For years, Norman Rosenbaum was a fixture in New York City politics, although he lived on the other side of the world.
Norman spent collective weeks in the air between his home in Melbourne, Australia and New York in his seemingly never-ending quest for justice on behalf of his brother. Yankel Rosenbaum was killed for the crime of walking while Jewish at the outset of the Crown Heights riots on August 19, 1991.
From his first appearance here, Norman declared he’d never rest until every last member of the mob that set upon his brother that night was identified and prosecuted. And when you saw his passion, you believed him. A former federal prosecutor and investigator back home, he had the resources and skills to make it happen, not to mention the fire in his belly.
Norman passed away suddenly on July 26, at age 63, his quest only partially fulfilled. His health had been deteriorating in recent years, a friend said.
I first met Norman in the summer of 1993, approaching Yankel’s second yahrzeit. As a rookie reporter for The Jewish Week, I wanted to do a portrait of Yankel that went beyond “29-year-old scholar” and murder victim, the typical news description. I wanted to show what his life was like, what he meant to his loved ones and who he would have become.
“I would be happy to help you with that,” Norman told me on the phone, and soon after we met on the streets of the Heights, walking to the spot on President Street where the concrete had been chipped way to collect every drop of Yankel’s blood to be included in his burial. He had last seen his brother about five weeks before the murder, he said sadly, when Yankel came back to Melbourne for Shavuot. Of course there had been no way to even suspect the horror ahead.
We talked about Yankel’s career aspirations. It turned out he was an entrepreneur who started a successful granite import company, which he left his family to run while he did research about the Holocaust in America. Norman boasted that his brother was multilingual and brilliant, and noted the irony that this man killed out of hate was himself incapable of prejudice, and enjoyed a diverse group of friends at university, including West Indians, Pakistanis, Yugoslavians and Aboriginal Australians.
A gentle soul who learned to juggle to entertain at weddings, at 6’4″ and with a black belt, Yankel could have taken on any of his assailants, had they not greatly outnumbered him, Norman insisted. Indeed, even with four stab wounds and a skull fracture, he still chased some of them when the crowd dispersed.
“He made an impact on everyone,” said the headline for the article in The Jewish Week’s second anniversary coverage of the riots, a still simmering issue.
By then, Lemrick Nelson Jr., the 17-year-old charged in Yankel’s murder, had already been acquitted — in one of the most bizarre and politically charged jury verdicts in New York history — despite having been identified by a dying Yankel and caught with the murder weapon in his pocket.
That led Norman throughout the ’90s to not only wage a successful campaign to have Nelson charged in federal court, but also press a malpractice suit against Kings County Hospital, where Yankel died. He was an adviser in the civil suit by the Crown Heights community against the city, alleging officials chose not to stop the riots. All while running a law practice back home. I came to speak with Norman on a regular basis, during his visits and often in late night calls to Melbourne. He never complained about the time.
Norman broke bread numerous times with Carmel Cato, father of Gavin Cato, the 7-year-old who was killed when he was accidentally struck by a car in the convoy of the Lubavitcher Rebbe — the event that touched off the riots. The two men’s tragedies, though starkly different, seemed forever intertwined.
Norman was a warm and gregarious man, made more jovial by his Aussie accent. He often laughed and joked with reporters who came to know him, as well as with supportive politicians. “There was always a brightness about him, never losing his sense of humor, even in the worst of times,” said Isaac Abraham, his longtime friend, host and media liaison in New York, who also considered Norman a brother.
But he left no mistake about his enemies.
Nelson was one enemy, and so was Mayor David Dinkins, who Norman claimed held back the cops during the riots (a claim never proven in court). Al Sharpton was his enemy, seen as an agitator in the violence (though Yankel had already been stabbed by the time Sharpton marched through Crown Heights). When Sharpton later publicly renounced his own behavior during the riots, acknowledging the senselessness of Yankel’s murder, Norman shrugged it off.
The aftermath of Crown Heights, 29 years ago this month, with its various legal twists and turns and political ripple effects, loomed large over the New York Jewish community, and The Jewish Week’s coverage, for the better part of a decade.
And now, what a sad epilogue.
Nelson, who eventually admitted stabbing Yankel, served a total of about 10 years in jail. A federal jury in 2003 ruled he had violating Yankel’s civil rights but not caused his death. One of the jurors put the blame on the hospital. Nelson was released the following year.
Another man, Charles Price, pleaded guilty and served time for inciting the attack on Yankel, but no one else in the deadly mob has ever been arrested
Carmel Cato still mourns the loss of a son who will never turn 8, who likely would have had children of his own today.
David Dinkins was retired in the next election and never sought public office again. The same for Mario Cuomo, governor at the time.
Al Sharpton has a talk show on MSNBC. His numerous overtures to the Jewish community to make amends have largely fallen flat.
Fay Rosenbaum now mourns both her sons.
And today Jews in Brooklyn neighborhoods, including Crown Heights, continue to be attacked, thank God not fatally. But we wonder how long before another Norman rises out of necessity.
I always said Norman was the brother everyone should have but no one should need. For him the biblical imperative to not stand idly by the blood of your brother wasn’t just theoretical.
“It’s not a matter of anger, not a matter of bitterness,” he told me in 1993. “I feel a numbness.” He noted that the Lubavitcher Rebbe had urged him to pursue justice to the end, but in a way that showed Kiddush Hashem, sanctification of God’s name. He certainly achieved that.
Rest in peace, Norman. You are reunited with Yankel, and your quest for justice can continue on another plane.