Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Jew in St. Lou

by Lisa R. Cohen

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.
In a clandestine undercover operation, GraBois inserted first one of the men, and then the other, into Ramos’s cell. One played an elaborate con. He passed himself off as both a lawyer and an amateur shrink. He escaped with incriminating evidence against Ramos but almost got himself killed in his high-stakes game. The other was more straightforward, but he, too, feared for his life. By the time he left the shared cell, he was convinced Ramos was a madman.

Their original link to Ramos? Both of them were Jewish, and both had met Ramos at prison religious services or as part of Jewish study behind bars! In fact, one of them later revealed to me that he’d risked his safety to go after Ramos because it made him crazy watching Ramos pretend to be a Jew.

Yes, that’s right, Jose Antonio Ramos underwent a jailhouse conversion. Even though he had Christian pen pals to whom he was still quoting New Testament scripture, Ramos also began wearing a yarmulke and dropping Yiddish phrases. He refused to cut his hair for religious reasons, and demanded the same kosher dietary considerations etc., as the few other Jewish inmates at the prison. He claimed to have discovered – late in life - his own grandfather’s roots as a Spanish Jew.

All of these connections, some more absurd than others, led me to the Jewish Book Festival, here in St. Louis, where I've now landed. But perhaps most resonant for me are the themes, prominent in Jewish history and culture, that this book echoes so fervently: survival under the worst of conditions; a search for justice no matter how long it takes; and the edict former Federal Prosecutor Stuart GraBois continues to live by – Never, ever, ever, ever give up.


Anonymous said...

I read your book "After Etan." It is an excellent book full of fascinating and tragic information. The one thing that got me was the accusation that GraBois was/is obsessed with charging/stopping Ramos -- if only we could all be so obsessed. Stopping evil, finding justice, revealing the truth - how can we be less than obsessed. The victim doesn't stop being a victim because of the passage of time and waning interest.

Like all people that profess any faith, it is not the claim but the actions that reveal the truth of their religion. Ramos is no more a faithful Jew than he was a devout Christian. He just wants to claim the privileges of faith but is incapable of understanding the true meaning or obligation of faith. Sadly, he is like many "religious" jailhouse psychopaths that make God their accomplice or fall guy.

Kathryn Casey said...

Great post, Lisa. Really enjoyed it.Fascinating stuff. You're right: The best non-fiction books read like fiction, with stories that take unexpected twists and turns.