the -- you didn't have full-on gang warfare, right? 132:00You know, you didn't have where you have these bands -- it wasn't warriors where you had bands of Chasidim and bands of Black youth coming together and these -- these youths are, you know, you know, having it out on the streets. You had protests, and you had violence that was projected against the Chasidic community. You had opportunists who used the national dialogue about race at the time -- this is, you know, right before Rodney King, when things were heating up -- you had questions about South Africa, all these things like that. And when we start talking about South Africa, we're talking about diamond merchants, so then you start saying, "Well, you know, the Jews in South Africa and diamond merchants in Israel," and people saying "Heil, Hitler," and "Hitler didn't finish the job," and things like that," and suddenly you have the opp-- people using, you know, various -- using what happened in Crown Heights, the tragedy in Crown Heights, to be able to use for all different kinds of reasons, some of them nefarious and wrong and whatever it was. And so, for example, the Daily News, when they reported on what happened, they said that there were -- they have to -- if -- there were these clashes, and you had to have equal physical violence against each other to have a true clash, right? And so therefore you have to have -- there obviously -- there are videos of, you know, Black youth 133:00throwing, you know, bottles and things like that. So what did the Chasidim do? So this reporter said that she had an anonymous police source that told her that Chasidic youth were hiding in the alleys -- bands of them, bands of Chasidim hiding in the alleys -- and they would send out one kid who would taunt, you know, the Black kids, who would then run after him, and they would mob the kid in the alley and beat the kid up. And there's no historical record of this whatsoever. No one at the time reported it. The police didn't know it at the time. I don't know of anyone who has any recollection of that. Everyone I know was cowering in their houses, afraid to go outside. The Daily News decided to invent this story because you've created this frame. You've framed the story as there are clashes in the street of equal violence between equal people -- equal pe-- that's the -- I could strike that from the record. You have, you have clashes between -- obviously all people are equal -- you have clashes going on, you know, with the -- the -- the...

ALI: With people equally responsible.

LIGHTSTONE: Equal -- equally responding to each other, equal -- with equal violence. And therefore, then you need a story like that, so some cop, 20 years later == or 25 years later, right now -- 25 years later had this recollection of this thing that literally did not happen. There was no evidence of it 134:00whatsoever. And I reached out to the reporter, and she refused to respond to me -- I think very much so because she didn't have a very strong source for that at all. It was an anonymous, you know, thing. So when you -- the media looks at Crown Heights and maps out national things on Crown Heights, then that doesn't fit in neatly. It doesn't fit in neatly on -- definitely I know, from my experience, it's not fitting on the Jewish side. I have to imagine that it doesn't fit in the way the conflicts are por-- were portrayed then, at that time, fit in with the experiences of the people of color as well. I don't think that it -- it was the exact same nuance as what's going on on the national level. But when the media chooses to frame it in that specific way, so then they're sweeping out all the -- you know, the details under the rug, and then you have a nice, easy story that you can report on, you know, in -- in the evening. It goes on the news; it gets done; it puts away; it's filed, and you're talking about that for two weeks until it becomes -- something else happens. You can talk about something else. So -- and that's what I'm, so to speak, referring to --

ALI: Yeah.

LIGHTSTONE: -- in terms of reproduction.

ALI: Yeah. Yeah. OK. I think I -- you covered everything, I think. Yeah. This is 135:00good. Is there anything that you'd like to add that you -- you feel like you haven't had a chance to address?

LIGHTSTONE: Yeah, I mean, I think -- just the note that it ends on is very -- whatever. I think that -- I mean, in my experience in Crown Heights, I haven't had the negative experiences that -- by and large -- that my friends who grew up here ex-- experienced. There have been petty acts, things like that. Like -- I think I mentioned some of them. I think -- overall, I think everyone has more room to breathe here. I think in general everyone has done relatively better. The competition over resources isn't as intense as it was. You know, the policing is better. All these things are -- are better across the board for everybody, and therefore you don't have the craziness that brought a lot of the tensions in the past. I mean, crime is down in gene-- in general, which is a benefit for everyone. And so my experience in Crown Heights has always been very positive. And I think that's -- that's important. And I think that, you know, to 136:00-- to -- to dwell on that event of 1991 defeats what Crown Heights is really about, which, I think, is people moving to a place that gives them opportunities to grow and establish themselves in the New World, to one degree or another. You know, I -- even if you were here previously, it's -- it's a chance to lift yourself up, hopefully, and a chance to be a place for spiritual seekers to come together, I think, of all backgrounds as well. So I think in that sense, Crown Heights remains what it is, which is a crown, you know? It's the place for everyone to come together. So to me that's just the note that I would want to end on.

ALI: Excellent.

[break in audio]

ALI: It is still -- [laughs] it is still Thursday, December 15th, 2016. I'm Zaheer Ali from Brooklyn Historical Society. And in completing the interview, oral history interview with Mordechai Lightstone, afterwards there was a really, I think, important story that is personal to -- Mordechai Lightstone that I 137:00think was important to get on -- on this -- on the record. So if you can tell me about your family background, in particular your relationship and your family's relationship to Crown Heights.

LIGHTSTONE: Right. So my family -- by -- in terms of, like, my identity, I mostly identify my family as being from Montreal, which I think I can discuss a little bit. The reality is that my grandfather grew up in New York. He was born in Williamsburg in the Sir Moses Montefiore Hospital -- it doesn't exist anymore -- and moved to -- his father sold Yiddish newspapers in Union Square. Union Square? No. At Washington Square. Anyhow. And so they moved to Greenwich Village, to be near there. In the process, though -- my grandfather was the baby of the family -- his sister actually lived in Crown Heights, on Utica and, I believe, Park, which is not very far from where we live today. And so -- I mean, 138:00the -- it was very interesting, when I -- now my grandfather's passed away -- but, you know, he goes to -- he -- it was only until many years later that -- you know, after I became religious he mentioned to me -- it was only after I moved to Crown Heights that he said, "Oh yeah, I used to take the train to, you know, Utica and get off." I'm like, "What -- Uti-- what -- what brought you over there?" This was in the 1930s and '40s. And he said, "Because my sister lived in Crown Heights." And so her son is my mother's first cousin. He's still alive today. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona. When I told him that I moved to Crown Heights, he's like, "Oh, I grew up there! Where do you live?" So I said, you know, "Utica and President," at the time. He said, "Oh, I lived down the block. There was this knish place -- is it still there?" I said, "There's no knish place anymore." You know, there -- you can get roti. You can't get knish on Utica Avenue anymore. But that -- there -- it was just interesting, for me, to find out this had existed within my family history and had not been something that I'd been, you know, aware of until -- I really had to -- you know, push to get it out there. But there -- they had been part of this aspirational community that had moved to Crown Heights because of what it had offered then in the '30s and '40s, as a place to live as Jews -- not Chasidic Jews, but just to live as 139:00Jews and be able to expand and -- and buy a house and things like that and live in this neighborhood.

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Interview Description

Oral History Interview with Mordechai Lightstone

Mordechai Lightstone was born Jonathan Samuel Lightstone in 1984 in Los Angeles, and grew up in a Jewish family that attended a Reform synagogue. As he grew in his religious observance of his faith's tradition, especially through his involvement in the Hasidic community, he identified more closely with one of his given Hebrew names-Mordechai, the name of one of his great-grandfathers. He first visited the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1998 or 1999, with his uncle, as part of a trip to visit the Lubavitch Hasidic headquarters. Less than a decade later in 2007, he moved to Crown Heights to study, and became a rabbi and emissary for the Chabad community. An active writer and social media presence, he now serves as Director of Social Media and Features Editor for Lubavitch.com, the official website for Chabad-Lubavitch World Headquarters.

In this interview Mordechai Lightstone talks about the role the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn played in the evolution of his Jewish identity and deepening of his faith. He recalls the first time he ever heard of Crown Heights in a radio broadcast about the 1991 unrest, which he remembers causing his mother great sadness. He recounts being introduced to the Lubavitch community by his uncle while visiting Montreal. It was while accompanying his uncle that Lightstone first visited Crown Heights, around the age of fourteen. He describes visiting the resting place of the Rebbe, the spiritual leader of the Lubavitch; and gives his first impressions of the Chabad headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway and rituals that he found both strange at first but spiritually compelling. He reflects on his growing sense of commitment to Judaism after his return to Los Angeles, and his gradual identification with the Chabad community. He recalls some of the mentors in the community that helped guide his learning and development, and his decision to move to Crown Heights in 2007. In his remembrance of his first years in Crown Heights, he talks about studying, his training as a meat slaughterer, and courtship and marriage. He describes his family's journey to home-ownership in Crown Heights, addresses perceptions of the role of Jews in neighborhood real estate, and how gentrification and housing pressures have impacted members of the Jewish community. One of the central themes of his interview is the geography of Crown Heights-its meaning, its identity, and its boundaries; and how that geography is inextricably tied to the neighborhood's (and his) Jewish history. Interview conducted by Zaheer Ali.

This collection includes oral histories conducted by Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS), Brooklyn Movement Center, and Weeksville Heritage Center beginning in 2016 and collected and arranged by BHS in 2017. Each organization's interviews form a series within the collection. This oral history is one in the BHS series. The assembled collection was part of broader programming efforts by the three organizations to commemorate and examine the transforming Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn a quarter-century after the August 1991 conflicts and unrest sometimes called "the Crown Heights riot." The oral history collection features a broad range of narrators; educators, community organizers, activists, entrepreneurs, artists, bloggers, and longtime neighborhood residents, who describe the changes they have observed in their neighborhood over decades.


Lightstone, Mordechai, Oral history interview conducted by Zaheer Ali, December 15, 2016, Voices of Crown Heights oral histories, 2016.027.1.04; Brooklyn Historical Society.


  • Congregation Lubavitch (Crown Heights, New York, N.Y.)
  • Lightstone, Mordechai
  • Schneerson, Menachem Mendel
  • West Indian American Day Carnival Parade (Brooklyn, N.Y.)


  • Antisemitism
  • Gentrification
  • Hasidim
  • Jewish neighborhoods
  • Judaism
  • Reformed Judaism
  • Riots
  • Synagogues


  • Bedford-Stuyvesant (New York, N.Y.)
  • Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
  • Canada
  • Crown Heights (New York, N.Y.)
  • Eastern Parkway (New York, N.Y.)
  • Los Angeles (Calif.)
  • Weeksville (New York, N.Y.)


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Voices of Crown Heights oral histories