Love and Death in New Jersey
Former Baltimore Jewish Times editor Arthur Magida explores murder, mystery, and faith in his true-crime book The Rabbi and The Hit Man
Now, Arthur J. Magida--former senior editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times, a writer-in-residence at the University of Baltimore, and the author of Prophet of Rage, a biography of Louis Farrakhan--has enlarged what many see as the traditional purview of a religion writer by writing a book about the Neulander murder, The Rabbi and the Hit Man: A True Tale of Murder, Passion, and the Shattered Faith of a Congregation (HarperCollins, $24.95).
"As soon as I heard about the Neulander case," Magida explains, "I thought it had the potential for a great and compelling narrative. It had sex, it had God, it had mystery, it had murder. All the elements of a truly good--and a truly horrible--story."
The facts of the case are stunning. After a string of affairs with various women in his temple's congregation, Neulander schemed to have his wife murdered in order to marry a popular local disc jockey--divorce, he claimed, could cast a pall over his reputation. (In a particularly grisly twist, Neulander arranged the murder on a night his son Matthew was on call as an EMT, hoping that the police would assume no father would put his son in the position to discover his mother's own body.) Leonard Jenoff, the shabby acquaintance Neulander groomed--and never fully paid--for the murder, eventually confessed, but the case was always dogged by its witnesses, whose questionable histories allowed their testimony against the eminent Neulander to crack under pressure. Only a dedicated prosecutor and the growing rage of the Neulanders' three children--Benjamin, Matthew, and Rebecca--allowed what many perceived as a long-shot case to result in a conviction.
The Rabbi and The Hit Man is less concerned with courtroom drama than with what Magida calls "this oxymoronic conjunction of the same thoughts in the same sentence--sex, God, rabbi, murder. They don't belong together."
He was also intrigued by the elements of the story that echoed his original interest in religious writing. Born in the Bronx, and later raised in upstate New York and Scranton, Pa., Magida, who was raised as a conservative Jew, always felt a "tremendous dissonance between my parents' avowal of certain traditions and the way they actually lived their lives."
Despite the failings of clergymen of every stripe, Neulander, in Magida's view, stepped further over the line than most. "We all know that in every faith--Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the many hundreds of others--there are always people who vary from those truths and practices," he says. "In Fred Neulander's case, he not only varied the way certain other clergy have in the past--that is, to have sexual dalliances--but most egregiously, he schemed to have his wife killed. . . . [E]ntwined with the narrative [of the Neulander murder] were many issues that had intrigued me over the years--honor, morality, theology, holiness, lack of holiness."
This focus on the underside of faith has brought Magida predictable criticism.
"When I did my first interview [about the book] with the Baltimore Jewish Times, their first question was, 'Why are you hanging Jews' laundry out?' And my answer was, 'Maybe they need to go shopping someplace else, to get other clothes, laundry that isn't so dirty.'"
Fred Neulander's ability to hide behind a charming facade was experienced by Magida firsthand when he attempted to interview the notoriously galvanizing public speaker in person.
"I sent him a letter identifying myself, and he responded quickly and wryly he joked that he'd just returned from the sauna--I don't believe there's a sauna in the Camden County Correctional Facility," he says. Before his conviction, Neulander "always slightly kept the door ajar that we would meet."
Following his conviction, after an exchange of "10 or 15 letters," Neulander ceased responding to Magida, who comments, "He's a very clever man and he led me on."
Fortuitously, when Neulander closed the door, Jenoff agreed to speak. (Paul Michael Daniels, the other killer and a schizophrenic, never responded to Magida's attempts to contact him.)
"It was through Leonard Jenoff that I was able to acquire new details that flesh out the second portion of the book," he says. "Surely the book could have benefited from long and intensive and revealing and honest interviews with Fred Neulander. But if he and I had sat down together, knowing his capabilities for charming and wooing and pulling the wool over your eyes, he would have done his best to seduce me, to convince me that he was the most victimized of men. My job would have been to have withstood that verbal seduction."
Instead, Magida relied on two and a half years of research into the community of Cherry Hill, N.J., and nearly 225 interviews with people who knew or were close to Neulander, about 90 percent of which of which took place off the record. (A list of on-record sources appears on the HarperCollins Web site.)
"Originally, I started out very blindly--I didn't know anyone in Cherry Hill," he says. "I made a list of people from newspaper and magazine articles and approached them, usually on the phone. Often, I was rebuffed. Some people originally said no but, after Neulander's conviction, called me back and said they would speak to me."
Magida also spent a lot of time at a popular local diner, Ponzio's, one of the town's social nerve centers. "Whenever I would go to any restaurant in Cherry Hill, I was always eavesdropping on conversations 360 degrees," he says. "That's exactly why I was going to that diner--I was hoping someone would say something about Fred Neulander."
He also relied on original source material, such as Carol's academic records from Mount Holyoke and Neulander's thesis in seminary. "On a topic most appropriate to him," Magida says. "Original sin."
Unlike more typical true-crime books, The Rabbi and the Hit Man eschews the climactic "murder scene," beginning instead with Neulander's discovery of his wife's body.
"The last true-crime book I ever read was Truman Capote's In Cold Blood," Magida says. "I have many friends who do read volume after volume of true-crime books, and when they heard I was doing this they recommended certain writers. I did not refer to any of them when I was writing this book because I wanted to write it in its own fashion. I did not want to be influenced by a specific writer or specific formula or specific genre."
This disavowal of the standard true-crime components also allowed Magida to include what he terms "certain sidelights" to the narrative.
"I wanted to talk about Jewish theology. I wanted to talk about Jewish morality. I wanted to talk just a tad about Jewish history. I wanted to talk just a tad about the evolution of the rabbinate or what rabbis are told and taught back at the seminary," he says. "But I attempted to meld those digressions into the tale. It couldn't have been like, say, Moby Dick, where, as I recall, every other chapter is essentially an extremely long, detailed digression on the mating habits of whales."
These pedagogical digressions--which give the book a measured, stately tone, as opposed to a purple hysteria--also served to contain Magida's very real anger with his subject.
"Almost every day while writing this book, I had to rein myself in from my own anger and fury and indignation and disgust at Fred Neulander," he says.
But why, considering the actions of the subject, did Magida feel he had to rein his indignation in?
"I didn't want to show my hand that way," he answers. "I was hoping that I would construct a book that was so damning of Fred Neulander that, in the end, the reader would share my disgust, but only because it was acquired naturally and organically, and not because I had beaten them almost into submission."
In removing the murder scene--and an air of righteous indignation--Magida performs the difficult task of retaining a small element of mystery about a much-discussed crime.
"I wanted the reader to very gradually suspect the rabbi of foul play, and then, when it got to the point of introducing Leonard Jenoff, I wanted to shift gears and cast suspicion on almost an entirely new character," Magida says. "I want to cast suspicions on both these guys, but I also want to cast readers' suspicions on their suspicions. I want to have doubt upon doubt upon doubt as people are reading the book."
Did following Neulander for so many years give Magida any insight into the nature of the corruption of power?
"In Judaism, there are two forces in the world that operate in every one of us--the force of good, and the force of evil. Every one of us has a task to balance that equation," he says. "Fred Neulander failed desperately."
Arthur Magida will discuss and sign copies of The Rabbi and the Hit Man on Wednesday, May 28, from 7 to 8 p.m. at Borders Books in Towson.
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