“My dear friends this is a historic moment for the Orthodox Jewish community,” Rabbi Yehuda Levin told a group of fellow rabbis and students gathered at the Karlsburg synagogue and rabbinical college in Borough Park, for an afternoon meeting with Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino.
“For 30 years we have been kept down on the plantation by a liberal Democratic machine that throws a few breadcrumbs,” but now–Levin said–”for the first time in three and a half decades we have a gentleman–yes he’s rough, he’s a little coarse, he’s not so dignified–but he tells it like it is.”
Levin and Paladino–a devout Catholic–had previously bonded over their mutual disdain for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and now Levin was taking the pro-life, anti-same-sex-marriage candidate around Orthodox Brooklyn in the hopes of converting some sympathetic rabbis to his candidacy.
“I feel at home, although I haven’t had a big connection with the Orthodox community,” said Mr. Paladino, who strayed from his usual red tie for a rich purple number. “It’s because of our shared values, our hopes and aspirations. And although my opponent and his liberal party, and too many liberals in my party, have pushed our culture terribly downhill, your community and other religious and pro-values communities can still band together to save societal values. That’s why I like you.”
As male reporters stood along the edges and male photographers buzzed around the front of the room, the female members of the press corps–a camerawoman from NY1, a photographer from the AP and a reporter from the Daily News–were left to record the moment from the sidewalk, where they had been relegated by the orthodox strictures against allowing women in such a group of men.
Prior to the meeting, the organizers had compromised by pulling the curtains, and opening the windows so the women could see in. In the meantime, a man had hollered at the women from a third-floor balcony, followed by threats from a woman pushing a stroller, who claimed to be the daughter of the head rabbi and said she had been told to shoo them off. When they refused to go, she pushed her stroller onward, saying she would call the police.
Paladino told the group that if they blessed him, and he won, he would “fight for family values, veto taxpayer funded abortion, seek ways to protect everyone from obscenity on the net, especially our children at home or in libraries, and advance the family-decency agenda.” (Asked later whether he was the best spokesman for keeping obscenity off the internet–given some lewd emails he circulated–Mr. Paladino declined to answer.)
After his speech, as the candidate made his way through a crush of rabbis and reporters near the door, his campaign manager, Michael Caputo, whispered for him to stay close. The group bolted for a black SUV parked a half-block away. Paladino–who has had something of a rough time with the press of late–ignored questions. Caputo said they were running late for the next meeting in Williamsburg.
An hour later, while the press corps stood on the sidewalk in front of K’Hal Adas Kasho, Paladino was downing a pastrami sandwich a block away at Gottlieb’s Restaurant. As reporters started to make their way there, Paladino came around the corner, flanked by his Orthodox guides and led by a bunch of backpedaling photographers.
This time, arrangements had been made for the female reporters to watch from an upstairs balcony.
The rabbis gathered around a long table, covered in a translucent white tablecloth with a gallon of water in the middle. On the surrounding tables were thick, dog-eared Torahs.
Levin echoed his earlier introduction, calling Paladino “an angry man,” but in a good way. “Mr. Paladino’s presence here today is a new beginning. We’re raising the bar,” Levin said.
Just before Paladino spoke, the head rabbi was summoned to sit nearby. An ornate chair was pulled close, and occupied by a slight, elderly man with round eyes and a thick beard that was more yellow than gray.
“Stop the pictures for a minute. No pictures please for a few minutes,” said one of the older rabbis seated at the table. “Just focus the cameras on Mr. Paladino. The rabbi doesn’t want to be photographed. So we appreciate that out of respect for the rabbi, don’t photograph the rabbi.”
Paladino read from a provocative, prepared speech which had been distributed to reporters by one of the rabbis before his arrival.
“I didn’t march in the gay parade this year–the gay pride parade this year. My opponent did and that’s not the example we should be showing our children,” Paladino said.
“And don’t misquote me as wanting to hurt homosexual people in any way. That would be a dastardly lie. My approach is ‘live and let live.’ I just think my children and your children would be much better off and much more successful getting married and raising a family, and I don’t want them brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid and successful option–it isn’t.”
But some reporters had already called in the text, including a line Paladino omitted when he spoke: “There is nothing to be proud of in being a dysfunctional homosexual. That is not how God created us.”
(Later, just before midnight, Paladino’s campaign emailed a clarification. “I do not agree with this passage, nor did I say it,” Paladino said. “I unequivocally have no other reservations about homosexuality and I abhor discrimination in any form. I enjoy a close relationship with my nephew who is gay and I certainly consider him to be a functional child of God.”)
His remarks were met with enthusiastic applause from many of the young rabbis standing at the back. After Paladino’s remarks, Levin choked up offering a postscript. “This is not a political get-together,” he said. “This is a get-together of prayer to plead with God to be able to raise our children in holiness.”
Once again, as he left, Paladino strode swiftly down the sidewalk–at one point, dodging a strip of wet concrete–as Caputo interjected to answer reporters’ questions.
But Paladino had walked the wrong way out of the event, prolonging his awkward avoidance as everyone walked with him around the block.
“I highly recommend Gotlieb’s Restaurant,” he said as reporters tried in vain to follow up with questions about his remarks, and about last week’s three-minute commercial. “That fruit stand on the corner, great fruit. And vegetables.”
Just before he wedged into the backseat–between Mr. Caputo and one of his robust Orthodox guides–a reporter informed Mr. Paladino that his beloved Buffalo Bills had lost. “There’s a surprise,” he said with a hearty laugh. “You trying to ruin my day?”