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 FailedMessiah.com. 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.