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Blackface costume for Purim party backfires on N.Y. lawmaker

February 26, 2013|By Tina Susman

NEW YORK -- A prominent New York assemblyman is facing one of the most awkward battles of his long political career: trying to quell anger over having dressed in blackface for a costume party celebrating the Jewish holiday of Purim, complete with dark face paint and a large Afro wig.

Dov Hikind, who represents the 48th District in Brooklyn and was first elected in 1982, apologized Monday after photographs of his outfit surfaced on the Web, sounding exasperated at the criticism but conceding it might not have been the best choice of costume for a politician.

“Yes, I wore a costume on Purim and hosted a party,” Hikind, an Orthodox Jew, wrote in a message posted on his blog.

“This is political correctness to the absurd. There is not a prejudiced bone in my body,” Hikind added of the ensuing criticism.

But later, outside his Brooklyn home, he told reporters that it never crossed his mind "for a split second that it was wrong. I’m sorry that individuals ... out there were offended." Hikind added that nobody at the party, held Sunday to mark the Jewish holiday, appeared upset by his costume.

The New York Observer quoted Hikind as saying it was put together with the help of a professional makeup artist who came to his home for the annual event. Hikind said his goal was to emulate "maybe some of these basketball players," and to be unrecognizable to guests, the Observer said. "It was just a lot of fun. Everybody just had a very, very good time and every year I do something else. ... The fun for me is when people come in and don’t recognize me,” Hikind told the newspaper.

Hikind’s critics, though, say he was insensitive to his black constituents and also was being hypocritical, because Hikind earlier this month criticized fashion designer John Galliano for stepping out in what appeared to be a Hasidic Jewish outfit during New York City’s Fashion Week. Photographs of Galliano, who was famously fired from Dior in 2011 after an anti-Semitic rant in a Paris cafe, showed the designer wearing the hat, the long, curled hair known as sidelocks, and shoes and a jacket reminiscent of traditional Hasidic men’s clothing.

“Are you mocking us?” Hikind asked indignantly of the outfit, according to the New York Post.

The assemblyman's district includes Borough Park, home to the largest population of Orthodox Jews outside of Israel.

Hikind, a Democrat, is a vocal supporter of efforts to fight anti-Semitism, anti-Jewish hate crimes, and anti-Israeli sentiment, and describes himself as a staunch supporter of human rights and an opponent of discrimination. But he has angered critics by backing  legislation that permits  racial and ethnic profiling in anti-terrorism efforts and by opposing same-sex marriage.

Karim Camara, who chairs the Democratic-controlled Assembly’s Black, Hispanic, Puerto Rican and Asian caucus, said Hikind’s costume showed a lack of empathy for other racial groups being used as tools for humor.

“The history of the blackface minstrel show is something deeply painful in the African American community,” said Camara, whose Brooklyn district includes some predominantly African American neighborhoods. One of them, Crown Heights, was the scene of bloody rioting in 1991 stemming from tensions between the black and Orthodox Jewish communities.

“It brings back the memories of African Americans being reduced to ‘buffoonery’ just to gain access to the entertainment industry,” Camara said of Hikind's costume.

The Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, also criticized the costume choice as "offensive."

Hikind’s son, Yoni Hikind, who posted the photograph of his father that sparked the controversy, posted a message on Facebook defending his dad and saying he “doesn’t have a prejudice[d] bone in his body.”

“Was it a wise move to dress in a way that could be taken offensively? Prob not,” Yoni Hikind wrote. “But the fact is, that there wasn’t the slightest idea that someone would be offended by his costume.”

The assemblyman, meanwhile, says he already is thinking ahead to next year's Purim costume. "I was actually going to do Indians next year ... but I don't want to offend Indians," he said Monday.

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tina.susman@latimes.com

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