The Jerusalem Times – that damned paper – sent me to conduct an interview with a murderer. I don’t even cover domestic violence, let alone capital crimes, but the editor secured the interview, and the guy happened to speak Russian. I’m the only Russian-speaker at the English-language paper – so I was the one they sent.
The paper has no travel budget, so I had to pay for my own bus fare to Nazareth – and from there for another bus to the high security prison where he was held. I had my face in my phone the whole way there, reading the few articles that had appeared right after his arrest a few months earlier. There’d already been a first hearing and they were waiting for the results of a psychiatric exam to decide what would happen next – and rule whether he was fit to stand trial.
I’d never been in a prison before – I cover art and culture – and just the ideaof going to jail has kept me honest for most of my life. The very existence of a place like that makes me paranoid that I’ll end up there.
But that’s not really the point. I went there like I was told – and tried to focus on the interview. The security guards took away my phone and wallet. They let me keep a notebook and ballpoint pen. It was hot that day and they only had air conditioning in their offices. The rest of the prison was rank with humidity.
I was taken into a room without ventilation and told to wait. There were barred windows on all sides. The defense lawyer was already there, sitting in the corner. He looked familiar but I couldn’t quite place him – he just looked generically sleazy. The prison officers left and I asked the lawyer if he planned to sit there throughout the interview. He said he wouldn’t say a word and just wanted his client to know that he was there for him, you know, just in case.
I didn’t know exactly what he meant – but I got the sense that there was some kind of agenda on his part. I sat silently with him behind me for another ten minutes until the guards came back with the guy. The murderer. I’m supposed to call him the “alleged” murderer, to show journalistic impartiality, but I’m saying it openly: this guy cut off his wife’s head, tried to burn her body, and walked around the street with bloodied clothes and his wife’s head under his arm.This guy.
He was skinny, with a long scraggly beard, and sunken cheeks. He wore a large white knitted kipah covering most of his head. His body was limp, and he looked straight down at the floor. They cuffed his hands and legs to the chair and told me to start the interview.
I’d obviously had no time to prepare. All I knew was that he’d murdered his wife on account of what he said were mystical visions. From his body language I wasn’t sure whether he even understood what was happening to him. I wondered how our editor had gotten this scoop – and what I was doing there following it up.
I said hello in Russian. The guy was silent. The lawyer said he’d prefer if I interviewed the guy in Hebrew. I told him that I’d been sent by my paper because I spoke the accused’s mother tongue – and that I’d interview him in any damn way I wanted. The lawyer obviously spoke no Russian, which meant he’d have no idea what his client was saying. Apparently, he hadn’t counted on this. I thought this was maybe why my editor had sent me instead of someone else.
But at that point none of this really mattered because the man wasn’t talking.
I only knew what I’d read in the articles that had been written about him – which were based on things he’d said to his lawyer back when he was first arrested. At the time, it seemed he’d refused to say anything except that his wife bore the seed of Amalek, and that he’d had to kill her in order to become the Messiah.
So I started there and asked him when he first heard of Amalek.
He stirred and raised his eyes to me – but didn’t say anything.
Then he lowered his eyes again.
I’d jotted down the question when I’d asked it and instead of an answer I just wrote: “raised and lowered eyes.” I figured it was something.
I decided to change my approach and ask him when he’d moved to Tiberius.
He looked up again. There was anger in his eyes. I’d touched a nerve.
“I never wanted to live in Tiberius,” he said. “It was the seed of Amalek that brought me there.”
I nodded and said I understood. Then I asked him where he wanted to live.
“Where does anybody want to live?” he asked. “In Safed. The holiest city on this earth.”
I jotted this all down and asked him when he’d first arrived in Safed.
He shook his head and let out a big sigh.
“You won’t understand anything,” he said.
“I’m here to listen,” I said. “I was told you wanted to talk.”
“I’m always ready to talk,” he said. “There just isn’t anyone that can understand.”
“I can try.”
“The story goes far back,” he said. “Back in my life, back in her life, back in the lives of the sages and prophets.”
I nodded and said I was ready to listen. He breathed deeply and it seemed like he was finally ready to start talking. He looked up at me – and I felt like I was seeing the face of someone who wanted to be understood.
“I came to the Holy Land fifteen years ago,” he said, “after the great destruction of the Soviet Union. I was saved by angels of repentance who brought me in touch with a living sage. He told me that the true Torah of all ages, the Kabbalah and its eternal secrets, lived in the blessed city on the hill – the spiritual reflection of our holy city Jerusalem.”
“Home to all true Kabbalistic masters, who live up high and pass from this world to the next.”
“And who was this sage, the one who brought you here?” I asked.
“The wise Rabbi Meir Steinbaum,” he said, “a man of great mystical powers, who was targeted by the very same evil that my wife, may her soul be forgiven, helped spread in the world.”
I put down my pen. I didn’t know much about this young guy, but I’d certainly heard of Meir Steinbaum. His arrest had sparked unrest and outcries across the religious world, both in Israel and abroad. He was considered one of the most powerful seats of mystical power in the world. But he was also accused of raping sixteen women, using his position as rabbi and healer to extort sexual favors, and systematically harassing female minors coming to him for advice or blessings with offers of “relaxation massages.” This guy had just started talking – and already I had much more of a story than I knew what to do with.
As I realized all this, the lawyer got up, went over to the guy, and whispered a few words into his ear. I now recalled why he looked familiar: he’d also represented the disgraced rabbi. So I sensed the beheading had something to do with Steinbaum. I just didn’t understand what yet.
“My client asks you to please refrain from asking questions about his religious past,” the lawyer said as went back to his seat, “and focus your questions on the events that took place between himself and his deceased wife.”
“Your client didn’t say a word,” I said.
“This is what I advised him to tell you.”
This wasn’t my scoop or my beat – so I didn’t really care whether the interview fell through. But I was also curious to know how this interview had come to be arranged. And what purpose it had. So I decided to play tough.
“I’m here to conduct an interview,” I said. “I can just as well leave.”
I got up from my chair and the young guy’s eyes opened up in childish fear, as if I was about to abandon him. The lawyer also got nervous – he half-stood and impatiently motioned with his hand for me to sit back down – though I still didn’t quite understand why.
“Just stick to the topic,” he said as he took his place. “And speak Hebrew.”
“I’ll speak whatever language I see fit,” I answered, and sat back down.
“He doesn’t understand anything either,” the guy suddenly blurted out to me in Russian.
“I see that,” I said. “So do you want to tell me what happened? Maybe I’ll understand.”
“You won’t,” he said. “But you may be able to take the message into the world.”
“The message I told him,” he said. “The message I’ve been trying to get across all this time.” He breathed in deeply and let the air out slowly. “In eight days,” he said, “there will be a miracle, just as in the eight days of Hanukah. And I’ll become the Messiah.”
Now here’s the thing: from what I’d read on the way up, I saw that he’d already used the exact same phrase months ago, right after his arrest, and eight days had passed without any apparent miracle or messianic revelation. But to my ear his tone just didn’t sound insane. And his was an important issue because it was the cornerstone of their defense – that nothing he said made sense and that he wasn’t fit to stand trial. A man who says, for months and months, that in eight days the Messianic Era will begin, can’t possibly be held accountable for his actions. At least not according to any rational logic. But I was starting to feel like something else was at stake – especially since there was an internal logic here that wasn’t necessarily rational, but wasn’t altogether disconnected from reality either. And I wanted to try and understand the logic in his head.
“Which days do you mean exactly?” I asked.
He smiled and looked up.
“You’re starting to understand,” he said. “I’m talking about the great days of inner light,” he added, “the days of prayer, charity, and repentance, when all locked doors will be opened, and those who have been unjustly imprisoned will be freed.”
“I see,” I said. “And have you seen any such days pass yet?”
“None,” he said. “The appointed holy time – the days of judgment, awe, and atonement – is wasted by those who serve the illusion of the true God. They serve according to the statures of other human souls, the false rabbis of the land, who tell them when and what to worship. And so they fail to understand that every day is a day of judgment, of awe, of repentance. We are always at the cusp of losing both this world and the world to come. We must be vigilant and worship at every moment.”
“Is this what your sage told you,” I asked, knowing that, as long as I didn’t use Steinbaum’s name or the word rabbi, the lawyer wouldn’t know what I was talking about.
“He said this always,” the guy said, “not only to me, but to everyone.”
There was obviously some link between them. And I wanted to understand what part Steinbaum had played in this story, the degree to which this young man might not just be insane, but also under the influence of something more sinister. It might lessen the charge, but it would also make him fit to stand trial.
“Has the sage spoken to you about this recently?” I asked.
The guy smirked.
“He’s said nothing to me since he’s been taken away by the evil one,” the guy answered. “He doesn’t need to say anything. I know it – because I received his divine instruction in a vision.”
So his vision was directly connected to Steinbaum. That had to mean something.
“And what did this vision show you?” I asked.
“It showed me what had happened,” he said. “That my wife had led me astray, away from the sage, who was responsible for our union in the first place. That she was speaking ill of the great master to others. That she purposefully took us out of the holiest city on this earth into the darkest pit: the sea of the greatest false messiah ever to have walked this land. She used the lowest excuses, like the fact that we could save money, to bring us to the lowest of places, where she expected that I’d be corrupted into serving idols. And I listened because the sage had himself brought us together. . . But he’s an angel, and he couldn’t have predicted that the evil brought against him would come from his own spiritual dwelling! Among the women who turned against him was the woman I had married. She took us from the sage to the false messiah – and then attacked the man who gave us everything we had.”
So his wife had been one of Steinbaum’s accusers. That had to be part of the story. And I’m sure that most people, with all his talk of visions, would say this guy was crazy. But I said to myself: he’s not. Because everything he said actually made sense within the context in which he lived. This young guy came from the Soviet Union in 1991 – an impressionable guy who couldn’t know any of this stuff in Russia. He got absorbed into a group of people who taught him all these stories, all these ideas, all these words. He obviously got them all wrong – but he didn’t make them up.
This was bigger than just this guy. And the question was whether he alone bore responsibility.
“Did anyone tell you that your wife bore the seed of Amalek?” I asked.
“This is not something that is simple to find out,” he said. “Even the king and prophet Hezekiah, who the great sages say almost became the Messiah, did not himself experience the evil that his own son spread across the Holy Land. I was given the holy sight I needed to see the wrong that was being done now, today, right in front of us, and I did something that no else was willing to do – and for that reason alone I am acknowledged.”
“But the sage didn’t tell you to do this,” I said, “because he’s still in jail.”
“He told me everything I needed to know long ago. The world of mortals lives by mortal time,” he said, “but the lives of sages and saints are lived in divine time. We may not find mortal liberty – but what counts is our spiritual freedom. We aren’t bound to our surroundings, which are the dominion of evil.”
“I see,” I said.
“Yes,” he answered. “I feel that you’re starting to see.”
I didn’t like how that sounded. It made it sound like I was crazy too. But it did feel like I was understanding something I hadn’t understood before.
“Tell me,” I said, “how long did you live under the guidance of the sage?”
“All the years of my life in the Holy Land,” he said.
“So why did all this suddenly happen now? Why did you now decide to finally kill the seed of Amalek?”
“You’re starting to understand,” he said. “It was the long incubation of a great deception. But this was ultimately my strength, because it gave me time to learn, to prepare, to recognize Amalek – even in his greatest disguise.”
“And all this time,” I asked, “you studied with the sage?”
“In his yeshiva,” he said. “Every day, every night, every Shabbat and every Holy Day. I returned to the religion of my father, erasing all traces of my idolatrous mother, and became a true Jew.”
“Did the sage oversee your conversion?” I asked.
“He gave me my Jewish name. And I continued to study every day.”
“And you were given a stipend?”
“The righteous of our time give to the sage’s yeshiva so that we can all study the secrets of the great learning that was given to us – and that brings us ultimate joy.”
“And when did you start being suspicious about Amalek?”
“The infiltration started long before I became aware,” he said. “But I always felt its presence.”
“And did you ever talk to anyone about this?”
“I was blessed to have several conversations with the sage about the evil among us. He warned me, before he was taken, that there were those among us who would betray him.”
“What did he tell you exactly?”
“He told me what was written in our books of wisdom: that we are on this earth to overcome evil in every form. That we’re always in danger of falling into the depths of chaos. That the abyss stands before us with each step we take. That womankind is our entry and escape from this world into the next – and that which woman we marry determines whether we earn or lose the world to come. That’s why I had asked him to help me find a holy match. So that I wouldn’t be turned away from the next world. But the match he made turned out to be part of the evil forces that targeted him. I didn’t think that such a sage could be fooled – and then I realized that he was not only a sage but also a saint. Only a saint could be so trusting as to bless one of the very women who would try to destroy him. I realized then that I’d let myself become a tool of destruction. Just like Hezekiah. But I did what the mighty king could not. I killed the seed that had hidden itself in my own home.”
“Yes,” he said. “Perhaps you really do see.”
I suddenly understood what question I had to ask next. But I didn’t want to feed him the answer. I wanted him to admit it himself. I could see, too, that he answered questions with his emotions, not with his mind, and that to get the answer I wanted, I had to ask him something upsetting.
“So the great sage hadn’t told you directly to kill the seed of Amalek?” I finally said.
The guy’s eyes opened, astonished and angry, and he started to shake in his seat, rattling the cuffs on his hands and feet.
“You understand nothing!” he yelled. “The great Rabbi Steinbaum is a saint! He opens minds – not hands!”
The lawyer, seeing his client suddenly getting worked up – and hearing Steinbaum’s name again – got up and grabbed me by the arm.
“Come on,” he said, “get out of here.”
“Don’t touch me!” I said and broke free.
Then he motioned with his head to the guards – who promptly showed up to escort me out. As they dragged me down the hall, I heard the guy still yelling, “It was I, with my own hands and divine vision, who understood the evil truth: that my wife was betraying the man who had tried to save our souls!”
At the front desk, the guards gave me back my phone and wallet, and told me to get the hell out. It was clear they knew the lawyer very well. It was even possible he did them favors in exchange for their loyalty.
I stood outside in the heat, waiting for the local bus, and thought about what had just happened. I wasn’t sure I understood the whole story yet, but the more he’d said, the more I’d become convinced that he wasn’t insane. All his words, all his actions, they all made perfect sense within the framework of his life here. And that framework had been constructed by a man who was at that moment in jail awaiting trial for rape, extortion, and abuse of power. These two things had to be connected. And the fact that the same lawyer represented both proved the point. But no one was reporting on this part of the story. For me this wasn’t just the story of a religious Russian-speaker who’d lost his mind – it was also the story of an unstable young immigrant who’d fallen into a trap set for him by a manipulative religious leader. For most of the press, this was the story of a maniac who’d cut off his wife’s head. But there was a whole social context for this murder – and at its center was a criminally irresponsible man.
The bus came and I sat somewhere in the back. The whole way back to Nazareth I just kept repeating the whole scenario in my head – and thinking about how I’d frame the piece. I kept thinking about it on the express bus all the way back to Jerusalem. A hearing was set for next week, and the interview was set to appear in the weekend edition. I felt like I had to make sure this other story came out – the story of a man who was not exactly stable, but who was also the victim of a psychological abuser, and who should not be considered insane, but should stand trial for the murder of his wife. This man knew there was a difference between right and wrong. He had to be tried for choosing to commit murder. It didn’t matter that he thought he was doing good by killing her. It was that he thought about it – and that he did it with intention.
It was late evening by the time I came back and I worked through the night to prepare the copy. Then I sent it to the editor. And she sent it back. She said she couldn’t print the story. I asked her what she meant – and she said the purpose of the interview was to show the guy was crazy, not to make the opposite case. I told her that an article couldn’t really have a predetermined purpose. It had to report on what existed and make its case based on the evidence it gathered. I pointed out to her that a woman had been brutally murdered by her husband and that she, as editor, had an opportunity to help bring him to justice. She ignored me and said she would rewrite the article using the quotes I’d given her, writing the rest of the copy herself. I told her no way – that it would be theft. She told me the magazine already owned everything I wrote and said to check my contract. The scoop was hers, she said, and I was lucky she was letting my name appear on the piece at all.
That’s when I understood the whole the story. She’d gotten the scoop from the lawyer, who’d arranged the interview with her in order to influence public opinion – and to get this guy off with an insanity plea. And she was toeing his line. Because he represents all the biggest bastards in court. And all the interviews he lets the paper conduct with them sell more weekend copies than anything else in the news. And there was nothing I could do to stop them.
That’s when I thought of writing you. Because she’s going to rewrite the copy I sent her and print a completely different piece in my name. She’s going to publish a lie. Unless you publish this first.
David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and scholar whose work has appeared in the Believer, Public Seminar, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Entropy, among others. His latest book is IDIOT LOVE and the Elements of Intimacy: Literature, Philosophy, and Psychoanalysis. He was born in Israel, grew up in Los Angeles, and lives in Jerusalem.