The protagonist of New York journalist Julia Dahl's debut novel, Invisible City, released on May 6th by Minatour Books, is a gutsy young tabloid reporter named Rebekah Roberts who, like Dahl herself, covers crime. The story begins when Rebekah stumbles onto the biggest case of her career: the murder of a woman who belongs to the ultra-orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, NY.
When police investigative efforts fail, Roberts decides to take matters into her own hands—in partnership with a disgruntled New York cop.
The similarities between the fast-talking, fast-thinking Roberts and Dahl, who has worked for The Crime Report, the New York Post and CBS News' Crimesider website, are no coincidence. In a chat with TCR Managing Editor Cara Tabachnick, Dahl described her experience reporting on the Brooklyn community of Hasidic Jews, on why it is often difficult to bring crimes in those communities to light, and the danger of citizen crimewatch groups in closed religious communities.
Editor’s Note: Tonight at John Jay College in New York City, Dahl will be taking part in a panel discussion with journalist Hella Winston, Reuven Blau, of the New York Daily News, Jennifer Molinari, retired sex crimes detective for the NYPD, and Daniel Sosnowik, board member of Survivors for Justice and a veteran NYPD commander. To register for the event, click HERE.
The Crime Report: How did you become interested in reporting on the Hasidic community?
Julia Dahl: When I first moved to New York, my boyfriend and I went to see an apartment. On the way there, the broker told me someone committed suicide in the apartment –but we took it anyway because it was big and cheap. After we moved in, I found out the man was Hasidic. One of the neighbors downstairs was really close with him: he had a wife and two children but he was gay. Finally, after years of struggle, he came out to his community in Borough Park—and was immediately ostracized from his ultra orthodox community. Shortly afterwards, he killed himself.
I had never seen the Ultra Orthodox before–even though I was Jewish. I grew up in Fresno, CA—and I was fascinated by people who were like me, yet weren't like me. I used to collect his mail and wonder who these people were and (about the) world that contributed to this man killing himself. Around the same time, The New York Post sent me to cover a similar story in Borough Park about a groom who committed suicide just after his wedding.” I started to develop sources and to write about the community.
TCR: Why is your narrator a reporter?
JD: To me the book is as much about journalism as it is about the Hasidic people. Although I had been in the industry, in magazines, forever, I had no idea what the New York tabloid scene was like. It was more fraught and emotionally trying then I had ever imagined. When you are working in a tabloid, it takes a lot of maturity to figure out how to work ethically. I started thinking what if I had gotten this job out of college?.
There are so many times where you are going to someone's house who just had a daughter or son murdered. Or lost a parent under horrible circumstances. It has to be more than just get a quote, get a picture and get out. I wanted to explore the world of tabloid journalism and what its role is in a city like New York.
TCR: Your book about the cover-up of a crime in the Hasidic community closely resembles the reality in Brooklyn. Do these events influence your writing?
JD: Early in the writing process, I wrote a story for The Crime Report about policing religious communities. Through the reporting process I met these two sources, Ben Hirsch, who was an ex-Orthodox; and a NYPD cop, who worked with the Hasidic community.
They would talk to me about how the Hasidic community would not want to report anything to the police, no matter how horrible the crime. I'm talking about child abuse, sexual abuse, fraud, even murder. They told me a story about a woman who got murdered by her husband. One of the things I learned about was the Shomrim, which is a neighborhood watch group on steroids. They are more like a mini police force: they don't carry weapons but they outfit themselves in cars, with a dispatcher. In the Hasidic community, if someone goes missing or a child gets sexually abused, they call the Shomrim, not the police, and that blew my mind. They are not interested in finding justice; they are more interested in keeping things in the fold.
And on the other side, the police don't want much to do with the community. The Hasidim are powerful politically and economically, and many law enforcement believe if they try too hard to solve a case it will just cause trouble. The police came to speak to the community and nobody said anything to them—and it didn't make sense to me. Didn't they want justice? So I decided to write a book about this type of crime in a community that doesn't want to talk to police, and also where the police don't want to bother with the community.
TCR: What are some things you did to create sources in such a closed community?
JD: If you are trying to interview an ultra-orthodox man there is a cultural gap, and you have to break down a lot of walls. In the daily press, when you just have to get a story for tomorrow you don't have the time, ability or source structure and a lot of stuff doesn't get covered because it's really hard. I've been able to meet people and get sources in the community by starting with the people who have left.
You have to start on the outside and work your way in. So I started with people who were Hasidic but for one reason or the other decided to leave. They have a deep knowledge of the community, but are more trusting and open to outsiders. Through them, I was able to start to speak to people in the community and learn about the life of the Hasidim.
TCR: Hasidic people believe in resolving crime within their community. Is the criminal justice system the right place to bring their cases?
JD: For all its faults, the criminal justice system is set up to try to find the truth and punish people who are hurting other people, and who go on– if not stopped– to continue to hurt other people. We all know that innocent people get convicted and guilty people go free, but at least there is the aim of justice for all, with institutional accountability and oversight. There are always bad apples, but at least there is a system that answers the community at large.
With Shomrim, the Hasidic people don't have (oversight or accountability). And my question is what is their priority? If their priority is to make everybody look good—is that going to bring anyone justice? We don't let other communities police themselves—other communities don't have mini police forces or ambulances—why should the Hasidim? They are still a part of America and New York City, and they should have to play by the same rules.
TCR: What is the media's role in reporting on these “closed communities?”
JD: To shine light. Journalists can speak to power, and where there are secrets and dark places, the press's role is to provide as much as possible the truth of the situation to the reader.
TCR: In your book, some of the police and sources “used” the reporter to bring this case to light? Can you explain?
JD: Well, first, the book is fiction and I wanted to create a good story. I've never had a source try to keep a story in the press. But, there are opportunities for police who want to bring justice for crime victims and keep perps off the street to work with reporters to achieve that goal. I think sometimes that we have the same goal—which is to bring justice.
Cara Tabachnick is managing editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.