Friday, December 16, 2005

Cunin's Big Breakfast

by Hank Magitz

Boruch Shlomo Cunin was feeling nothing but love as he pulled his Lexus up to Heavenly Bagels early Monday morning. He loved the smell of his new car, which someone who knew nothing about Chabad had donated the night before. He loved tax write-offs. He loved being Boruch Shlomo Cunin.

Emerging from the vehicle with a broad smile, he stood in the parking lot of the eatery, the sunlight reflecting off the brim of his black hat. He wore a long black coat, black slacks, and spit-polished black patent-leather shoes; his clothes were as uncompromising, as unhappy as the bronze suit on the seated Lincoln in Washington. He entered Heavenly Bagels expecting the usual warm greeting and welcoming faces, but as he stood in the doorway, with patrons coming and going, no one seemed to notice him. Perplexed, Cunin stood statuesque for a moment until he recognized a well-dressed man in the take-out queue who he quickly approached. He put his hand on the man’s broad shoulder. The man turned toward him.

“Hello Reb Mordechai!” said Cunin, beaming.

The well-dressed man looked at him with contempt. “Get out of my face, you bastard,” he said coldly.

Cunin was too stunned to even respond. Red-faced as if slapped, he backed away then stood perfectly still for another long moment, attempting to comprehend why this man, a deep-pocketed supporter of Chabad of Los Angeles, would treat him with such hostility. As he stared at the man’s back, which had now turned toward him again, Cunin decided to forgo the take-out line and sit down for a coffee instead. He needed to digest the insult he’d just swallowed. He moved toward the back of the establishment where three tiny tables awaited patrons, then deposited his large fundament onto a small stool and awaited service. But none was offered. After ten minutes had ticked by and the last take-out customer had exited, Cunin’s patience had sufficiently thinned.

“Excuse me!” he said to the young lady at the counter, a woman he recognized but, being a shiksa, had never addressed before.

The woman looked up.

“Do you think I can get a coffee, please?”

There was no response.

“A coffee,” Cunin emphasized.

“I understood you,” she said.

“May I have one please?”

The young woman approached then halted and stood over Cunin. “Bastard,” she said. She punctuated her assessment by spitting on his shoes.

Cunin recoiled in his stool, then stood up enraged. “What is the meaning of this?” he shouted, but it was to her back as she walked away. “I demand to know the meaning!” he yelled after her.
Her only reply was to flip him off as she walked into the kitchen.

First that frya yid and now this goyta! Cunin thought as he followed her, indignant, toward the kitchen. He was getting to the bottom of this outrage immediately—after all, he was Boruch Shlomo Cunin, head of Chabad of all California! To treat him this way, he believed, was an affront to the Almighty Himself!

Cunin burst through the swinging kitchen doors like a Hollywood gunslinger. He spied the waitress in the vicinity of two Korean men in chef’s hats and dirty white aprons. “Where is the owner?” he demanded of the trio.

“Right behind you,” came a voice from just over Cunin’s right shoulder.

Cunin turned to encounter Milton Kanterfogel, proprietor of Heavenly Bagels and a regular contributor to Chabad institutions.

“Ah!” said Cunin, his face now a mixture of rage and relief. He grabbed Kanterfogel’s right hand and shook it briskly between his own two. “Reb Milton,” he said, “I must inform you of the shocking manner in which I was just treated by your employee!”

“What happened?” asked Kanterfogel.

Cunin turned toward the waitress and extended an accusing finger. “This woman spoke very rudely to me and spit on me.”

Kanterfogel looked over at the waitress who stood motionless next to the two dumbfounded Koreans. “Carla,” he asked, “you spit on Rabbi Cunin?”

With neither remorse nor embarrassment, the woman Carla nodded. The left corner of Cunin’s mouth curled in satisfaction. He looked back to Kanterfogel awaiting justice.

“There’ll be a little extra in your paycheck this week, kiddo,” said Kanterfogel to the young woman. Then to Cunin, “Now get the hell out of my restaurant, you sonufabitch, and don’t let me catch you back here again. Everybody knows what you are—there’ll be no bagels for you!”

* * *

“No bagels for me?” B.S. Cunin paced back and forth in the main sanctuary of the Chabad Center in Pico Robertson. “No bagels for me?” He had spent millions on the huge replica of the famed 770 synagogue, not as an edifice to the original shul but rather to punish the non-Lubavitchers who prayed next door. “No bagels for ME!” Indeed, he’d promised to build the building so tall that the sun would never again shine on Aishe HaTorah. And it hadn’t.

As he paced, Cunin could not be accurately described as angry. His entire body spasmed at the very thought of how he’d been spoken to. He was no rabbi, now—he was a berserker, a demon, a wild rabid beast. He frothed at the mouth as he conferred with his experts who knew the times, for such was Cunin’s procedure to turn to all who knew Chabad law and judgment. Those closest to him were Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Herson, Shemtov, Krinsky and Memuchan, who had access to Cunin and sat first in his kingdom.

Herson, a man whose character had never been sullied by a scruple, declared before Cunin and the officials, “It is not only Cunin who Heavenly Bagels has wronged but also the entire Vaad haShluchim and those who are loyal to us. Take away their hashgacha! Remove their kashrut certificate and then they will see how many people eat there!”

The other Vaad members nodded their approval.

“It’s not enough!” shrieked Cunin, his voice echoing through the empty sanctuary. His hysterical invectives sometimes cost him his voice, but this evening he didn't care. “I want more than their kashrut certificates!” he screamed. “If it weren’t for me, there would be no kosher bagels in all of California! Were there kosher bagels when the Rebbe sent me here in 1965? There was nothing! No Chabad! No kashrus! Gurnisht!”

“Go after their establishment then!” suggested Berel Shemtov, licking his teeth. “Get the legal team who represented us against Naparstek!”

“Yes, yes!” said Cunin tugging at his beard. “But lawyers like that don’t come cheap. And the telethon isn’t for six months. I’ve already spent the entire budget on new buildings for my sons and sons-in-law and grandsons and those who are loyal to me.”

“Call John Voight!” suggested Krinsky, eager for a photo op. “Perhaps he can be duped into giving you the money.”

“Yes, yes,” said Cunin, his eyes squinting in contemplation of the chessboard ahead… Then suddenly those eyes became wild with excitement.

“I have it!” he declared. “I know what to do!”

“What? What?” asked Carshena and Shethar and Admatha in unison.

“I will take away the very essence of what they do.”

“Their what?” asked Herson, always the last to catch on.

“Their essence, shmendrik! There’s a clause in all Chabad contracts signed with bakeries and restaurants and bagel makers. Before we give them our seal of kashrut, they must sign over their rights to me.” Cunin wrung his hands greedily. He was starting to feel like himself again. “I will invoke my power over all the bagels throughout all of California!”

“Don’t forget Nevada,” said Memuchan.

“Yes, yes—Nevada, too. By the time I’m through with these momzers, the only thing you’ll be able to buy west of Chicago is a croissant!”

* * *

“I can’t believe he’s actually suing us,” said Sy Kanterfogel.

“Believe it,” said Milton, Sy’s brother.

“But after all the money we gave to Chabad over the years…”

Milt snickered. “But what have we done for him lately?”

“You know,” said Sy, annoyed, “you really didn’t have to be so snotty to him.”

Milt looked up at his brother with astonishment. “After what he did to Rabbi Naparstek?” He didn’t have to remind his brother what had happened to the Chabad of Marina del Rey—it was all over the papers. Rabbi Naparstek, an immigrant, had built a storefront into a beautiful synagogue specifically for Jews who knew little of their heritage. Over the course of two decades, hundreds of families joined up. The mayor spoke there. The governor. Bibi Netanyahu. Naparstek was beloved. Then Cunin came along with a top legal team and, as head of Chabad of California Incorporated, claimed the properties were his.

In an O.J. Simpson moment, the Superior Court of Los Angeles agreed.

Sy lit a cigar. He nodded his head slowly.

“Other Lubavitchers stay silent hoping Cunin won’t turn on them,” said Milt. “But what goes around comes around. Look what he did to Rabbi Lisbon! And the Shusterman kids!”

Sy sighed. “When you’re right, you’re right.”

Do you remember Sruli Teitelbaum?”

“Do I remember Sruli Teitelbaum?” Sy smiled.

“And Rabbi Drizin!” said Milt. “And the rabbi with the tie-died shirt! And—”

“Alright already!” said Sy. “I get the picture.” He put his cigar down. “I just want to know how the Lubavitcher Rebbe, he should rest in peace, could have appointed such men.”

“I’d have to say Moses was at least as wise as the Rebbe,” answered Milt. “The men he appointed to spy out the promised land didn’t turn out so ay-yi-yi either. Wasn't his fault.”

* * *

The legal battle was relatively short. First, Cunin’s attorney’s filed in Los Angeles Superior Court for control over all bagel establishments and establishments that served bagels throughout the region. To gain support, Cunin’s people leaked a story to the press regarding “an alleged international stock manipulation scheme” on the part of bagel establishments meant to drive the prices of lox through the roof.

Cunin further alleged that Heavenly Bagels and their co-conspirators were conducting unauthorized chive experiments that had compromised their strict kashrut agreement with Chabad. Sheldon Piggmann, counselor for Chabad, moved that the recipes, ingredients, and even shapes of the bagels themselves belong to Chabad of California since Chabad of California had provided the first Jew to light the first oven that baked the very first pas-Yisroel bagel in all of California. “Whatever bagels were baked thereafter were outgrowths of this initial bagel,” Piggmann said. “Period.”

The many counselors for the many defendants maintained that their clients—the proprietors of bagel establishments and establishments that served bagels—were in no way indebted to Cunin’s organization for having given his kashrut certificates to their places of business. Those relationships, they argued, were mutually beneficial insofar as the establishments paid, and paid well, for said certificates. Moreover, Cunin and his sons had always eaten for free.

The weakness in the defense, however, was the disorganized way that these individuals fought for their rights. Had they banded together, they may have stood a chance. Instead, they hung alone.

On April 31, 2007, the Superior Court of Los Angeles ruled that Boruch Shlomo Cunin had full jurisdiction over all of the bagels on the west coast.

The holes, they said, were his.
* * *

The next morning, the Kanterfogel brothers closed Heavenly Bagels for good. Dozens of other bagel establishments and establishments that served bagels followed suit. And in every province, any place that Cunin’s command and his decree extended, there was great mourning among the Jews, and fasting and weeping and lament, sackcloth and ashes. No longer would a Jewish soul, or any other soul for that matter, be warmed on a Sunday morning by a toasted onion bagel with a shmear of cream cheese.

Indeed, throughout California, there were no bagels to be found anywhere—only bialys and rolls and pletzles. Cunin had won again.

Back in Marina del Rey, Cunin stood in the huge building that had once been a synagogue. He liked coming here—the silence reminded him how lonely it was at the top. With glee and a sour stomach, he sat down alone to count his growing congregation of holes.
(c) 2005 -- All rights reserved. All wrongs reversed.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Wagging the Rebbe

by Hank Magitz

It is a widely held Jewish belief that there are no coincidences in life. Everything has a reason and is part of a construct of divine events on behalf of some lofty, arcane purpose. Consequently, when Baruch Katz’s grandmother—an elderly, olive-skinned woman from the old country—put the evil eye on Moshe Herson for mistreating and humiliating her grandson, it came as no surprise when the miracle occurred.

The physical seeds of the miracle were planted one memorable day at shul. It was a Saturday morning and while the skies were overcast, it seemed that we’d be spared any rain. This was noteworthy only to the rabbi and a few of the old-timers. Old-timers wouldn’t ride in the car on the Sabbath, so rain was something they preferred on Sundays or Mondays or Tuesdays and so forth. The rest of the congregation at the Chabad Center of Northwest New Jersey forgot about the Sabbath the minute they left the building and got into their cars. Most of them had already forgotten about Baruch Katz, too. They knew even less about Chabad’s inner workings than they did about Judaism—indeed, the instrument had not yet been invented that could measure how little they knew about either, so they had no idea what Katz had done or hadn’t done to get himself fired from the organization and besmirched and sent into exile. A small cadre of Russian immigrants from the community briefly petitioned Moshe Herson, dean of the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown and head of New Jersey Chabad Inc., to intervene on Katz’s behalf.

How naïve some immigrants are!

In any event, the incident had been pretty much swept under the carpet as both Moshe Herson and his son, the titular rabbi at the Chabad Center, had anticipated. No one ever went broke underestimating the naiveté of the average Chabad contributor. And the Hersons were far from broke. They controlled properties all over New Jersey.

It was during duchaning—the priestly blessings—when the incident occurred. The ceremony requires men to hide their eyes behind their prayer shawls and meditate upon the melody as the kohanim (or priests) chant the ancient words to the ancient tune with their arms raised and their hands contorted. Every once in a while, some wiseacre—usually a kid—would peak out from beneath the prayer shawl to see the secret fraternity signs. This is how wiseacre Leonard Nimoy came up with the Vulcan salute. And on this particular Sabbath, another wiseacre, namely yours truly, suggested in the middle of the chanting that without Katz, there wasn’t much of a melody to meditate on. With Katz’s conspicuous absence, the only Kohain upon the platform with his hands raised like a Vulcan was an old man who’d lost his voice to a stroke.

Well, it was just at that moment that the screaming began. From outside in the parking lot where Moshe Herson’s granddaughters were playing hopscotch, a cacophony of shrieks cut through the already fractured chanting of that stroke-impaired Kohain. I was one of several congregants to race to the door and out into the lot to see what the matter was. There, before my eyes, was the site that had made the children flee in terror.

It was a small dog. A mutt, actually. With his big, wet tongue hanging out, he had jumped playfully all over the girls.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” I said, but the girls ran off. They’d learned from their own silly mother that all dogs were to be feared like frothing Cossacks—to run from them like chickens from a fox.

The dog looked at me with baffled, friendly eyes. He was a healthy looking mutt and as I reached out to pet him, he rolled over on his back and, sans irrational fears, bid me to rub his soft doggy tummy. Then he tried to hump my leg. At that moment, a strange lady jogged down the shul’s driveway with a huge leash in hand.

“I’m so sorry!” she said. She was out of breath. “I hope he didn’t frighten anyone. He’s practically a puppy—he doesn’t bite.”

After the lady took her dog home, the incident was forgotten by everyone almost as quickly as Baruch Katz’s dismissal.

At least, it was forgotten for nine months.

Another set of High Holidays rolled around. First came the Rosh Hashanah services punctuated by the titular rabbi’s interstitial sermons. Some congregations are forced to make it through the Day of Judgment without such levity. Not this crowd.

Further, the shul was celebrating another simcha: Moshe Herson’s granddaughter had given birth and there were Mazel Tovs all around. No one was acknowledging the bizarre circumstances by which the young girl had conceived. She was, after all, only sixteen. And still unmarried. And, technically speaking, still a virgin.

The Talmud cites a circumstance whereby a woman can become pregnant after immersing in a tub in which a man has had improper thoughts. But no specific case can be found in the Torah—indeed, in all of Jewish history—for a girl delivering offspring in such a bizarre and unlikely manner.

There were five in the litter.

Now, yechus—having ancestors of note—is very important to most Orthodox Jews. But the collection of ragtag congregants at the Chabad Center of Northwest New Jersey could hardly be blamed for lacking remarkable pedigree. Most of them settled for an association with any manner of celebrity. The Chabad’s ex-president, for instance (whose wife wasn’t really Jewish) boasted of having once met Sandy Koufax at his Rotary Club Meeting. The current president made no such claims, but his wife—fully Jewish but a little nuch-g’lozt—distinguished herself by having once dated Jewish broadcaster Nachum Siegel. The gabbai, a man named Philip Windsor-Smith who fancied himself a proper Englishman with all the pomp and none of the circumstances, reminisced of how John Lennon had chased him home from Liverpool Grammar School and kicked him in the pants. No one doubted this claim: Windsor-Smith had a thoroughly obnoxious manner that would have raised even Mother Theresa’s foot. If Windsor-Smith had been a Hindu, Ghandi himself would have kicked him.

Yechus was also terribly important to Moshe Herson, dean of the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown and the head of New Jersey Chabad Inc. He had no real yechus to speak of, either, but he took comfort in his stature as dean of the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown and the head of New Jersey Chabad Inc. He reasoned that his children and grandchildren and great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren and so forth would boast of descending from him. His image was so magnificent in his own mind that he genuinely expected this self-opinion to be shared by all those who knew him.

This was not necessarily the case. Moshe Herson had acquired less than a sterling reputation, particularly among his peers. The philosophies he publicly embraced—the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who embodied love and kindness and justice and charity and humility and truth and suchlike—weren’t philosophies Herson had much use for privately. At least that was the assumption one made when they saw the treatment of Rabbi Avraham Lipskier, who Moshe Herson fired and besmirched and sent into exile. Or Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Greenberg, who Moshe Herson fired and besmirched and sent into exile. Or Rabbi Baruch Katz who Moshe Herson fired and besmirched and sent into exile. And so on and so forth.

“But all I’m asking for is a proper job description,” pleaded Baruch Katz.

“Your job is to do what I tell you to do,” said Herson from behind his great mahogany desk.

“But I was hired to be a teacher,” said the demure Katz.

“If I tell you to take out the garbage, you take out the garbage,” said Herson. “If I tell you to clean my socks, you clean my socks. That is your job description. Now get out of my office.”

How could such things be happening in the name of a great man like the Lubavitcher Rebbe? Everything has a reason and is part of a construct of divine events on behalf of some lofty, arcane purpose.

At least that’s the theory.

Of course, the Lubavitcher Rebbe was already dead and buried by the time Moshe Herson began to purge the movement of his enemies and those who wouldn’t bow down to him. It no longer mattered if the Rebbe’s reputation was besmirched and sent into exile.

Yes, and yechus being such a cornerstone to his self esteem, it was terribly difficult—more difficult than one can describe—for Moshe Herson, dean of the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown and the head of New Jersey Chabad Inc., to now face his world knowing than his ur-einiklach—his own descendants—had come into the world under less than immaculate circumstances.

“At least they’re not average,” his wife had said in a moment of filial absence. It was all too true. The five children would grow up to have hairier than average backs, and longer than average ears, and wetter than average noses, and cute, fuzzy little tails.

“This is an outrage!” said Philip Windsor-Smith. “How can they expect anyone to support this?”

“They’ll support it,” said the president.

“They’ll support it and like it,” said the ex-president who sat in his usual seat. He liked to have the last word, which was a constant source of annoyance to the rest of the congregation. Fortunately for the rest of us, the ex-president was coming around less often. He suffered from irritable bowel syndrome.

The uproar was over the installation of the new rabbi. Now that the Shemtov brothers had been forced out of Pennsylvania and Michigan, Moshe Herson’s sons had assumed control of those states, too, so the little Chabad Center of Northwest New Jersey needed a loyal spiritual leader. Herson suggested his granddaughter’s first born.

“Well, I for one don’t like it,” said Windsor-Smith. “I think this is an outrage! Giving this—this canine creature a pulpit, for goodness sakes!”

“That’s not very nice,” said the president.

“He’s a dog!” Windsor-Smith shouted.

“He’s not a dog,” said the president.

“He’s not a dog and even if he is a dog, it doesn’t matter,” said the ex-president. “He’s a Jew. The mother is a Jew so the son is a Jew.”

“This is preposterous!” said Windsor-Smith. “Don’t we have any say in this?”

“No,” said the ex-president. “This is Chabad. Herson owns the building. It’s his show.”

It was a curious dilemma. Despite the fact that they’d paid to erect the building and given generous dues to the shul and made enormous contributions to the shul’s building fund (earmarked to buy even more buildings), the Chabad congregations in New Jersey had no more say in who their rabbis were than zoo monkeys have in the purchase of bananas. Although Moshe Herson, dean of the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown and the head of New Jersey Chabad Inc., originally sent this community an emissary with an offer to “help” them build their congregation, nothing they’d built nor financed was under their control.

And so it was that a wet-nosed descendant of Moshe Herson, dean of the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown and the head of New Jersey Chabad Inc., came to be the new rabbi of the Chabad Center of Northwest New Jersey.

The entire congregation gathered that Sabbath day. Some of the old-timers walked to shul; most of the congregation drove. Some of them turned off their cell phones before services began; some didn’t bother. Some would leave the Chabad Center of Northwest New Jersey after services and go to the Rockaway Mall. Others took their kids bowling and then to Burger King. But they were all there that morning to welcome the new rabbi.

The new rabbi walked slowly into the shul, his huge black Borcelino hat pulled firmly over his droopy ears. He took the stage and stood on his hind legs as he held the prayer book between his paws and led the congregation in a beautiful, heartfelt davening.

When the Torah was removed from the arc, the new rabbi reached out with his paw and kissed the sacred scroll as it passed, then he followed Windsor-Smith onto the platform and made the blessing over the Torah.

In the women’s section, the ladies milled around the young virgin who had given birth to this miraculous being. “Mazel tov!” they said. “Mazel tov!”

And then the Torah reading concluded and the congregation stood as the sacred Torah scroll was again paraded around the shul and finally returned to the arc.

“Everyone may be now seated,” announced Windsor-Smith. “I’d like to call upon the new rabbi to say a few words.”

But the new rabbi didn’t utter a sound. He just stood there on all fours.

Suddenly, there were gasps from the front of the women’s section; moans of exasperation from the men. People in the middle and back rows stood up to view the commotion—to see what the matter was. Several of the old-timers began to leave.

“What happened?” asked Mitch, the shul yenta. “I can’t see a thing! What’s going on?”

“Not much,” said Jed, a self-absorbed attorney who had sat next to Mitch reading Melville throughout the service. “The rabbi just lifted his leg and urinated on the congregation.”

And with that, Jed’s cell phone went off.

(c) 2005 Aardwolf Publishing - reprinted by permission
This story first appeared at The Pig of Death,