On Perpetrators and Puzzlement

We’ve all seen a puzzled neighbor or family member interviewed after some horrific killing or act saying “I don’t get it; he was the nicest guy. Never a problem.”

“Yeah,” I’d snort to myself, “I’d have seen something.”


I went to a liberal Orthodox Jewish school (an oxymoron today) back in Riverdale. Or, as everyone else called it, The Bronx.

The school was, for me, heaven. Latest (1970s era) gear, brilliant teachers, 3-day camping trips complete with art and science teacher hookups, bus tours of Washington, D.C. Some of the most amazing and brilliant people I now realize I was friends with.

I loved the place so much tht when I had my bar mitzvah I had yarmulkes made with the school’s logo. That place, and some of the amazing people in it (Mrs. Ratner, the secretary, the Doyle family, custodians and cooks extraordinaire, and a few others), kept me tethered to (relative) sanity.

Yes, yes, this story has a point. Where was I? Oh, right: heavenly idyllic place, blah blah blah. I had had a real nemesis there, a fellow student “J” whom I’d been with since kindergarten. We hated each other with the fire of a thousand suns. For good reasons on both sides.

Rabbi (later known as Cantor) Stanley Rosenfeld was the assistant principal, handling the Judaic end of things. He was determined to “make us shake hands.” And, in the end, I think he succeeded. At least, neither of us buried our hatchets in the other’s skull.

He invited “J” and I to spend Shabbat at his house (Friday evening through Saturday night). It was an apartment in South Yonkers, right near the Riverdale border. He was a member of one of the less glitz, more prayer, synagogues.

I only remember two things about that Shabbat: (1) that we hid his clothing and he chased me and “J” around the house in his underwear to get his stuff so we could go to shul for afternoon services. I think it was the first time “J” and I were partners in mischief. And, (2), when he caught me he kept twisting my wrist to get me to tell him where his clothes were. Twisted it until it broke. To my memory he was horrified and apologetic and as solicitous a vice-principal as an 8th grader might expect.

Oh, and he raped boys. The son-of-a-bitch was a serial pedophile, child rapist, assaulting his way through several Jewish schools in the Northeast until he was put away, paroled, and jailed again for breaking parole with yet another assault. And now, according to the JTA, it turns out that someone, someone I probably knew, was raped by him.


If someone had interviewed me about him I’d be that gormless, clueless guy, not knowing how close I was to the dragon’s fire.

Happy Fourth!

I grew up suspicious of a country where they lived stealth lives. My dad never wore a kippah (head covering) at work. A fedora on the way in and on the way home worked, but blatant Jewish exhibitionism was something he shied from at Luxor International, which he inherited from his father. A city where “our folks” were kept out of Fieldston area in the Bronx. Where accusations of god-killing were part of hanging in Riverdale, by almost every measure a “safe” place for Jews, if not any tinted minority.
I moved to Israel, to be with “my people,” where I was told I wasn’t, because I wasn’t born there and therefore couldn’t have an opinion. Of being a “Saboni” (soft, like soap). With all that. I never intended to leave Israel.
And then I did, moved to a strange, arid version of America I’d never experienced, but which resembled, in flora and fauna, the Galilee of my past life. I held my mental nose for years.
And then, over the years, I saw the promise of America, buried under layers of vapid manners and marketing. It’s taken close to a quarter century, but I’d begun to embrace the promise of this country, especially as Israel has slid down the slippery slope of ideological and religious fanaticism.
Promises in danger of breaking. A future squandered. A militant, anti-intellectual theocracy is in the offing, a front shill for the cold calculation of Mammon worshipers who cynically used religion and the fear of the Other in a way scarily reminiscent of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
But it’s not. We still have the rule of law. As a favorite writer of mine said in a book about dangerous foes, “if they could all get pointed in the same direction for more than five minutes, they’d be dangerous.” We have jurisdictions from cities to counties to states to the federal governments.. And courts. And press.
We have attacks on the independence of all of these, along with a worship of the military that’s gone well beyond appreciating their service, while not providing its veterans with anything close to the care accolades might lead one to expect.
We have the power of the ballot box and, frankly, the demographics are on our side. The old white folks, the scared, disempowered-while-simultaneously-privileged young whites. The hate groups. They’ve lost, which accounts for their panic, and this election.
It’s not too late to fight for our country. And I’m sticking it out, because, crappy democracy that it might be, it’s the best one around. Still. Happy Fourth!


Progress, Embarrassment and Poetry

Great, a P.E.P. talk.

I haven’t written a good, solid poem (first draft, of course) in literally months. I get that way: in going over my record of about 550 poems (the edited, “finished” ones, not drafts or juvenalia) I’ve had gaps of over a year at some points. This seven month gap is the longest  in at least fifteen years. The draft isn’t ready for sharing, but was triggered, the day a car was rammed by a local commuter train, by the smell of creosote warming in the 90+ degree sun off the railroad ties at a train station.

Smells are said to be our strongest memory joggers. What’s irritating to me is that they job the fact that I have a memory, but I can’t remember why that smell is a trigger to remember something. Ah, the joys of incipient senior moments. The creosote was a pervasive smell where I hung out in Riverdale, down past the “jungle,” by the train tracks on the banks of the Hudson River near the NYC/Yonkers border. It was a great place for me to be daring, standing close to the trains as they whipped by: cargo, commuter, passenger… and sometimes the repair trains with their cranes. I remember when they built an overpass so people wouldn’t have to cross the tracks directly. And I remember walking over a tiny, rusted footbridge that was the only way across before it was replaced. I can’t imagine letting my kids go off and do that. And I guess I shouldn’t wonder what my kids have been doing while I haven’t been hovering overhead.

More anon. Sleep, perchance a deep dream, tonight.