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

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