I’ll admit it. When first hearing on the evening of Aug. 26 that a gunman from Baltimore murdered two young people and wounded 10 others before killing himself at a video game tournament in Jacksonville, Fla., one of my initial thoughts was, “I wonder if he was a member of the tribe.”
Then, I heard his name was David Bennett Katz and had my answer. Call it an occupational hazard when you work in the Jewish media. Virtually anytime you hear about anything, you wonder if the individual involved is Jewish.
Does it matter that David Katz was Jewish? Not really. Jewish values played no part in this unspeakable tragedy. Katz reportedly was dealing with very serious psychiatric and emotional issues. He could’ve just as easily been Methodist or Hindu.
Yet, as Jews, we have this preoccupation with whether someone in the public eye is a member of our faith group in some way or another, regardless of if it’s Elvis, Paul Ryan or Dustin Hoffman. (Answers: his maternal great-grandmother, 3 percent and very much so.) Maybe this comes from the angst and insecurity of being one of the most persecuted groups in history. Or maybe it’s just a case of co-religionist curiosity.
But I think a lot of it may derive from plain and simple hubris when it comes to Jews who’ve done something illegal, violent or unethical. There’s always “the Shande Factor.” I ran into this several years ago when I wrote a series of articles about my old high school classmate Steven H. Oken.
Oken was a fairly typical Jewish kid from Northwest Baltimore. Good, loving family, went to Hebrew school and became a bar mitzvah at a nice shul. Worked in the family business. But he descended into a life of hard drugs and marital woes, and inexplicably went on a three-week killing spree in late 1987. He wound up on Death Row, and in 2004 became the first Jew executed by the state of Maryland.
When I wrote my series, I got slammed by certain factions of the Jewish community for bringing the matter to light. I wasn’t surprised because, after all, the conventional wisdom tends to be Jews don’t do that kind of thing. It seems we’ve bought into our own publicity that we only become doctors and accountants, and don’t fall prey to society’s vices or have psychiatric issues or homicidal urges. In other words, that we don’t have the same problems and ills as the rest of the population, that somehow we’re above it.
But what really intrigued me was the length to which some readers went to find loopholes in the Oken matter. For example, when reading in my original article that he was adopted (at 3 days old) by his Jewish family, a few individuals called me and said, “Well, you said he’s Jewish, but he really isn’t! He wasn’t born Jewish!” The guy was brought up in a Jewish household and grew up in a Jewish community. He was Jewish, period.
I’m certain there’s been talk in some segments of the community about David Katz’s Jewishness, and curiosity about how a young Jewish man could’ve committed such an atrocity out of the blue. Maybe it’s human nature. But coming at it with the attitude of “Well, we don’t do that sort of thing” is simply head-in-the-sand parochialism and elitism that all of us, myself included, need to outgrow already.
Alan Feiler, Editor-in-Chief