Monday, January 27, 2014

The Return to the Kingdom by the Sea

On Friday evenings, I typically read the Weekend section of the New York Times in a state of supreme FOMO.*

So many wonderful things going on...and all at the same time!!!!! How can I even begin to make a dent in the richness of Manhattan's cultural offerings??? How can I even hope to be a cultivated person when I am so constrained by the limitations of time and the fact of being only one person with an extremely busy professional (and social!!) life???

I am an anxious wreck as I scour the articles, the ads and the listings, creating a week's worth of destinations in my head because it is, after all, Shabbat, and I cannot write anything down and besides, I'm in the middle of my weekly Scrabble game with HOBB.**

I sigh loudly. I rustle the paper. I announce the opening of films and shows, limited engagements, cabaret acts of note, exhibitions, lectures, walking tours and other offerings guaranteed to improve my life and my husband's life as well as the lives of everyone on the planet.

Trapped within the labyrinth of the Weekend section this past Friday night, I let out a shout that startled HOBB in the midst of his Scrabble move.  The Little Prince exhibition was opening at the Morgan Library and Museum while the Edgar Allan Poe exhibit was closing.

I had one golden day to see both.

And damn it, nothing was going to stop me.

Not the blood-freezing cold, not the gunmetal skies, not the appointments that dotted my day like push-pins on a bulletin board, starting with my personal training session at 9 am and ending with a client call at 7 at night.

Not the gala @ the JCC the previous night that had me downing tequila and dancing like one possessed.

Not the morning-after hangover.

Not the unexpected shut-down of the East Side trains (the 4, 5 and 6 subway lines all ground to a halt).

Not the syllabus I was supposed to deliver last week for a graduate school course I am teaching this spring.

Not the fact that I was on my own as HOBB was spending this Sunday afternoon playing with an amateur orchestra and I hadn't invited anyone to come with me.

And certainly not the severe sickness that turned my nose into a raw, red faucet, clogged my ears and made my limbs feel as if someone had given me noogies for the past week.

I arrived at the Morgan, shivering and clutching a soggy handkerchief. Having walked from Grand Central Station along a strangely unpopulated Madison Avenue, I was awash in a familiar, yet long-ago feeling.

It was akin to a premonition, creepy but in a fantastic way.

I call it the Poe effect.

Even before I reached the regal entrance of the Morgan, I was returned to that realm of imprisoning introspection, feverish speculation, unchecked murderous impulses, suspicion, dreadful secrets, dying love, entombed loved ones.

As I stepped over sodden snowbanks and clutched my collar against the cold, I felt the deliciously icy hand of terror grip my heart.

My dearest childhood literary companion awaited me, proud to point out how many people came to see his show on its very last day.

He wanted me to know that the show was a hot ticket in the Manhattan where he had lived many and many a year ago.

Bathed in welcome warmth, I tip-toed through the exhibit gallery, peering into showcases and reading captions of manuscripts and letters and newspaper clippings and book pages. From every wall, the tragic eyes of Edgar Allan Poe gazed, accusatory and anxious. The room was filled with palpable Poe-love. Parents pointed out famous poems to young children, hipsters clustered over drawings with showy interest, solitary visitors such as myself moved dreamily. Discovering the extent to which Poe had influenced some of my other favorite authors -- Nabokov, Wilde, Whitman, among them -- I trembled with excitement, reading their words of praise, feeling proud to be in their number.

Sneezing frequently, a handkerchief pressed to my nose, I stalked the exhibition, my sickness strengthening my sense of solidarity with Poe. My emotions careened wildly. I felt like the crazy person at the museum, the wacko other visitors swerve to avoid.

With a joy that inspired giddy laughter, I found out how Lolita had embedded Poe-prints throughout, beginning with Humbert's confessional storytelling style and the basic frame of the book: his obsessive love for a child.  I saw the original script for the film version, containing Poe allusions that ended up on the cutting floor, Kubrick's surgery, infuriating Nabokov.

I realized something glaringly obvious that I had never noticed, even after more than six readings: Humbert's first love is named...Annabel.

I congratulated myself on my good literary taste. Closing my eyes, I was able to recapture that rush that comes from discovering a greatness you never knew existed -- an aspect of the world you had not imagined, a treat that makes life delicious and is available whenever you want it.

Poe was my passion as a nine-year-old newly returned to the United States after a year in Israel. He was my closest companion, dwelling in the dark realm that was underneath the wallpaper in my bedroom, beneath the floorboard of my closet. He confirmed the mystery that I intuited; he knew that a house at night was swirling with spirits, he detailed obsession, longing, guilt, loneliness, spite.

The previous year had introduced me to Dickens and White, Twain and their entirety. Bookish by nature, living in a country without functional television, the daily adventure of exploring Israel was matched in intensity by my literary sojourns in the apartment of a great philosopher with a respectable English library.

Poe had been on the shelf of my Jerusalem apartment but I was afraid. The volume of his work felt sinister. The words on the page were ominous, portals to a place I was not yet ready to enter.

But that which frightened me also beckoned. Poe was the dank cellar I could not resist exploring.

When I returned back to America, I opened the creaky door and began my descent.

In an instant, I knew Poe. His work demanded that of the reader. He was an intimate -- my brother or alter-ego. His work was inseparable from himself and I felt inseparable from him. To read his sentences was to be in a conversation with him, or to eavesdrop on his inner monologue, to whisper sentence fragments back in a hot, sticky breath.

Or to become blood brothers of sorts, co-conspirators, con-artists of artistry.

To read Poe is to be Poe; marvelously morbid mind so familiar, so beloved.

The swirling madness, his sadness, I drank it in, organic, rich and life-giving, so much more real than the careful order of my childhood, the roster of rules, the belief in the ordinary, the schedules that had to be kept, the punishments for transgression.

The world of my peers was a flimsy reality I needed to visit during the school week, utterly insignificant, save for my new best friend, a moody girl named Eileen who also loved books and Poe. I see pictures of myself from that year, long bangs and dark hair, deep, serious eyes. I look like Poe's younger sister. Or child love.

I went to school, excelled in Judaic studies and English and dutifully took piano lessons from an old lady who smelled like erasers and had a love of the metronome. Outside of Shabbat, when I was shaken by my rabbi-father's sermons during the Saturday morning synagogue service, I despaired of the rational world and the mandate of preserving the status quo: safety and predictability.

What was life about if not pushing beyond the boundaries of the expected? What was life without adventure and danger?

Poe's chaos was feverish freedom. It was alluring and transgressive, like dancing naked at night.

For the outsider child that I was -- introspective, sensual, sensitive, adopted -- Poe was mother and father, the rebellious older brother I always dreamed of.

Thus it must be for all who love Poe; that sense of an intimate encounter, the flattering feeling of being friended by one who is defiant, fearless, brilliant and crazy, chosen to be part of an inner circle of hyper-vigilant consciousness.

In the middle of a harsh 21st Century New York winter, an adult is recalled to her childhood, to the moment of grand discovery of a transcendent reality, to beauty -- tragic and true -- to the kingdom she shared with a tormented, long dead writer by the shores of the deepest, darkest sea.


* Fear of Missing Out
** Husband of Bungalow Babe

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Ripped from Television...Life Imitating Art Imitating Life

"Is the murder of Menachem Stark a tragedy?" HOBB* inquired of me earlier this morning.

My husband's query was not a trick question but his way of testing my compassion and sanity, I suppose.

You see, ever since the body of Menachem Stark was discovered, charred, in a Great Neck gas station dumpster, I have been consumed with the story for it strikes me as an example of a single, dramatic and yes, tragic event that also functions as a portal into another entire world, hidden from view, characterized by murky goings-on.

If ever there was a recent, local true-life crime that resembled an episode of "Law & Order" it is the kidnapping and murder of Menachem Stark.

As on "Law & Order," details about the victim emerged during the very first phase of the murder investigation that appear to indicate that the deceased was less-than-unanimously beloved.

The most recent revelation, courtesy of The NY Daily News is that Stark's business partner, Israel Perlmutter, might be a suspect in the murder. Had this been an episode of the crime series you can bet that  Perlmutter would have been introduced to viewers within the first few minutes after Stark's body was retrieved from the dumpster, grieving vocally, the last person one would suspect of committing such a heinous act.

Please understand, I am not making light of this case.

This is real life, a horrible and yes, tragic crime, that imitates art imitating life.

Over the past 48 hours, the blogosphere has exploded with musings, commentary and opinions on the murder of Menachem Stark, providing a beautiful case study for students of journalism, New York City and the Jewish community. The NY Post headline I wrote about yesterday has largely been criticized as insensitive and possibly anti-Semitic, sparking (in addition to other responses) a rally at Borough Hall yesterday.

Family and friends of Menachem Stark have rushed to his defense in print, claiming that he was a good and charitable man. They have vehemently countered claims that he was -- as portrayed elsewhere -- a slumlord and dishonest businessman with a paper trail of lawsuits behind him. They have, in fact, denied that he was anything less than the pillar of the community, a charitable, generous man.

Other writers, notably Jay Michaelson in the Forward and Shmarya Rosenberg in Failed Messiah, have countered that portrayal, noting the moral blindness of the Satmar community, outing the numerous allegations of Stark's unethical business practices, expressing bitter disappointment that there has been no acknowledgement that this murdered man might have been involved in activities that likely led to his death.

There have been allegations that this point of view is tantamount to a justification of Stark's murder.

There has been a call for respect for a man who cannot defend himself.

There has been outrage and disgust at the invocation of the Shoah and the suggestion that the crime was anti-Semitic in nature.

There have been impassioned conversations on Facebook and in the tangible, three-dimensional world about the meta-story... through a Jewish lens.

"A tragedy?" I repeated, incredulous that my husband even needed to ask. "Yes. A huge, gigantic, horrifying tragedy. A father is gone. A husband is gone. A brother and son and friend is gone. There is enough tragedy to go around for miles."

HOBB and I had an intense staring contest for about a minute. He, too, is consumed with the story, writing about it through a different lens. His reportage has been different from my own. And perhaps his point of entry is different as well.

As for me, I believe that compassion can coexist with the quest for justice.

Menachem Stark's murderers need to be found and brought to justice.

He did not deserve to be killed, burned and left in a dumpster. His family did not deserve this pain.

An investigation is underway. Yes, the NY Post headline was in extreme poor taste...but I am betting that there is more than a grain of truth to allegations that Menachem Stark had a long list of people with ample motive to want him dead.

This is real life, not a television show.

And though the Satmar community is far removed from my own, I still feel a collective, Klal Yisrael fellowship, a deep connection to this unfolding drama. It may appear that I stand on the sidelines but as a Jew -- even a liberal Upper West Side Jew -- I am at the epicenter of the story, as we all are.

And that is why the stakes are so high.

The first order of business is to find Menachem Stark's killers and the motive for this crime. And if this investigation also reveals a complex web of corruption or criminality within the Satmar community, let us hope that there is the tikkun of truth-telling and teshuva.

*Husband of Bungalow Babe

Monday, January 06, 2014

Murder of a Member of the Tribe

Since I learned of the lurid murder of Menachem (Max) Stark, a 39-year-old Satmar real estate developer (or slumlord and loan-shark, according to the tabloids and blogs) and father of eight, I have been keenly uncomfortable.

Infamously pictured on the cover of the NY Post in a shtreimel to the accompaniment of the words "Who didn't want him dead?" Stark's journey from kidnapping victim in Brooklyn to partially-burned dead guy in a dumpster in Great Neck, NY is the exact type of crime story people expect from New York City.

I'm certain that brand new NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio had a moment of "why me???!" when briefed on the discovery of Stark's body and his business bio. This incident managed to overshadow the airplane-safely-landing-on-the-Major Deegan story, becoming the most shocking feature of the new year and the new administration.

As the revelations came out about Stark's allegedly long list of enemies, his rotten business deals, foreclosures, lawsuits, reports of large sums of money swindled, roster of furious tenants and more  -- amid outpouring of grief in the Satmar community -- I felt more and more sad, sick, angry, dismayed, embarrassed and just plain disgusted.

A murder was committed in my city over the past few days. The victim was not just Jewish but visibly, extremely, photogenically Jewish.

Yes, he was married and a father and the member of a community but this Jewish victim's victimhood was suddenly highly ambiguous.

A man's half-burned body is found in a gas station in Great Neck. It is human nature to crave the catharsis of compassion for this terrible fate, but complicating the horror of Menachem Stark's death is the fact that he seems to have been a terrible, unethical person.

This fact does not justify his murder but it does negate his local, self-serving do-gooderism. It changes the narrative. It provides, as any cop show can teach you, a motive for the murder.

If the reports emerging are true, Menachem Stark swindled, cheated and took advantage of many, many people. And that reality demands to be acknowledged. Media accounts of the Satmar community mourning Stark as if he were a saint -- or opining that the "hit" was an act of anti-Semitism -- are mind-blowing.  Shmarya Rosenberg, the author of the muckracking blog Failed Messiah notes:
"…I’ve spent hours these past two days listening to Satmar hasidim complain about the Post, the Daily News, Pix 11, other media outlets and Not once have I heard a Satmar hasid say that what Stark allegedly did to tenants, contractors and lenders is wrong. Not once have I heard any introspection, any attempt to come to grips with the idea that it is wrong to steal, cheat and abuse.…"
As I write in the middle of the night, it occurs to me that I am viewing the collective denial of the Satmar community through the lens of a liberal, socially-integrated Jew whose reflexive mode is the complete opposite impulse -- to assume collective guilt. Where I come from, the most painful aspect of Bernie Madoff's criminality was his Jewishness. In my Jewish world, there is complete acknowledgement of his guilt and the suffering of his victims. There is no soft spot for what a great and charitable guy he was.

At the end of the day, the measure of Bernie Madoff's life is the harm he caused to others.

Two weeks ago, I received an unusual phone call.  A young man from a local ultra-Orthodox enclave wanted me to help him publicize criminal activity in his community.

"You don't understand what it's like," he told me. "People know what is going on. But the concept of truth means nothing to them. It's all about keeping the walls around our community high enough to keep out the outside world."

The NYPD and the local press are on the story of Menachem Stark's murder and it seems fairly certain that the truth will shortly emerge.

But it frightens me no end that the facts that link this man's life and violent death may be utterly dismissed or ignored by thousands of individuals who will see him only as a righteous victim of a hateful crime that festered in the dangerous, anti-Semitic outside world, thereby missing the chance to learn that sometimes, the real threat lies within.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

A Tale of Two Cities. New Year's Day Edition

There is a special thrill that comes from having one's private take on reality validated by a famous person voicing a belief that one supposed was utterly unique to oneself.

I, for one, often find my opinions at odds with the prevailing wisdom or mainstream ideology. Since I was a child, I often disagreed with widely-held beliefs or found myself confused -- or disturbed -- by much that passed for accepted wisdom.

Though it cemented my sense of isolation (and enforced my understanding of myself as an outsider), I also prided myself on being a free-thinker and believer in social justice, egalitarianism and progressive values.

As I came of age as a kid in Queens, the isle of Manhattan beckoned beyond my bedroom window in Douglaston. From my weekend and holiday forays there as a grade school kid and then as a high school student on the Upper East Side, I knew that "the city" was the place for me -- buzzing not only with exciting things to do but with people who thought as I did or believed in challenging the status quo.

Manhattan became truly mine at the age of 15, in 1976 when I began commuting there during the school week. I would love walking for miles, taking in the street theatre, the costumes and postures, the streetscapes, the rich, meaty stew of languages and accents, many of them regional. I would love eavesdropping in diners and cafes, hearing opinions fly around me, often colliding in mid-air. I read New York magazine, The New Yorker and The Village Voice cover to cover, giving the ads as much weight as the articles.  I envied the denizens of cool, so diverse, so socially-evolved, so free, so close to the essence of everything that was important. I rode the subway down to the Lower East Side which was still filled with Judaica shops and kosher restaurants and old socialist hangouts and the famous discount clothing stores to soak in the tangible culture of my people. I visited newly-happening SoHo and wandered through the art galleries. I especially loved the quirky theaters and music clubs, the thin, scruffy creative types lurking around, making marvelous music and art. I haunted bookstores and the New York Public Library, reading with my eyes, with my ears, with my pores, with my heart, soul and entire being, learning how to remake myself -- unmake myself! -- into the person I was really meant to be.

The Manhattan of my first love was Taxi Driver-Manhattan, dangerous and romantic, gritty, egalitarian, real. The Manhattan that seduced me was cynical about conspicuous consumerism; turned its collective nose up at possessions and privilege (except for intellectual privilege). That magical kingdom valued experience and access to interesting ideas and above all, creativity. Alas, the city that I loved had a shelf-life of about ten years...and then the disco-era values and the rising cost of real estate began changing the character of my Paradise Island, driving out artists and people with interesting but terrible-paying jobs or lifelong students or marginal characters who might also be great poets or novelists or musicians or anyone not rich or not on public assistance.

Though I secured a place for myself on this island, so many others like me were voted off.

They made way for the people we were suddenly supposed to admire and aspire to be -- the super-affluent. Nearly overnight, having an interesting but terrible-paying job seemed stupid, immature or pathetic. Losers had trouble paying their (rising) rent but the new Manhattanites -- Masters and Mistresses of the Universe -- seemingly had no trouble subsidizing their swell existence.

You see, no matter our defiant insistence on the rectitude of our values, we also feared that they were onto some essential truth that kept eluding the rest of us. Though we disdained their materialism and shallow aspirations, we secretly wondered if there was something wrong with us. After all, we could not afford a fraction of the things they could.

The flight of the artists and the middle class from Manhattan has been a developing story for the past thirty years. The absence of affordable housing has been such a striking fact of city life that mentioning it now seems beside the point...even if it is precisely the point.

This slo-mo transformation has unfolded in real-time with ample opportunity for corrective action.

Maybe my adolescent Manhattan was more schizophrenic than I knew. Maybe the inequality between rich and poor is a timeless reality. Still, until Mayor Bill de Blasio's "Tale of Two Cities" inaugural speech today, I had never heard anyone in an official capacity proclaim the reality of what has come to pass in such stark, dramatic -- and literary! -- terms.

A Tale of Two Cities.

There is no unsaying it and it has been happening for several decades now.

Maybe the seeds for this fissure were planted long ago; there has always been the East Side vs. the West Side rivalry. Uptown has always competed with Downtown.

And I know that the pundits are not giving BDB a whole lotta love for sharing his insights. The new mayor has caught a lot of heat for failing to praise Michael Bloomberg; he has been called arrogant and myopic and needlessly pessimistic about the rallying economy of New York City.

But I think otherwise and I wish to thank Mayor Bill de Blasio for nailing a core reality. New York City has lost its balance; spinning out of control it split into two.

So Mayor de Blasio called it. He co-opted the concept of the 1% vs the 99%, integrating the defiant hippie message of Occupy Wall Street within City Hall.

This pleases me no end for I celebrated the spirit of Occupy Wall Street. I think that naming the social inequity in our midst was bold...and long overdue.

And I think that the reason de Blasio is getting such blowback today is because with his Tale of Two Cities theme, he scared the dickens out of the privileged citizens of New York City.