By Michael Powell (New York Times)
May 30, 2014
Mayor Bill de Blasio can lay down a wondrous rhetorical two-step, although some days you wonder if he should just stop dancing and answer a delicate question straight on.
So it was Friday that a reporter from The New York Observer asked him if he yet had reviewed the remarks of a Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, a top leader of Agudath Israel. This rabbi had given the keynote address at a gala on Tuesday, which the mayor attended.
The rabbi assailed Conservative and Reform Judaism as “oblivious” and said they had “fallen into a pit of intermarriage and assimilation.” He added, “They have no future.” My colleague Sharon Otterman reported that the mayor sat schmoozing on the dais.
The mayor’s presence at this dinner was intriguing in itself, as Agudath leaders resisted reporting many cases of sexual abuse. A family, they said, must go to a rabbi before going to the police or the district attorney. And the rabbi might tell them not to make a report.
On Friday, the reporter asked the mayor: Did you hear Rabbi Perlow’s remarks?
“First of all, I do not want to get into theoreticals,” he replied. “I did not hear the comments clearly.”
Did not hear, got no time, bye-bye. Mr. de Blasio, who once dodged out the door rather than face questions about his driver’s running a stop sign, has an aversion to being pinned down.
The Observer reporter pressed on. Would you have spoken up had you heard the rabbi’s specific remarks?
“With all due respect, my friend,” he began — the mayor’s use of “my friend” was more like a hurricane siren than a sign of bonhomie — “I did not hear the comments clearly.”
He added that he had “not seen a transcript” and that it was “really theoretical” to ask “someone” these sort of questions. “I just think that’s not fair,” he said.
Where to start? Mr. de Blasio sometimes shows a political operative’s desire not to discomfort an audience. He certainly gets too cute here. He could obtain a transcript at the snap of his fingers.
This past Wednesday, the mayor’s press secretary, Phil Walzak, told me that he and another mayoral aide had reviewed the tape of Rabbi Perlow’s remarks. “I talked to my guy who was on the scene last night, and who reviewed this video with me again, to be sure,” Mr. Walzak told me in an email.
Mayoral aides also told me that Mr. de Blasio arrived halfway through the rabbi’s speech, which was “more than half” in Yiddish and Hebrew.
Neither of these statements is true. The mayor arrived just as the rabbi began speaking. And the rabbi, a learned scholar, used some Hebrew and Yiddish. But he rendered many remarks in English, such as these: “The Torah must be guarded from the secular forces that seek to corrupt its values and the lives of Yidden” — or Jews — “from intruders who sometimes in the name of Judaism completely subvert and destroy the eternal values of our people.”
You wonder if the mayor’s transcription services are overworked?
The question the mayor does not want to answer is whether, as a representative of New York City, secular and religious, he had a responsibility to offer a few gentle words in defense of non-Orthodox Jews, who make up a majority of Jews in New York.
Maybe the mayor disagrees with me. He could argue this was a theological dispute and none of his business. Or that he would take up his disagreements privately.
I might not like his answers, but such words would have the singular virtue of being straightforward, with no dance-step of evasion.