Dead Center: Behind the Scenes at the World's Largest Medical Examiner's Officeby Shiya Ribowsky, Tom Shachtman
A city with eight million people has eight million ways to die
For fifteen years, Shiya Ribowsky worked as a medicolegal investigator in New York City’s medical examiner’s office—the largest, most sophisticated organization of its kind in the world. Utilizing his background in medicine, he led the investigations of more/p>/strong>
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A city with eight million people has eight million ways to die
For fifteen years, Shiya Ribowsky worked as a medicolegal investigator in New York City’s medical examiner’s office—the largest, most sophisticated organization of its kind in the world. Utilizing his background in medicine, he led the investigations of more than eight thousand individual deaths, becoming a key figure in some of New York’s most bizarre death cases and eventually taking charge of the largest forensic investigation ever attempted: identifying the dead in the aftermath of the September 11 tragedies.
Now, in this mesmerizing book, Ribowsky pulls back the curtain on the New York City’s medical examiner’s office, giving an enthralling, never-before-seen glimpse into death and the city. Born and raised in New York City’s orthodox Jewish community, Ribowsky seems an unlikely candidate for this macabre profession. Nevertheless he has forsaken a promising career of medical work with the living, descending instead into the realm of the dead, enticed by the challenge of confronting death on a daily basis. Taking you through the vermin-infested Bowery flophouses and posh Upper East Side apartments of the city’s dead, Ribowsky explores in gruesome detail the skeletons that hang in the Big Apple’s closets. Combing through the autopsy room, he also exposes the grim secrets that only a scalpel and a dead body can tell and explains how forensic investigation does not merely solve crimes—it saves lives.
But it is in the aftermath of September 11 that the ME’s office is handed its biggest challenge: to identify as many of the fallen as possible. With poignant descriptions, Ribowsky provides a dramatic account of the office’s diligent and unflappable work with the families of the victims, helping them emerge from the ashes of this tragedy while displaying the strength, grit, intelligence, and compassion that Americans expect from true New Yorkers.
At once compelling and heartbreaking, Dead Center is a story of New York unlike any other, blending the haunting with the sublime, while painting a striking portrait of death (and life) in the city that never sleeps.
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Dead CenterBehind the Scenes at the World's Largest Medical Examiner's Office
By Shiya Ribowsky
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Shiya Ribowsky
All right reserved.
When people ask what I do for a living, I have two answers. The first, that I work for the medical examiner's (ME) office, usually generates interest on its own, especially in these crime-drama days. The second, that I'm the cantor of a large Manhattan synagogue, is likewise good for a certain amount of conversation, especially among those who remember the cantors of their childhood intoning the Kol Nidre during Yom Kippur.
For some reason, though--perhaps because of that old saw about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts--when I tell people about my two jobs, they seem to find the combination a source of decided fascination. Many strangers find it odd, these simultaneous careers in forensics and religious music, and some days it is fairly odd to me. I wonder if there's ever been another medicolegal investigator (MLI) who's worked a double homicide in the morning and conducted synagogue services at dusk. How did a nice Jewish boy from the Orthodox community in Brooklyn end up this way, fussing around with dead people for a living?
The reasons involve history--the Orthodox community's and my own within it.
The early years of the twentieth century saw an enormous influx of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe to New York City, a veritable Ashkenazi tidalwave. Many immigrants hit the shores of the "golden land" and quickly merged into the mainstream culture of the melting pot, throwing off the shackles of Old World traditions that now felt too old-fashioned. But quite a few held on to the ancient practices, and the more observant of the immigrants opened kosher food shops and yeshivot (Jewish parochial schools), built synagogues and ritual baths, and tried to keep alive--through dress, language, and custom--the culture they had once had in Europe. Doing so wasn't easy, because the general drift of American culture in those years was toward the secular. But their efforts to retain their cultural identity were passionate and won them a place in the urban fabric of the times.
Change in New York City's Ashkenazi community continued at a slow pace during the Depression and World War II. But the two decades after the end of World War II were years of dramatic growth and equally dramatic consolidation of the community. Into the early 1960s, the Frum community, as observant Jews call themselves, saw many adherents become more secular and less observant as they were forced to seek jobs outside the community, experience some of the culture of that outside world, and become more interdependent with it. In America, they did not have the insulation from secular influences that they had been used to in Europe--that accorded by the shtetl, the insular villages where Jews had lived. In the United States, Jewish sons and daughters could go to universities, to medical and law schools, open businesses, or work in a wide variety of fields, and many did.
My parents, both born in the United States before the end of World War II, were typical Orthodox Jews of their generation. Fully observant of all Jewish law, they raised me, my older sister, and my younger brother in a strictly kosher home in which the highlight of the week was the Sabbath. My father always wore a yarmulke or skull cap, and my mother, as a married woman, dutifully covered her head in public. But they had also been secularly educated, and they were fully integrated into modern society without sacrificing their beliefs or practices.
My father George's varied businesses--at one time or another he was the proprietor of a carpet store, a commercial bakery, a wholesale food distributor, and a check-cashing store--certainly brought him in touch with the outside world. My mother Helene, who has a PhD degree, had a thriving private practice in special education and had been a university professor; she, too, was clearly comfortable in the wider world.
As the 1960s wore on, there was a perceptible shift within the Frum community in a different direction--away from the modern world. Partially in reaction to its members' increasing secularism, and partially because the Frum community was now numerous and wealthy enough to afford the move back toward its roots, it began to do so. The Orthodox became more orthodox, more observant of the myriad laws governing daily existence and ritual, more conservative, and more insular. Another pressure pushing this return to fundamentalism was the psychological makeup of a community whose members considered themselves to be collective Holocaust survivors. By 1965, when I was born, the community had already launched a drive to re-create, in the New York Orthodox community, the Frum lifestyle of pre-World War II Eastern Europe.
My childhood was filled with stories of the wonderful Yiddishe life of the old country, told on countless occasions during my early school years by the rabbis of our religious schools and neighborhood synagogues. It was our obligation, they told us, to cling ever more tightly to the ways of our ancestors now that Hitler had killed six million of our relatives but failed to eradicate Jews as a people. For us to survive and to be more religious as a community and as individuals would signify the ultimate defeat of the terrible hatred that the Third Reich had embodied.
This drive to fundamentalism meant that people born into the Frum community in the 1960s and afterward were faced with a choice. They had to decide which side of the line they would be on: the side of the Hebrew/Yiddish/Frum culture, or the other, secular side that we called the Goyishe culture. If members wanted to be secular--or didn't want to be quite as observant as others in the community--they left the culture behind, either drifting away slowly or making a decisive break. In either instance, the community often cemented such choices in place behind the former member: when you left, you left everyone you grew up with. Indeed, families sometimes even chose to sever close relations with kin who abandoned the Frum for the outside world.
Excerpted from Dead Center by Shiya Ribowsky Copyright © 2006 by Shiya Ribowsky. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Shiya Ribowsky is the former director of special projects at the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office. He is one of America’s most experienced medicolegal investigators. Also the forensics consultant to Law & Order, he lives in Long Island, New York.
Tom Shachtman is the author of thirty books, including Decade of Shocks, 1963-1974; Absolute Zero and the Conquest of Cold; and Rumspringa: To Be or Not to Be Amish. He lives in Connecticut.
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