By now, many of you are aware of the controversy surrounding the kashrut of Le Marais, a popular French-style steakhouse in Manhattan under the kosher supervision of the OU. In brief, a mashgiach has made serious allegations against a chef and against the OU. He alleges the OU is covering up the chef's misdeeds (which are supposed to range from ordering non-kosher shellfish to bringing (and using) in dairy margarine.
The OU strongly denies the allegation and seems convincing in its refutation of the mashgiach's charges.
But there is more to this story. The mashgiach is Isaac "Yitzchak" Bitton. Yesterday, the (non-Jewish) owners of Le Marais filed a $10 million lawsuit against Mr. Bitton for defamation of character. (Here is the court filing, in PDF, courtesy of L: Download lemarais_lawsuit.pdf )
I was asked earlier this week about Mr. Bitton. Before I saw the court filing, I could not comment – now I can. Mr. Bitton lives in Crown Heights. His address in the filing is on Eastern Parkway. A quick search of the Shmais Anash list shows only one Yitzchak Bitton in Crown Heights. The address is different – a less prestigious building – but people do move. So, it seems the Yitzchak Bitton of Le Marias is the same Yitzchak Bitton I thought he was.
Yitzchak Bitton's story is sad. He is one of the very best rock drummers in the world. In France, before becoming Chabad, he led a band, Jackie and the Variations (mentioned in this Wikipedia article simply as the Variations; see 1970s before punk), which kept the Beatles out of the top spot on the French pop charts. He gave up his 'sinful' life and moved to Crown Heights. He learned, and he eventually formed a band Raya Mehemena, which was one of the best live bands I ever heard, religious or not. He played gigs and released an album that included a version of Lecha Dodi that is perhaps the single most beautiful contemporary religious song I have ever heard.
But the haredi and Chabad worlds (apart from BTs) were not ready for real musical talent. Bookings were not frequent enough to pay the rent, and the Rebbe would not give his blessing for the type of shows Matisyahu now does, surfing mosh pits and dancing in front of and sometimes with women. (This is a problem many BT musicians faced in the 1980s and early 90s.) So Yitzchak Bitton sold cameras for a living. He apparently went from that to serving as a mashgiach. Last I heard he still played gigs, as well.
Some of you may know Yitzchak Bitton from another venue, so to speak. There is an iconic picture of the Crown Heights riots (posted above, please click to enlarge). The man lying on the ground is Yitzchak Bitton. that's his son, now a shaliach, I believe, crying next to him. Bitton was felled by a projectile during the riots. I was told at the time that his injuries were not serious, but I do not know this first hand.
I don't know whether Yitzchak Bitton is correct or if the OU is correct, although, on the surface at least, the OU's presentation and refutation seem convincing.
But this I do know – Yitzchak Bitton is a victim. He is part of system that cast aside his special talents and left him without a viable career. At the same time, he's had to watch poseurs like Matisyahu benefit from a Chabad PR machine and leniencies in Jewish law no one would have allowed Yitzchak Bitton, or Avi Piamenta, Peter Himmelman, or many others. In other words, Bitton's stridency may be a result of this treatment, and the years of financial and emotional deprivation it surely caused.
A very wise rabbi, Yizchok Berkowitz, who was at one time the posek of Aish HaTorah, spoke at a Jerusalem conference for budding and current kiruv workers sponsored by Heritage House. Among the things he said was that if you Rabbi Kiruv Worker are going to make a person frum, you have to worry about his/her income and talents. Is she an actress? Be prepared to promote women only plays. A singer? Women only concerts. Is he an artist, a musician, a poet, a writer? If his job cannot be continued because it is incompatible with Orthodoxy, you Rabbi Kiruv Worker must find a way for him to use his talents and keep his profession, but within Yiddishkeit.
The vast majority of kiruv workers present objected. Why? To them, even a frum life of poverty is better than a non-Orthodox lifestyle. The money, the creativity – that doesn't really matter. Rav Berkowitz would have none of it, and told these kiruv workers in no uncertain terms that this was their responsibility, whether they accepted it or not.
By and large, the kiruv-outreach world, including Chabad, even including Aish HaTorah itself, does not follow Rav Berkowitz. But Rav Berkowitz is a wise man; beyond that, a very caring man. And he knew the truth, even if they did not. If you bring someone to Orthodoxy like Yitzchak Bitton, and you rob him of what makes him special, makes him what he is, you have done deep and lasting damage.
Yitzchok Bitton should be leading his band on world tours and perhaps spending his off time teaching music in Chabad schools. Instead, he sweats away in kitchens, checking lettuce for bugs. That is a tragedy. And that tragedy may be the real story behind this whole sad affair Le Marais.
More on the internal Chabad controversy surrounding Matisyahu's live performances can be seen here or downloaded as a PDF here:
JEWISH TRIVA ALERT: The name Le Marais comes from a district of Paris carved out of marshland in the 12th century – le marais means the marsh. It is now a center of Jewish life. For example, Goldenberg's famous kosher restaurant is located there. But the ever helpful Wikipedia has this interesting bit of triva to link the original Le Marais with rock music: In 1971 Jim Morrison of the Doors died in 17 Rue Beautrellis in Le Marais.
Who lived at 17 Rue Beautrellis in 1971? I believe it was the apartment of Meir Abehsera's brother. Meir – a friend of Bob Dylan and many other rock musicians, artists and writers – functioned for many years as a near-rebbe for Chabad BTs, including fellow Moroccan Yitzchak Bitton.