The stories of Menachem Stark

The stories of Menachem Stark

New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio won his office with his “tale of two cities.”

Now, we all are watching the unspooling of a tale of two stories – of two competing versions of one man – and of the reactions that flow logically from each narrative.

Do we mourn the violent death of family man Menachem Stark, a well-loved husband, father of eight children, generous and respected pillar of his community? Or do we mark the unsurprising although brutal and terrible murder of slumlord and sleazy businessman Max Stark?

Do we think that the New York Post, with its blaring headline – “Who Didn’t Want Him Dead?” – was playing on despicable anti-Semitic stereotypes?

Do we think the Jewish community has an obligation to close ranks to defend Mr. Stark?

Let’s try to unpack this a bit.

First, the Post.

The Post is a tabloid, vulgar – and vital – down to its DNA. Remember “The Front Page?” Or “His Girl Friday?” Those were over-the-top but not inaccurate versions of tabloid culture, then as now. Or, for that matter, such gemlike headlines as “Headless Body In Topless Bar”? (That one is from the Post, in 1982.) Or even “Ford to City: Drop Dead”? (That headline, brilliant in its passion and its compact thoroughness, was in the New York Daily News in 1975.) The pressures on a big-city tabloid daily – a news format now in its death throes – are immense. That’s true even if that tabloid, unlike the Post, is not owned by Rupert Murdoch, who probably could turn a potato farm into a pressure cooker.

The headline did exactly what a headline should do. It made people notice the newspaper, pick it up, and read the story.

Many members of the Satmar community, along with the politicians who represent them, cried foul at the headline. It would be easier to feel more sympathy with them had they ever demonstrated a similar sensitivity to such headlines when they were directed at, say, black people. Or Hispanics. Or Asians. Or standard-issue non-Jewish white people. Or even, for that matter, non-chassidic Jews. The Post routinely belittles and degrades the people unlucky enough to end up pictured on its front page. It is an entirely equal-opportunity offender.

Was it anti-Semitic to picture Mr. Stark in his streiml, payes corkscrewing down his face? Well, no. That’s what he looked like. The outfit, it is fair to say, appears outré to outsiders. That makes the front page even more compelling.

There is no way to argue that what happened to Mr. Stark was anything other than barbaric. He was kidnapped, suffocated, and partially burned; his bruised body was found stuffed in a garbage can in a Long Island gas station. “Every man’s death diminishes me,” wrote the very non-Jewish John Donne, expressing a Jewish truth. We are all diminished by such evil. There’s no argument there.

But who was he? According to the New York Times – which, despite its faults, is not a tabloid – Mr. Stark was widely known as a slumlord, whose renters lived in substandard conditions because he chose not to provide them with the services for which they paid him. He seems to have taken advantage of the powerless, something we Jews are mandated not to do. He had declared bankruptcy; he was known to be in financial trouble; he was thought to hang around with hard, bad men. It seems fair to say that outside his community, his business ethics were questionable.

We are told that inside his community he was well respected; we are told, as if of course it is always true, that his family loved him. We are presented with saccharine and told that it is gold. In fact, we have no idea about his relationship with his family. What we do know is that starting with Bereishit, in the very beginning, our own texts teach us that families are not necessarily happy. That’s why we have novels, and poetry, and opera. We can make no such assumptions, nor should we be expected to make them. They also are irrelevant. We cannot pursue with more vigor murder victims whose families loved them.

And then there is the question of anti-Semitism. Mr. Stark seems to have lived out many of the stereotypes that bedevil us – his business dealings were questionable, and he seemed to have one set of standards for his community, and another for outsiders. And if anything has fanned anti-Semitism, it is the spectacle of his community and their politician friends, demanding special treatment.

So in the end we see that a brutal, violent, and horrific crime has raised more questions than answers. Maybe the only conclusion we can draw now is that we don’t know enough yet to make assumptions, that crying anti-Semitism immediately is counterproductive, and that eventually the story will come out, as stories always do. Until then, we should withhold judgment.