It being a Wednesday, when I typically get a little extra time to garden, I was going to regale you all with my recent successes growing big vegetables and bountiful flowers. On a day like today, though, in my usually quiet and relatively peaceful corner slice of Kensington, Brooklyn, it feels like nothing can be right or good or wholesome anymore. Two days ago, apparently on his first walk alone in the world – a walk that was supposed to be a mere three blocks from where he’d spent the day to the home of his loving family, Leiby Kletzky (8 or 9 years old, by different accounts, the only boy in a family of five children) instead got turned around and somehow fell into the hands of what can only be thought to be a psychotic murderer. The man accused of killing Kletzky is Levi Aron (35 years old today, a divorced and, not that it matters, childless man), who worked as a clerk at Empire Hardware on McDonald Ave. between Cortelyou and Avenue C. He’s from Memphis originally. He looks familiar. They both do. I’ve probably seen them in the neighborhood before. Aron doesn’t look like a killer, unless you look closely at his eyes and know what we suspect we know now. Those who purport to have known him say he was a loner and maybe a little weird but, as these stories always seem to go, he was generally quiet, kept to himself, and no one ever thought he would do something like this.
Leiby’s remains reportedly were found in Aron’s apartment and another location where Aron reportedly disposed of them. The gruesome details are already available elsewhere. I don’t know that I could stomach repeating them here. For those not yet familiar with the story, it is worth recounting some of what preceded Kletzky’s abduction and Aron’s capture, in case there is anything at all that may be learned from this unthinkable tragedy. According to the articles I’ve read and what I’ve heard in the neighborhood since yesterday about this time when helicopters began buzzing above us, Keltzky was snatched on 18th Ave., near Dahill Rd., in Boro Park, a neighborhood that meets my own neighborhood of Kensington at the end of the block where I live. According to reports, the boy had just a few blocks to walk from summer day camp at 12th Avenue and 44th St., for the first time on his own after much pleading with his parents and a note from them granting him permission. It is said he got lost on what was supposed to be the three-block walk home, and Aron, a random stranger on the street, was who he happened to ask for directions. Surveillance cameras from the surrounding area and records from a dentist’s office where Aron appeared on Monday to pay someone’s bill helped track down the suspected killer. Although some of the earliest reports of his capture mentioned two other people who were staying with Aron and who were also being held for questioning in connection with the murder, more recent reports have not mentioned them. As of approximately 4 p.m. today, the two blocks where Aron is said to reside (in an upper level of a house owned by his parents), which is also believed to be the site of Kletky’s murder, were blocked off by police, with various media vans swarming the area, and clusters of Hassidic community members quietly milling about, standing close to each other and their children.
Boro Park is a tight-knit, primarily Hassidic neighborhood. Although I’ve lived just next door for more than ten years, it’s also inexplicably an easy place in which to get a little lost, or turned around at least. Looking at a map, the streets seem well-organized and reasonably arranged. And I’m not one to easily lose my sense of direction but I have, in the same area where Kletzky lived and on the same streets where he found himself turned around. Boro Park seems to me to be a place out of time. Traffic is minimal off the main streets, and groups of people walk together, women with children and boys among the men. I usually see the mothers in pairs, in their wigs and long skirts in the middle of summer, with a gaggle of children around them. The men stride ahead wearing big hats, and white socks to their knees. Odd birds, they all seem, from afar .. pleasant enough though never particularly friendly. I had a friend, years ago, who lived with me for a summer and found himself drawn to their community. He came from a non-Orthodox Jewish family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and sought to learn more about the faith from them, who he viewed as religious purists. To my surprise, the Hassids welcomed him in. He began wearing his yarmulka with pride, and spent evenings with them engaged in their rituals, listening avidly as they spoke in thick accents of what I will never know. They wanted him to live there with them, and to marry one of their own. He began singing their songs, and praying, really praying. He would rock back and forth, “davening.” But when he said it, it came out like “dovening.” The name was peculiar and attractive to me … like the noun peace turned into a bird and a prayer in one spiritual swoop. They never welcomed me in. I’m not Jewish, and didn’t ever express an interest in being anything more than a person passing through their streets to find some store or location inside, get what I needed, and get out. His experience, however, helped me understand that what I perceived as their exclusivity was not a slight against me or any of my non-Jewish friends and neighbors. It’s just their way.
One of the first questions posed by my neighbor friend (a white woman) with young boys of her own was who the killer was — meaning what race/religion. Was it racially motivated? Was he Arab or white? The question struck me as odd. But, then, talking to another neighbor friend (a white man), he said he had asked his girlfriend (a black woman) the same thing when she told him they’d found the boy (he’s been around longer than I have — he didn’t have to ask whether they found him alive). Like me, she was surprised by his question … pausing to determine whether there was reason to be offended. He said that if he was Arab, all hell would break loose here. Nearly as much as Boro Park – where the boy lived – is a Jewish community, its neighbor, Kensington – where the boy died – is heavily Muslim, with a stark increase in its Pakistani and Bangladeshi residents seen in the past ten years. One of the 9/11 terrorists drank at the corner bar I’ve mentioned. When I saw his picture in the paper, he looked familiar to me, and I vaguely recalled seeing him there. When my religion-seeking Jewish friend called from Wisconsin after 911, he left a message, “Hello, Kensington West Bank?” Yes, although it really doesn’t matter one shit’s wit to the boy’s family, it is better the killer was also Jewish. Better to know that madness and tragedy know no distinction in race, creed, or kind. Better to know that, no matter how safe and sequestered a neighborhood feels, you can’t trust anymore that it is.
As I listen to the helicopters that continue to circle overhead, I’m still astounded by how quickly all this took place. Kletzky went missing on Monday. Posters were up all over the neighborhood by yesterday. The copters were heard so loud it was hard to sleep last night. Now the articles say that the FBI, the local Hassidic law enforcement (Shomrim — it’s not technically law enforcement but for those of us who live here, effectively, it is), and the New York City police department worked together to capture the suspect. I’ve heard some grumbling that if it were anyone else, they’d have to wait the requisite 72 hours before a missing persons report could be filed and police would react (but that since it happened in the politically influential Jewish community, the case got special treatment). Now police commissioner Kelly is saying that the suspect saw the massive search for the boy and panicked, and killed him. All of this strikes me as a bit absurd. I hope it’s not true that anyone else would not get the same prompt attention that Keltzky’s family got. I’m also not sure where the Commissioner is coming from when he basically puts himself into the mind of the killer (or gives credence to what the suspect has said), and suggests that a community’s efforts to locate a missing child led to that child’s death (that he “panicked” because of it).
My condolences to the family. Please pray for them — that they be able to survive this. I’m sure it doesn’t matter to what god, goddess, universe, fate or feeling you pray. If you have that feeling, please do it, since it may be all that we can do.