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Aaron and Me

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Aaron Rubashkin

After my frustrating experience with Sholom Rubashkin in Postville, I thought it unlikely that I’d have much more luck with his father Aaron. The elder Rubashkin still runs the original family butcher shop on 14th Avenue in the Brooklyn neighborhood Borough Park. Rubashkin opened the shop in 1953, the same year he emigrated from Russia, and the shop looks not to have changed much since. In the space above the door where the sign should be there are only reddish panels, one of which is missing. In the upper right corner of the front window is a square yellow sign: Rubashkin’s.

Sholom had been friendly in our meeting and only disappointed me later, when he reneged on an offer to take me on a tour of the plant. With Aaron the situation was entirely reversed. His underlings in the shop initially ran interference for their boss, saying he was unavailable when I first inquired about speaking to him. About 20 minutes later, Aaron himself wandered in and promptly turned on his heel and disappeared when I identified myself as a reporter. When I approached him again 20 minutes later, he told me he was too busy – “It’s erev Shabbos!” – and to come back Monday, to which I agreed.

But as I interviewed a gaggle of his customers in front of the store last Friday, Aaron appeared and spoke on the record for about 10 minutes. He wandered off, but then returned about 20 minutes later and went on for close to an hour. And when I returned Tuesday to snap a photo, he seemed positively thrilled to see me, greeting me warmly and happily posing for several shots.

Even physically, the elder Rubashkin is the mirror image of his son – his white beard flecked with black, instead of the reverse. His face is deeply lined and he wore a pale blue shirt over his ample belly. He gently swayed back and forth, prayer-style, as he talked, his watery blue eyes boring into me. And he spoke with the kind of Yiddish/Brooklyn zing it’s almost reassuring to know still exists. (When he told me 30 rabbis supervise the plant, it came out “toity.”)

To hear Aaron tell it, he is the victim of all this – not the Mexican workers who claim they were abused by Jewish supervisors; not the town of Postville, whose economic in future is very much in peril since the federal government arrested 20 percent of its population; not the kosher consumers who may face very real shortages and price increases if Agriprocessors can’t get back on its feet, and soon (more on this later in the week).

No, as Rubashkin sees it, he is the victim of workers who make baseless allegations and a news media that gobbles them up, more interested in selling newspapers than the truth. Several times he compared the press to the Soviet, state-run media (“a lynching press, a one-sided press”) and seemed resigned to being at a fundamental disadvantage in making his case to the public.

“I am the one who’s at fault?” he asked. “I will never accept that.”

Rubashkin seemed particularly offended by the notion, implied by the criticism from Jewish social activists, that he is somehow opposed to justice. He carried on at length about “tzedek,” using the Hebrew word for justice, as if to say that destroying a man’s livelihood based on hearsay couldn’t possibly be just. “If there is a group about tzedek,” he said to me, “I want to be part of it.”

One of the most interesting facets of this story is how divergent are the reactions between the ultra-Orthodox communities who are Rubashkin’s major customers and the liberal religious communities who are his foremost critics. On Friday, a steady stream of Orthodox customers filed in and out of the store, and none seemed particularly bothered by the allegations against their local butcher. Invariably, they said they didn’t believe the charges, and even if they were true, it wouldn’t make much difference. “The meat’s nice, the meats good,” said one. I’m going to continue to buy it.”

My full story on the interview is here.

Selected audio from the Rubashkin interview is here:

And here are three interviews with Rubashkin’s customers, none of whom was fazed by the allegations against him.

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