Egregious Observations

A carelessly written, superciliously expressed report of a sensational Jewish murder case.

Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial 521 (photo credit: COURTESY ST-ART)
Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial 521
(photo credit: COURTESY ST-ART)
THE MURDER AND THE subsequent trial were quite sensational even by New York City’s standards. In October 2007, an orthodontist named Daniel Malakov was shot to death on the street as he was taking his four-year-old daughter Michelle to a playground in the Forest Hills section of Queens, a borough of New York.
The gunman was later identified as Mikhail Mallayev and it was soon alleged that he had been hired for $20,000 to carry out the hit by the orthodontist’s estranged wife, a physician named Mazoltuv Borukhova, who was also a distant relative of the shooter. All three – victim, assassin, and assassin’s employer – were Orthodox Jews and members of the city’s little-known Bukharan community. It was this element that made the murder and trial so fascinating to the New York media.
According to the US Justice Department, an average of 35 Americans are shot to death every day. Even so the Malakov murder clearly stood out: a man gunned down in broad daylight in front of his child, the victim a dentist, his nemesis a medical doctor, the principals all Russianspeaking observant Jewish immigrants from faraway Central Asia. A media frenzy naturally resulted.
Among the reporters drawn to the trial of Borukhova and Mallayev in 2009 was Janet Malcolm. She wrote an article about the case for “The New Yorker,” which has now been expanded into “Iphigenia in Forest Hills.”
Malcolm is no stranger to tales of criminality.
One of her most noted books was “The Journalist and the Murderer” (1990), which arose out of the case in which Green Beret physician Jeffrey MacDonald was convicted of slaying his family. She also authored “The Crime of Sheila McGough” (2000) about a con man and his complicit lawyer. In addition to crime stories, Malcolm is remembered for “The Silent Woman,” her 1994 meditation on the poet Sylvia Plath, and for “In the Freud Archives” (1983), a book that made Malcolm the object of a celebrated libel suit.
“Iphigenia in Forest Hills” is, though, unlikely to be celebrated as one of Malcolm’s notable pieces of journalism. On this last point, Miriam Markowitz, writing recently in “The Nation,” notes interestingly that Malcolm is one of three snootily contentious and famously sharp-tongued writers for “The New Yorker” – the others being Renata Adler and Hannah Arendt – who were all born in the 1930s in Europe to Jewish parents. All three wrote bestsellers about trials (Malcolm as noted above, Adler on Ariel Sharon’s libel suit against “Time” magazine, Arendt on Adolf Eichmann). All three seemed to court controversy.
NOT THAT MUCH CONTROVERsy attended the case against Mallayev and Borukhova. Among other evidence, his fingerprints were found on the murder weapon’s homemade silencer.
And while Borukhova maintained she barely knew Mallayev, it was discovered that 91 phone calls were made between the two in the weeks before the crime.
The motive for the killing also appeared clear; a custody battle between the estranged couple had recently resulted in their fouryear- old daughter Michelle being awarded to the father, apparently something that Borukhova simply could not accept.
Malcolm’s title is an inappropriate or silly reference to the messy battle between the mythological ruling couple Agamemnon and Clytemnestra over the deliberate sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia.
Malcolm spends little time on the murder or its background. Neither defendant would grant Malcolm an interview, and many of their family members remained similarly tight-lipped. The author therefore contents herself with covering the trial, picking away at the conduct of the judge and attorneys and at the child welfare bureaucracy. None of this is particularly newsworthy – or interesting.
What does stand out in “Iphigenia in Forest Hills” – and in a sense is newsworthy – is Malcolm’s frequent offhanded and often wrongheaded manner of describing things.
Early on, for example, she refers to Bukharan Jews as a “sect,” which is a debatable term, then compounds matters by referring to them as “mysterious.” (Little-known, yes, but mysterious?) In a similar vein, she refers to an attorney as resembling “a Bulgarian psychiatrist.” (What picture comes to mind? What exactly might a Bulgarian psychiatrist look like?) This is not just sloppy writing, it’s sloppy thinking.
What, after all, can Malcolm be suggesting when she writes: “After about eight blocks, the avenue becomes shabbier (a few synagogues appear)”? Or consider this: “Joseph is a squarely built, darkly handsome man in his early forties.
I found him the most sympathetic of the Malakovs. He is the most assimilated. His near-perfect English is colloquial, and his manner is pleasant and natural.” Just what makes this Bukharan Jew “the most sympathetic” – his good looks, his good English, his degree of assimilation? Malcolm’s most egregious observations, however, are reserved for her own profession: journalism. On the one hand she refers to one of her colleagues covering the trial as “extremely kind” and, in the next sentence, calls another “very kind” – albeit without offering any examples of the kindness that engendered these judgments. Soon however Malcolm goes on the attack. To her mind, “Malice remains its [journalism’s] animating impulse.” Such a remark ranks with the notorious first sentence of “The Journalist and the Murderer,” in which Malcolm claimed that what reporters do is “morally indefensible.”
Well, I won’t claim that the animating impulse of journalism is the relentless search for truth and light, but Malcolm’s version seems perverse and wicked.
Malcolm’s mounting of the moral high horse is especially ironic when we consider some of her journalistic practices in covering the Mallayev-Borukhova trial. For example, after a phone conversation in which a child welfare official expresses some crackpot theories, Malcolm takes it upon herself to report his views to Borukhova’s lawyer, an act that Malcolm acknowledges as “something I have never done before as a journalist. I meddled with the story I was reporting.” She also argues with her sources, among them prosecutor Brad Leventhal (another journalistic no-no).
Her discussion of the Bukharan community is sketchy in the extreme. (Apparently Malcolm is happy to leave it “mysterious.”) And instead of doing some serious shoeleather reporting, she engages in some rather pointless reportorial exercises after the trial.
This includes visiting New York’s Rikers Island, where Borukhova had been held and where the kosher food wasn’t up to the pious woman’s standards. The jail indeed proved an uncongenial holding pen, but what did Malcolm expect? Similarly, Malcolm eventually schmoozes with some of Malakov’s relatives who agreed to be schmoozed. But in her one encounter with the child who was at the center of the tragedy, Malcolm does not even think of trying to talk to her.
In the end, it took the jury only six hours of deliberation to convict Mazoltuv Borukhova and her hired gun Mikhail Mallayev of premeditated murder. Both were duly sentenced to life terms with no possibility of parole. The renowned attorney Alan Dershowitz is handling Borukhova’s appeal. Dershowitz, of course, is noted for writing about other criminal cases in which he was involved, most notably his 1990 work “Reversal of Fortune,” which was about the von Bulow murder. Maybe Dershowitz will write the book that the Borukhova case deserves.
Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial
By Janet Malcolm
Yale University Press
155 pages; $25