By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, August 22, 1986
There’s nothing like a political campaign for demonstrations of how truth can be bent and civilized behavior discarded.
On the one hand, there is the juggernaut campaign of Gov. Mario Cuomo to keep Abraham Hirschfeld, who wants to be Cuomo’s running mate as lieutenant governor, off the Sept. 9 Democratic primary ballot — even going so far as to subpoena the immigrant’s naturalization papers. So far, because New York State has a ridiculous election law and is graced with even more ridiculous judges who use its arcane technicalities to throw people off the ballot, the effort to make Hirschfeld a non-candidate has succeeded — with more legal appeals to come.
But on the other hand, Hirschfeld is no bargain and has over the years repeatedly manifested his gift for disgraceful behavior. I would argue that it is in our best tradition to keep rogues on the ballot so that the public can feast on them, one way or another. We, the voters, deserve Hirschfeld if we decide we are willing to endorse such of his deficiencies as a near-total lack of grasp of public policy and an impressive degree of carelessness with the truth and other niceties.
Consider an advertisement that Hirschfeld took out last Friday in a Yiddish-language weekly, the Algemeiner Journal. Hirschfeld, a 67-year-old millionaire real-estate developer who was born in Poland and live in Israel from 1934 to 1950 before coming to New York, has focused heavily on the Jewish vote, which can be pivotal in Democratic primaries.
The large ad reminded Jews of the recently marked religious holiday of Tisha B’Av, which specifically commemorates the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D., but also reminds Jews of the similar burning of their First Temple and other disasters through their history.
The ad, translated from the Yiddish, said: “Jews in New York today lament the destruction of our Temple and the sorrow which the destruction brought our land and people. The same destruction can also take place among us in New York, if we allow the present leaders to administer our state.”
Was he suggesting that Mario Cuomo, if re-elected, will put on jackboots and start burning synagogues? Readers of the Algemeiner Journal could not be blamed if they drew such an inference.
For let us read on through this strange political appeal. “Do not,” it said, “allow a new destruction through corrupt, bankrupt and irresponsible leaders, who have only their own interests in mind and do nothing for you, the citizens of New York State they lead to a destruction. Elect Abe Hirschfeld as Lieutenant Governor. Abe Hirschfeld knows how not to lead to a destruction.”
What did Hirschfeld mean by all this? Why was he evoking such fear-triggering images among Jewish voters? The key Yiddish word he kept repeating throughout the ad was Chruben — which means no more or less than “destruction.”
Hirschfeld, over the telephone yesterday, said he wasn’t really talking about destruction as most of us think about it. The Chruben he was talking about, he said, was less cosmic. “If a person loses $10 on a race at the track,” the millionaire explained, “he might say, ‘What a Chruben I had!’ The word is as common in Hebrew as Shalom.”
He gave another example of the destruction he was warning us against: “If they don’t let me get on the ballot, they will destroy the First Amendment, Abraham Lincoln’s amendment. That can be a Chruben.” Hirschfeld’s idea of American history is about as loose as his definition of destruction.
He offered another defense, too, for the ad. He said that neither he nor anyone in his campaign had written it. At his request, he said, it had been written by the editor of the Algemeiner Journal. Hirschfeld said he trusted the editor, Gershon Jacobson, to construct the ad because Jacobson had writing skills in Yiddish and could appeal effectively to a Jewish audience. Also, Hirschfeld added, Jacobson had interviewed him for a news story and therefore was familiar with his opinions and positions.
Jacobson had a somewhat different version. He said of Hirschfeld: “He told me what he wanted and I composed it.” Were they your words or his? “No,” Jacobson said, “It was his language. We discussed the copy of the ad. I simply put it into literate sentences.”
“He said to me,” Jacobson went on, “That his agency can’t write copy for Jewish readers, that they don’t understand the Jewish market. Hirschfeld said, ‘I’ll tell you what I want to say and you prepare it.’”
Jacobson said he had tried — but failed — to pin Hirschfeld down and get him to be more specific about his accusations against “leaders.” “Whom are you accusing?” Jacobson said he asked him. “Is it Gov. Cuomo? He said, ‘It’s the whole leadership. The whole leadership is responsible for all the problems.’ He talked about crime and corruption and heavy taxation in New York.”
Hirschfeld, who said he had not seen the finished ad until I sent the translation to his office yesterday, was asked why he had allowed an outsider to write the ad and why he had not checked it over before it was published. “I would let somebody else lay the bricks in my buildings,” the developer responded. “I would let somebody else design the buildings. They are the people who know how to do these things. The editor knows how to write better than I know.”
It’s of little bricks like this that foolish and absurd campaigns are built. Abe Hirschfeld should be on the ballot so that people can see just how silly his candidacy is.