I write this on a flight to St. Louis, where I'll be speaking today at their annual Jewish Book Festival. OK, my last name is Cohen, and that automatically confers Jewish bona fides - unless you're a British child these days trying to get into an elite private school and your mother is a convert! But other than my roots, what does AFTER ETAN, the 30-year-long (and counting) story of the most famous missing child since the Lindbergh baby, have to do with Judaism?
Turns out, a lot. Etan Patz was Jewish. His parents, Stan and convert Julie (Etan and his siblings wouldn't have been accepted to that British school), liked Israeli names. Etan's sister is Shira; his brother is Ari. Etan's uncle was a renowned rabbi who headed up a large suburban N.J. congregation. Early in the case, authorities learned Rabbi Patz took dozens of children on an annual summer trip to an Israeli kibbutz. The rumors ran wild - a family rift over religious differences? Maybe Uncle Norman had spirited Etan to Israel to bring him up more devoutly?
It was a ridiculous notion, not the least because Uncle Norman was a reform rabbi. But the Israel angle resurfaced repeatedly, after a mysterious photograph of Etan, taken by Stan Patz himself, surfaced in an Israeli magazine a few years after the boy disappeared. An even more bizarre twist? The picture's caption read "Etan Ben Haim" (Etan, Son of Life). No one could ever figure out how or why that photo appeared.
Ten years in, Federal Prosecutor Stuart GraBois, who at the time was just taking over this now-cold case, traveled to Israel with an FBI agent (photo at left) in an attempt to resolve the connection. The two men crisscrossed the country to visit Ben Haim families, knocking on doors and demanding birth certificates for any boy named Etan. All to no avail, and the mystery endures.
Then there was GraBois himself, a man who has relentlessly pursued the Patz case to this day. Despite the French-sounding name, Stuart GraBois was a Bensonhurst boy who celebrated his Bar Mitzvah in Brooklyn, where he'd grown up in a tight-knit Jewish home. There were French roots, to be sure. Before leaving Paris for New York in 1906, GraBois's grandfather had seen first-hand the damage of France's infamous "Affaire Dreyfus," and would often talk to his grandson with deep anger and sadness about the decade-long travesty. The elder GraBois vividly recalled the injustice done to Jewish artillery captain Alfred Dreyfus (photo at right). Dreyfus was falsely convicted of treason and imprisoned for four years on the notorious Devil's Island, a French prison off the coast of South America, before his name was finally cleared. His case was immortalized by author Emile Zola's "J'Accuse!"
"That's why we came to America," Benjamin GraBois would tell his grandson. "Because justice is possible. Here you have a chance to go to school to make sure people get treated fairly." As an Assistant U.S. Attorney, GraBois took his grandfather's words seriously.
Over the last several years of this case, Stan Patz and now-former prosecutor Stuart GraBois joined forces against one man, serial pedophile Jose Antonio Ramos (photo below right). And here's where the Jewish ties start to strain credulity. But then, the best non-fiction stories are the ones that read like fiction. Two other unlikely allies also lent their time and effort to make the case against Ramos. These two informants separately approached GraBois, each unaware the other was doing so, because they both knew Ramos from behind bars. Both offered to help extract his confession.