November 20, 2003
The Case That Shook the Rabbinate
"The Rabbi and the Hit Man," by Arthur J. Magida (HarperCollins, $24.95).
If not for the legion of pederast priests unmasked like some gruesome ecclesiastical episode of "Scooby Doo," Rabbi Fred Neulander might have been a shoo-in for "most infamous religious figure of the past decade."
Now, it's a toss-up. So be it.
Yet after tearing through Arthur J. Magida's "The Rabbi and the Hit Man," the painstakingly detailed account of the rise and fall of Neulander, a philandering New Jersey rabbi who paid an assassin to bludgeon his wife to death in 1994, one can only lapse into a well-worn cliché. Truth is stranger than fiction.
Magida's cast seems to have been recruited from the dank, smoke-filled and, invariably, black-and-white alleyways and barrooms more commonly conjured by Philip Marlowe or Raymond Chandler. But these are real people: The glib, popular religious leader with the ambition of Napoleon -- and the stature and libido to match.
The slovenly, seemingly harmless hit man with a long and sordid history of failure and pathological lying.
The crusty, brilliant homicide detective who's seen it all.
The highly attractive, brassy female reporter who ends up cracking the case.
Sounds like a really good episode of "Law and Order," doesn't it? Can't you imagine Jerry Orbach saying something like, "The congregation won't be dancing the hora when they hear about this!" before a quick fade to black and that "Law and Order" clang?
But, again, this is not make-believe, but horribly, vividly and even nauseatingly real. Magida -- an author as well as a veteran journalist for Jewish publications -- seems to have interviewed every congregant at Neulander's M'kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, N.J., twice, and his exhaustive work has paid off. He's talked to longtime friends of Neulander and his wife, Carol, and assassin Len Jenoff, in addition to the police and lawyers working the case. He also spoke to those who knew all of the protagonists 25 years before the 1994 murder.
The result is a dense yet tightly paced retelling that reads like a top-notch crime novel and has more angles than a dodecahedron. And no one has more angles -- or is more crooked -- than the man in the middle, Rabbi Fred J. Neulander.
The rabbi is presented as a walking contradiction: He got into the rabbinate because he thought it would be a steady job, yet he was an inspirational spiritual leader, popular enough to found his own congregation. He was extremely short, unusual-looking and dressed like a fuddy-duddy, yet he was rolling in women. He seemed to love his children, but made certain that, in calling 911, his paramedic son would be called to the scene of the murder, giving his alibi veracity -- after all, what kind of man would subject his son to such a thing?
Yet, Neulander isn't painted solely as a diabolical monster. One can understand how so many of his congregants, young and old, came under his spell. But one also can see how a smaller number saw him as a phony, and noted that he paid a disproportionate amount of attention to M'kor Shalom's attractive female congregants.
In short, Neulander is presented as a real human being, with real flaws -- one of them being that he hired a fat loser of a hit man to batter his wife to death, transforming the family's comfortable suburban home into a horrific, bloody scene reminiscent of the Manson family's finest.
Magida's fourth book is a thoroughly entertaining and satisfying read, but there is one area in which he comes up short. The congregation's shattered faith during the eight long years between Carol Neulander's murder and Fred Neulander's conviction in November of last year are documented well -- exhaustingly well. But what now?
What happened to assistant Rabbi Gary Mazo, who bravely took over after Neulander resigned in shame? Has membership dropped off? Has the temple moved beyond its reputation as the place founded by that guy who killed his wife?
For a book that deals with eight years of history and decades upon decades of prehistory so gracefully, the lack of any sort of follow-up sticks out like a killer in the pulpit.
Yet this is an isolated flaw. Magida's writing is spiced with just enough emotion and personality to avoid the tone of daily newspaper reporting but not dip over the top into a morality play.
Provide your own mental "Law and Order" clang, and you're set.
Joe Eskenazi is a staff writer for j., the Jewish newsweekly of Northern California.