Hella Winston (The Jewish Week)
February 16, 2012
With allegations of communal cover-ups involving child sexual abuse dogging the haredi community over the past several years, it may not be much of a stretch for some readers to believe a gruesome story that appears in a new memoir about growing up in, and leaving, the Satmar community.
The story, recounted by Deborah Feldman in "Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots" (Simon and Schuster), involves the alleged mutilation and murder of a boy by his own father — supposedly for masturbating — and the subsequent cover-up of the crime by Hatzolah, the community's volunteer ambulance service.
The only problem, however, is that based on information obtained by The Jewish Week, the seems not be true.
Feldman claims she first learned of the grisly crime from her husband who had, in turn, heard about it from his brother, allegedly a member of Hatzolah at the time, who had been called to the blood-soaked scene. Apparently, the boy's "penis was cut off with a jig saw and his throat was slit too," Feldman writes.
Feldman recounts that her husband told her his brother "said the neighbors told him they heard loud arguing coming from the house. When he called the [volunteer ambulance] dispatch, they told him to go home and keep quiet about it, that they would take care of it. He said they buried him in thirty minutes and they didn't even issue a death certificate."
In a pre-publication interview with Julie Wiener in The Jewish Week, Feldman was questioned about the veracity of the story. Feldman not only insisted that she was not lying, but asserted that the father was known to be mentally ill and implied that he had escaped justice for his crime.
"I worry about his other children," Feldman told Wiener, "and I worry about people thinking if he could get away with that, then they can get away with anything."
This is not the first time Feldman has made this allegation. Indeed, in December of 2008 it appeared on her then anonymous blog, Hasidic-Feminist, where it was described as a "Class A secret." In the blog post, Feldman recounted the story of a "thirteen year-old boy [who] had been castrated with a jig saw and bled to death."
The incident, according to Feldman, took place "two years ago on an Erev Shabbos in [Kiryas Joel]." She goes on to elaborate that when Hatzolah arrived at the crime scene (a basement) and tried to question the father, "he refused to cooperate, saying only that his son deserved it and that he was a chazar, a pig, because he touched himself." Feldman then notes that no police report was ever filed and the boy was "under ground" in 30 minutes. "People of KJ," she warned, "a murderer walks in your midst."
While some of the 31 comments on the blog post were credulous of Hasidic-Feminist's claims, several expressed serious skepticism. At least one claimed knowledge that the death was in fact a suicide and that the young man (who, one commenter noted, was not 13 but 19) was well known to have been mentally ill.
"Our community would not have ignored a murder," wrote a commenter with the screen name Product, "but anyone familiar with Hasidic culture knows that any mention of a familial disgrace such as suicide would be stifled. This explains why the story is so shrouded in mystery."
A few commenters even chastised Feldman, in the guise of Hasidic-Feminist, for not reporting her knowledge to the police. "[No] one has gone to the police," she responded to one of these charges, "because no one wants to be publicly outed as a musser — a tattletale. That's a sin that merits 'honor killing.'"
However, The Jewish Week confirmed that the state police do in fact have a record of the incident and its office provided the paper with the names of two of its investigators called to the scene, John Van Der Molen and Michael Colern. Calls to the two officers were not returned Thursday.
Further, a death certificate obtained by The Jewish Week indicates that the death — which it noted occurred in a "storeroom" on a Friday afternoon in Kiryas Joel around the approximate date Feldman's blog alleged — was ruled a suicide by coroner Thomas A. Murray, and lists the cause of death as "partial decapitation, severed carotid arteries due to circular saw." The deceased's age was listed as 20.
Several e-mails to Feldman and her publisher, Simon and Schuster, seeking comment did not receive a response.
Privacy laws prevent Hatzolah from commenting on any case, but Moses Witriol, the director of public safety and chief constable for Kiryas Joel, told The Jewish Week that the story was patently false.
"When the first Hatzolah member showed up on the scene, he cordoned off the area and contacted the public safety office, which in turn immediately contacted the state police. Except for them and the coroner, no other people were in the room [where the boy was found]. The state police conducted a full and thorough investigation and interviewed every member of the family.
"If Mrs. Feldman knows about a crime in the village [of Kiryas Joel]," Witriol continued, "I invite her to come forward to law enforcement."
Reached by phone, a relative of the deceased told The Jewish Week, "I cannot understand how a person could possibly find it within themselves to fabricate such a gruesome story and slander a completely innocent, grieving and tragedy-stricken family in such a horrific way. The facts are that the boy had a long history of mental illness, and his family and the community did a lot to try and help this individual. It was a very tragic end to a life full of suffering."