Vegetarian Bernard Goetz: Who Knew?

I will never forget Bernard Goetz. Not because he divided New York City in 1984, when he took crime fighting into his own hands, shooting some teenagers he thought were about to rob him on the subway. No, I was only nine years old and was not so in tune with the politics of fear– be it fear of the unknown dark teenaged other or fear of the unknown white man carrying a concealed weapon. I will never forget Bernard Goetz because in 1984, he ruined our Pesach.

Our family Sedar was held that year at my Aunt Phyllis’ house in Dover, Delaware. My family travelled down from Central NJ while my cousin Laura returned home from The Village, where she was living during her stint in rabbinical college. Assembled around the Sedar table, we two families, united by shared blood between my aunt and my father, put aside the nuances of our new monied cultural expressions and sat down to break matzah together. Or so we thought.

I was young. The Sedar was a long time ago. My memory is vague. I am not clear as to when the argument began. Did it start during the Sedar itself, an extension of the politically and intellectually motivated purports relished by my aunts family, which differed greatly from my family’s “rub a dub dub, thanks for the grub, yay God!” approach to the evening’s meal? Or did it begin after we all vowed to be together next year in Jerusalem, despite my mother’s concerns for safety (had it been “Next year on an El Al flight,” she would have felt safer and made Aliyah).

Nevertheless, it happened. My cousin, beautiful, young, radical and reasonable, was offended by Bernard Goetz, the subway vigilante. She did not feel safe in a city where men, white men of privilege, walked around with concealed weapons, taking the law into their own hands. My father, who commuted into mid-town to work at Smith Barney, applauded the guy. I’m sure there was talk of shvatzas, as he often would speak of the African Americans he encountered in the city during his less enlightened days. New York was a seedier place than it is now. My memories of going into the city with my dad when my family worked weekends at Smith Barney during tax season are aglow with the neon signs of 42nd street: “XXX,” “Live Naked Girls.” Even the sign for Popeye’s Chicken, bordered with blinking yellow bulbs, seemed licentious, dangerous.

The argument built to a crescendo and gesticulating hands, slender and soft, middle aged and veiny, flailed in the air, pounded on the table. My mother and aunt tried to mediate, but it was so difficult. Who was right? Who was wrong? Could anyone agree? At a time when we were supposed to come together as a family, as a people, we were divided by a man none of us ever met: Bernard Goetz.

After that Passover we continued our tradition of coming together for family Sedars for a few more years. As  we all got older, life became more complicated and there seemed to be good reasons why, this year, we would just have a small Sedar at home. Despite the polite excuses from both sides of the family, in my heart I knew it was because of Bernard Goetz. Because our families saw the world so differently. Because when given the choice to flee the bondage of violence, it wasn’t clear whether, as a family, we would embrace the protection of the masses or simply fortify our own position with weapons.

I’ve thought about Bernard Goetz over the years and his effect on our family. I don’t blame him for our family disunity, but do cite that Sedar after his famed vigilante act as a telling point in our family narrative. Twenty-four years later, I wonder what my cousin and my father would have to say about Bernard Goetz now. About the family Sedar of 1984. As I logged onto the New York Times this morning, I wonder what anyone has to say about his participation in Manhattan’s Veggie Pride parade which is marked by the Times with his photo. Cara Buckley’s article, Proud Vegetarians, in Costumes, Take to the Streets, is adorned with a photo of Goetz helping a pea pod adjust his costume. After all these years and Goetz’s simultaneous occupation of a space of street heroism to some and vigilante infamy to most, I see his vegetarianism as a welcomed irony. Who would have known that a man who drew a gun on four youths twenty four years ago would not even pick up a steak knife these days?

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