The ghosts of Northeast Philadelphia


I’ve always known that most of what we consume is bad media. I’ve written lots of blog posts where I talk about exactly how it’s bad, mainly stemming from the fact that they are incentivized to cover a story quickly for page views.

The media seems to recognize that this was a problem, which I gathered from the dozens of emails begging me to consider supporting a newspaper or radio station in these troubled times.

There seems to be an effort. But, an experience I had a couple weeks ago really cemented the distrust I have for the American media as a whole and has shaken my belief that I understand how the world works.

In February, the local news in Philadelphia reported that hundreds of headstones at Mount Carmel, a Jewish cemetery in Northeast Philadelphia, had been toppled.

The cemetery is only about ten miles from my house, but ironically, I found out about the incident in the international press, when it went viral as coverage of a supposed larger trend of anti-Semitism in the United States after the election.

I wrote a hot take, taking a strong stance that the pattern of what I’d read in the media, which by that time included bomb threats to dozens of JCCs across the country, Nazi graffiti in Philadelphia, and this, the second cemetery vandalism in several weeks, worried me.

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I had just recently come down from the sheer panic that I felt when I wrote “Democracy in the dark”, where I half-jokingly suggested that my family would be deported to Siberia, when the stories of the renewed anti-Semitism started to hit the news on a weekly basis.

Not only was I anxious about what I’d read, I also felt helpless to stop anything. So when I saw that the Philadelphia Jewish community was organizing a cleanup effort at Mount Carmel, I signed up.

The cemetery is situated in Northeast Philadelphia, in the middle of one of those clusters of row homes that are so common in Philadelphia - streets of identical, dull brick duplexes that were built with during the peak of American post-war prosperity, but have since slunk into a comfortable decline. The lawns have broken out onto sidewalk with weeds and thistles. Rickety old strollers lay collapsed on driveways like beached whales. Tires and motor oil stand propped up near garage doors housing cars that haven’t moved in half a decade. Bright green tinsel shamrocks left over from St. Patrick’s Day hang cheerfully in the living room windows. It’s a neighborhood that has not yet given up, but, given enough time, probably will.

Northeast Philadelphia used to be a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. In the 1950s,the Philadelphia economy prospered, and families moved from of North Philly, where crime was on the rise, to the promise of the newly-built suburbs, helped greatly by the renewed construction of the Roosevelt Boulevard.

American Jewish families settled in Oxford Circle, Tacony, and Mayfair. They grew and prospered. Then, in the 1970s, manufacturing, which made up a great deal of the Philadelphia economy at the time, started its slow decline. Children moved away to New York, Washington, and by the early 1990s, when Soviet Jewish immigrants came to Philadelphia en masse, the Great Northeast was no longer a clean, new suburb full of neat identical houses and lawns, but a grimy, forgotten district, disintegrating a decade at a time.

I’ve spent a lot of my life in Northeast Philadelphia. It’s where my family first lived in our grimy, cockroach-infested apartment on Axe Factory Road. It’s where my grandmother underwent her treatments at Fox Chase Cancer Center, before she succumbed, and is now buried, with many from the Russian Jewish community, at Shalom Memorial Park, just outside the Northeast’s boundaries. I went to my first school in Northeast Philadelphia, got married right near its city limits, and go there often for groceries from NetCost, or to visit my grandfather.

Devereaux and Bustleton Avenues, Northeast Philadelphia

So, I know the Northeast. But my Northeast is the Russian Jewish Northeast, from Roosevelt Boulevard, to Bustleton Avenue. My Northeast is Russian grocery stores, delicious food, and men standing outside restaurants in leather jackets, smoking. Where that ends, a whole different Northeast begins. The Northeast of American Jews who have lived there for generations, built synagogues and families, with foundations much sturdier than our shaky twenty-year foothold.

Unfortunately, all the American Jews had left, and those foundations were gone. That ghost of Northeast was I encountered when I drove to Mount Carmel. I went up to the cemetery gate, where, on the other side, I saw my mom, wearing gardening gloves and cleaning the leaves from old graves.

For the past several weeks, she and I had been arguing about the election - arguments that usually ended in either one or both of us abruptly hanging up the phone, fuming with political frustration. This was ironic, given the fact that one of the projects taking up most of my time after the election was Ironed Curtains, a blog for Soviet immigrants to engage in dialogue with each other - and with mainstream America. Me and several friends initially started it to combat what we’d been seeing of Russian Jews in the media, which, in our eyes, has drastically failed to show the diversity of thought in our community by portraying all Russian Jews as Brighton Beach-dwelling, closed-minded dogmatists.

A piece that particularly disappointed me was the recent piece on the Russians in the Northeast by a writer who spent arguably, at most, a couple days there, and had no way of understanding the intricate world he described with a blanket statement as a place “that people seem content to keep it all hidden.” As I read the piece and its mostly flat portrayal of my community, the community with which I was so intimate, I realized that most media was, at best, a 50,000-foot-view of any given issue, compressing an entire universe, under strict, pressure-creating deadlines, into only a few paragraphs, topped with a clickbait-y headline that only further obscures what’s really going on.

That’s one of the reasons, I suppose, I went to the cemetery. It was local enough that I could finally find out the truth behind what was being described to me by reporters who probably didn’t even know the history of the area or understand its context, writing headlines about toppled graves from thousands of miles away.

Three or four women swaggered around the fence perimeter with clipboards, directing volunteers with the satisfied expressions of people who have hyphenated titles on committees. I was given a water bottle, a badge, and directed to “help myself to snacks.” I was a bit taken aback. I wasn’t expecting unlimited granola bars on the front lines of the fight against the new American anti-Semitism.

“I guess all the vandalism is gone,” I asked one of the coordinators, motioning to the people raking leaves. She nodded. “It’s all been cleaned up this morning,” she said. “Now, we’re just beautifying the cemetery.” Many volunteers had rakes and were raking leaves. A group of other volunteers walked behind me with a clipboard, cataloguing the inhabitants of the cemetery to create a searchable online archive for families that had moved out of the area. Another sign proclaimed that donations were more than welcome.

I got it. The media outrage could only have taken people so far. Even though every single volunteer spot had been filled, they were now out of things for the volunteers to do. I went to work near my mom, raking leaves, brushing away weeds, and throwing away errant granola bar wrappers.

It became obvious as we worked our way around the ornate graves, some from as early as the 1900s, that there were two groups of volunteers: Those who, like I, were Jewish and Worried, and had heard about it on the internet. Most of us were younger, dressed in skinny jeans and dark glasses, wearing clothes that belonged more at a craft beer festival than in the land of the dead. A lot of them, myself included, were taking pictures. We were the people that had read about the cemetery in the media.

The second was people who were genuinely concerned because this was their neighborhood. “Are you local,” I asked a volunteer who was cleaning up with me as he tied a bag bulging full of leaves “Yeah, grew up right around here,” he said. “Local kids probably did it,” he said, shrugging.

This was the first time I thought that the claims of anti-Semitism might be exaggerated. All of the news articles I’d read so far had painted a picture for me, of a coordinated group of actors across the country - possibly the alt-right? In all of my fear and paranoia, I never stopped to realize it just might be some teenagers who, like teenagers have always been, were just plain stupid, and wanted to do something hurtful and unfortunate and dumb.

Another volunteer’s mother had lived near the cemetery for a long time. “Used to be nice here,” she said as she brushed cobwebs off a grave. “But all the families have left. There’s no one to take care of the graves anymore. No one to watch over them.” This brought me to another realization: most of the people I saw cleaning up may have been local to the Philadelphia area, but almost none were related to the actual people buried at the cemetery. The cemetery had been in a nearly-abandoned state for a long time, something a later article I saw confirmed:

Harry Boonin, for one, was not surprised by the vandalism at Mount Carmel Cemetery, where hundreds of headstones were knocked down late last month. The ensuing headlines, though, definitely caught him by surprise.

The cemetery is a landmark of the city’s Jewish history, Boonin explained, but it hasn’t enjoyed adequate funding for maintenance needs, especially since the recent incident wasn’t its first act of vandalism. The Jewish Exponent recently searched its archives for vandalism at local Jewish cemeteries and found 49 incidents since 1966. They pointed to two events at Mount Carmel in the ’80s, where in both instances, dozens of headstones were broken.

My mom’s shift ended. I still had about half an hour left. Left to my own Russian pessimism among the graves, I started brooding. What did it mean, these vandalisms? Were they really part of a much larger pattern of anti-Semitism? Or were they all one-offs? Why had none of the articles examined this angle, the idea that, in addition to possibly Trump creating a hostile atmosphere where the alt-right could flourish, the shuttering of the Northeast American Jewish community also had played a role? Where was the analysis and reflection? Where was the context?

I didn’t know, because the newspapers weren’t doing any comparisons. All of the media I was reading was only heightening my alarmism, was telling me that it was time to pack my bags and head to Israel.

It was only in researching this post that I realized that other media sources sources however biased, were at least attempting to compare the level of anti-Semitism after the election to what it was before.

And, it was only after the initial flood of alarmist articles, that I had to dig deep to find this excellent one, where the author writes,

[I]t is not clear that we can accuse the president of ushering in a new era of heightened anti-Semitism. While there is real anti-Semitism, we have no reliable statistics available to show there’s been a rise in anti-Semitism since Trump’s election. And while it’s easy for some to blame Trump for all acts of bigotry, we should discern what’s new from what we’re simply noticing for the first time. For those who believe that Trump poses a threat — to Jews, all other minorities and all Americans — it’s important that we get our facts right. If danger is on the rise, we have to be looking in the right direction.

In talking to a friend, who deals with hate crime statistics for a Jewish organization, it became clear that, sadly, anti-Semitism has always been on the fringes of American society.

The FBI, one of the few places that has consistently collected hate crime statistics on at least some level, reported that 51% of hate crimes that were religious in nature in 2015 were brought against Jews. In 2014, it was 58%.

There is no full-year reporting for 2017 yet, so it’s not clear whether this year, or even this quarter, was worse than others, or if it’s just the result of heightened media awareness. One of the biggest errors researchers warn against in data work is handling absolute numbers: it’s dangerous to say there were 100 incidents this year versus 200 last year.

It’s also important to consider increase year-over-year, which no publication (that I’ve read at least) shows yet, so I decided to take a look myself. I looked at incidents that were reported to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program, under Hate Crimes I looked at hate crimes done on the basis of religion identified as Jewish as a percentage of all crimes (not just religious crimes, as in the 50%+ statistic I mention above.)

Granted, this is only data going back to 2006 (2009 doesn’t have any data, and it starts to get a little weird before 2006), but a more intrepid researcher than myself could piece the pattern together better, in a more coherent way, corroborate against other sources, interview the FBI and other agencies keeping track of this information. So, the kind of job I rely on the media to do.

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Jewish cemetery vandalism has, unfortunately, been a constant in the world. Including right here in Philadelphia in 2015, although it obviously didn’t make the international news back then.

The real question is, has the volume of events increased after the election, or is the media pushing a narrative that doesn’t exist? What really is the truth about the state of the country?

I stepped outside of the cemetery gates and splashed water on my hands. Three times on the right, three times on the left. Usually, leaving cemeteries and washing my hands makes me feel absolved, like I’ve completed a task. This time, I wasn’t so sure, because I had more questions than answers.

In the weeks later, the local media ran stories about the success of the volunteer effort turnout, considering the matter closed. Several weeks later, it was revealed that an Israeli teenager was behind most of the JCC bomb threats, making me even more angry and confused, and, to be honest, feeling manipulated. Then, another thirteen-year-old threw a rock through a synagogue window, confirming my understanding that teenagers are stupid, and that maybe there isn’t a wave of anti-Semitism in the country - at least, not any more than usual, which is the real, disturbing problem.

Has America always been a bad place for Jews, in spite of what our national narrative of equal opportunity and acceptance has claimed? How does that relate, in quantitative terms, to anti-Semitism elsewhere? How much, in quantitative terms, has the election brought this to the surface? How can we fix that underlying sentiment? These are the questions I’d like to see in a good, hard-hitting piece full of facts and sources. So far, it seems that the Washington Post is the only publication attempting this conversation.

While I still don’t have a good grasp on the actual level of anti-Semitism in the country, I do, now, have a very good understanding of how a local incident, without local research and a deft pen, can go viral and spread misinformation and fear.

Everyone loves a good narrative, because it’s how humans have been wired, and it’s very hard to break people out of their own misconceptions, me included.I thought that the new administration for sure was pushing an anti-Semitic agenda. Now I’m not sure. I thought that by going to volunteer, I could feel at ease having done so, like I’d personally wiped out anti-Semitism. I’m now convinced that that’s not the case, and possibly can never be (which doesn’t mean we still shouldn’t try.)

But all I realized is that what is “real” is extremely complicated ,and usually, on the page, somewhere between truth and narrative, between the black and white, left and right of the election, between the media headlines and the grass quietly growing at Mount Carmel.