I was pained to read Jay Michaelson’s article about murdered Hasidic businessman Menachem Stark. With its ‘Us-vs.-Them’ mentality, simplistic black-and-white view of human character, and broad stereotypes, it was an ugly and shameful slur. It was almost down-right Haredi.
I don’t claim to possess any more information about Stark than Michaelson does. Just like him I can only weigh the testimony of his community, the reports of his business practices and the words of his detractors (posted as comments on Yelp, mind you) and supporters (overlooked by Michaelson, but reported elsewhere).
It’s been reported that some of the financial struggles that Stark faced were common for people in the real-estate market. I’ll leave it to investigative reporters and inquisitive minds to bring some clarity to these points.
Most likely, something was afoot with Stark in his business dealings at the time he died. His business decisions and allegations of how he treated his tenants are not to be taken lightly. Such deeds are simply unacceptable. But when such a person that has made such ethicial compromises is murdered, it does not take away from the human tragedy.
All signs of the totality of Stark’s life point to a conflicted man. He was a human being, just like me or Jay Michaelson, prone to the same potential for failings and struggles for personal and communal redemption as the rest of us.
Some people transcend these challenges, others fall prey to them. That doesn’t excuse any wrongdoings he may have done. But it also doesn’t justify his murder, permit his posthumous smearing in the court of public opinion or deny those who knew and loved him the right to mourn him.
This kind of balance seems entirely lost on Michaelson. It feels as if Michaelson’s words about Stark are driven by some animus, that the murder of a man in Hasidic clothing has given him the ideal pulpit to air every single long-held grudge with the Williamsburg Hasidic community.
These places [Williamsburg, Greenpoint and Bushwick] were crime-ridden slums a decade ago, but now they’re filled with my friends — one of whom said, on Facebook, that Stark ‘sounds like every Hasidic landlord I’ve ever had. Is this statement Anti-Semitic? Or is it, sadly, accurate?”
If we are to take Michaelson’s words at face value, he is justifying the abuse of people in their homes because they are poor. Is it somehow OK to take advantage of, let’s be blunt, people of color, since they’re just poor and destined to a life of crime anyhow? Is the sin of being a slumlord only egregious when it oppresses hipsters and yuppies, people who have doctorates in philosophy or write pretentious blogs?
And it’s not just slumlords. Ever run the New York Marathon? In Hasidic Williamsburg, you get jeered, even spit at. And need we even mention the community’s circle-the-wagons mentality when it comes to corruption and sexual abuse?
Can it ever be permissible to vilify an entire community by referring to the failings of its most crude or criminal? Is playing into age-old stereotypes somehow OK if we then make the caveat that we can “assume” that, somewhere out there, there must be plenty of good Haredi landlords but … with the pretext of, ‘but honestly, who’s ever heard of one?’
Was Stark so foul a person, that his murder can somehow be expiated and his right to be mourned considered a shandeh, by the presence of perverts and abusers in the Hasidic community? Does Stark’s being an allegedly awful landlord mean that every story swapped about backward Hasidic culture must be true?
(For the record, I don’t question what I can only assume is Michaelson’s firsthand account of being spat on while running the New York Marathon. But his article is the only reference I found of such actions on Google. I did however find this video, posted by the Hasidic VIN News but seemingly taken by a non-Jew that paints a rather different story about the marathon.)
Can it ever be appropriate to paint an entire community in broad, unfavorable strokes?
For example, I’ve personally witnessed and heard of plenty of crimes perpetrated by my African-American and Caribbean-American neighbors here in Crown Heights. Does make it OK for me to joke that the alleged crimes of a young African American “sounds like every person of color I’ve ever met?” Is a statement like that OK if I add the caveat that there are plenty of blacks who don’t commit crimes?
Or every time there’s an act of terror commited by an Arab, is it OK for me to say that it sounds like every Arab I’ve ever heard of. But hey, I “assume” that there are some good Arabs out there as well?
If I ever make such repugnant statements like those of Jay Michaelson about any community, please do me a favor and pour some water on my head. Slap me in the face. Do something to wake me up from my narcissistic binge that somehow justifies that I can denigrate an entire community because of the sins of individuals, even if those individuals gave a negative experience to my friends on Facebook.
We Hasidic Jews have our problems. Let’s be honest: In Williamsburg, Monsey, Crown Heights, Lakewood, we all have our sins, individual and communal, that we must address.
But secular Jews also have their problems. As do the Italian and the Irish, the African Americans, Asian Americans, Muslim Americans. In fact, so does every single other group that makes up the diverse crowd of peoples — the “gorgeous mosaic” as it was once dubbed — that live in and love this crazy rock covered with jungles of iron and glass that we call New York.
We fight, we cry, we struggle and build, we sin and we repent. And together we make it great. That’s what New York is all about. Not tearing our neighbors apart over the perceived sins of the Menachem Starks of our world — or any other.
Mordechai Lightstone is a rabbi by training, but a blogger by choice. He can be reached on Twitter @Mottel