Chewing Over Bin Laden
In a Kosher restaurant in Brooklyn, news of Osama Bin Laden’s death prompted inconclusive but spirited talk of President Obama, Israel, Jews, and terrorism
On Monday, the sun rose and Osama Bin Laden didn’t, and I don’t have cable—or even a kitchen table worth arguing around. So, I went to Gottlieb’s restaurant.
I’d hopped a cab to Ground Zero after President Barack Obama’s speech, wanting to keep that good feeling. I wanted to feel even better: ecstatic-mob better. V-day, moon landing, Berlin wall falling, once-in-a-generation-and-this-one-was-mine happy. And I felt it, I did. I might have felt it even more if the announcement hadn’t come after the liquor stores closed. I chanted, and sang, but I didn’t dance or climb the traffic lights. I just couldn’t get 100 percent into it. I felt like a poseur. It just wasn’t my scene.
Not that Gottlieb’s was really my scene either. My Reform Midwestern upbringing didn’t include a Glatt Kosher deli restaurant—let alone one like Gottlieb’s, in the heart of a neighborhood like Hasidic Williamsburg, Brooklyn—but it did have tables covered in food, surrounded by arguing Jews. If I wanted to be part of the moment, that’s what I needed.
The rent on a tish at Gottlieb’s is a turkey sandwich and an order of French fries. Mine arrived via the capable hands of Menashe Gottlieb, the orange-bearded, red-haired proprietor of the restaurant, who then sat himself down across from me. His eyes were happy as he remembered the night before in the restaurant.
“Everyone started screaming, we got him, we got him,” he said.
According to Joel Tyrnauer, a thickly built 25-year-old janitor with close-cropped hair, in South Williamsburg the news prompted, among other things, a wedding to break into a rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
“It’s a big achievement. I don’t think it ends terrorism, but it is still a big deal,” he explained. “Everyone’s very happy. It’s a great moment.”
That happiness, however, was the only thing anyone agreed on in the deli over the next few hours, as customer/pundits butted heads over the event’s significance.
The largest sticking point for many was whether Obama deserved “credit” for the operation. While Gottlieb was happy with the president’s performance, many were uncomfortable with the idea.
Moishy Finklestein, a 21-year-old student sitting alone with a bowl of pasta salad, was in his father-in-law’s kitchen with his brothers-in-law when they all simultaneously received the same CNN news alert. Their reaction, he said, was “Whoa.”
Finklestein initially seemed torn over whether the president deserved any credit, but he concluded that Obama performed well. “At the end of the day,” he said, “he did the job.” He also said that despite some misgivings he felt more favorably toward Obama.
“He’s lucky it happened on his watch,” Tyrnauer told me as he waited in line to order. “He didn’t do anything. It’s his luck. He did one good thing in his life. He did his job and that’s why he gets credit, not for what he’s done. It doesn’t change the fact of who he is.”
A man calling himself Abraham Weiss shared the feeling. “He shouldn’t get credit. Why does he get it? Anyone would have done it. He deserves no credit at all.” (I later learned that this wasn’t his real name. There was a run of people giving false names and occupations, only to be betrayed by eavesdropping fellow patrons.)
A table of three white-bearded men strongly disagreed.
Isaac Gratt, a Gottlieb’s counterman with thick expressive Dumbledore eyebrows, insisted that Obama should get high credit, for “authorizing the mission, for how he presented it in his speech, for being the commander in chief, and for being bold.” Gratt said he believes Obama is Muslim, but he praised the president because, as he said, “he’s a Muslim and he’s got the guts to do it. It proves he’s an American president.”
His friend, an elderly man clad in all black, agreed. “The president is not just for his people, but for the whole American people. That is what the USA is all about.”
“He will get up in the polls,” predicted Gratt. “Especially after the speech. He presented it so well.”
One of his table-mates, however, was more cautious. “He did an excellent job,” he said, “but Americans are still waiting to see how the economy goes.”
Gratt, who emigrated from England in 1963, soon turned into something of a ringmaster, pointing out people he thought would speak with me (he was often wrong), and interjecting his own opinions when they did.
“I’m upset it gives him a boost to his re-election,” interjected “Donald,” a large man in a blue plaid shirt and short beard at a nearby table.
“It’s a free country. He’s entitled to his opinion,” said Gratt, as he shrugged.
Morty Danino, a construction worker sporting a five o’clock shadow, believed that if Israel had been hunting Bin Laden, they would have found him years ago. “They don’t give up,” he said. “They say they find him: They find him.”
After Danino left, Gratt sidled up to me once again and noted slyly that the hunt for the last conspirators of the Munich massacre stretched decades.
Another man who gave his name as Jacob was discussing the assassination with Joe, an electrician, and Victor, who works in construction. Jacob, a tall man with a round serious face, told me he worked with computers, although I was later told he is the sole owner of a large supermarket in Flatbush. Joe, who sported surprisingly luxurious black hair and the longest payot I’d ever seen, was quieter then his companions. Victor, on the other hand, a tan gentile with grey Trump-esque hair, was slightly more gregarious. He believed that the assassination could have been carried out earlier. “It was put off for political reasons,” he said.
Jacob protested: “They did the best they could.”
I then met Shlomo Bursaf, 31, who subjected me to a brief interrogation before answering any of my questions. Wearing a blue hoodie, he watched me slowly beneath long scarecrow hair and a scraggly beard.
“What is it you do exactly?” he asked me.
“I’m a freelance journalist,” I replied.
“And what does that mean?” he asked. A good question.
“Well,” I tried, “when something happens I go find out about it, I ask people questions and write them down.”
“What does that accomplish?” (I’m still pondering this one.) Bursaf later explained to me how he had psychically predicted three weeks earlier that Bin Laden would soon be killed. His occupation, he said, was “serving God” and “meditation.”
Isaac Friedman had been at Gottlieb’s the night before when the news was announced. His parents had immigrated to Brooklyn from Hungary when Friedman was 2, in 1947. He’s currently recovering from heart surgery, which might mean that he shouldn’t be eating at Gottlieb’s. While we spoke, he continually offered me fried cauliflower and honey-basted chicken wings. He scolded me each time I stopped eating.
Friedman described Bin Laden as a modern Hitler. “He was a tremendous force for leadership. He created hatred and took advantage of poor people.”
He scorned Obama’s critics in the Jewish community. “Maybe Zionists won’t praise him,” he said, “but real religious people will praise him. Hopefully God will get put it in the hats of the people around the world. Just because he doesn’t run everything the way Israelis like, doesn’t mean he’s against Israel. That’s how I feel. Most will get behind him 100 percent.”
Overhearing this, Israel Sturm left his wife at their table to warn me that some of the Hasidim I was interviewing would have “slanted” opinions. An almost 80-year-old psychologist, Sturm lives in Connecticut, but practices in Brooklyn. He wore a sweater vest, a black newsboy cap, and had a white beard cropped in a style that I associate with Hemingway. His spoke slowly, in stilted sentences.
“There’s a lot of stupidity floating around about Obama’s choices. His operations with regard to Israel have been very reasonable; I expect they will continue to be so. What the ignorant conjecture, they will always conjecture.”
Jean Noble, her son Yoni, and her grandson Yehuda were just finishing their meal of stuffed cabbage, corned beef, and, for 2-year-old Yehuda, French fries and pickles. They were from Long Island but made the schlep for the food, they said. Noble is a registered nurse with short kinky hair. When I asked her about what she thought about Bin Laden’s death, she gently argued with Yoni, a smooth-faced law student at Emory dressed smartly in a blue baseball cap, pink shirt, and khakis.
Although her son denied any true significance to Bin Laden’s death, Noble asserted that “it’s symbolically important for America. It brings justice, which is important, but with the backdrop of the Arab Spring it shows a beginning of a new era. His death might bring an end to the radical era.”
Later, we discussed Bin Laden’s burial at sea, which Nobel believed would lessen his martyrdom.
Yoni smiled sardonically and quipped: “We don’t know where Jesus is buried, but it doesn’t change anything.”
An hour later, the Nobles’ table had been taken over by Eli Sussman, a retired inventor in town from Miami for “unexpected surgery.” He was with his son Joel, also from Miami, and his daughter, who declined to give her name because she “didn’t say anything”—although she did punctuate her father’s and brother’s comments with eye-rolling and head-shaking.
The elder Sussman argued that “a lot of tension is going to be in Israel,” although he had some trouble explaining exactly what or why. Joel Sussman argued that with the pact between Hamas and Fatah, Israel has more pressing concerns.
When I asked if he thought Bin Laden’s killing might improve relations between the Jewish community and the U.S. president, he shook his head.
“I don’t think so. The Jewish community is too solid to judge a man from one action,” he said.
Joel, a tan and fit 60-year-old, told me that his daughter had called him from college to ask if there would be repercussions.
“I said to her, ‘Not to worry, the worst is over.’ ”
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