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October 17, 2020 11:48 pm

Memories While Watching the Barrett Hearings

avatar by Jerold Auerbach

Opinion

US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit Judge Amy Coney Barrett reacts as US President Donald Trump holds an event to announce her as his nominee to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died on September 18, at the White House in Washington, US, September 26, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Carlos Barria.

Watching Senate confirmation hearings for the appointment of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court I was impressed with her concise and articulate responses to the seemingly endless monologues, punctuated by occasional questions, from critical, frustrated, and (not infrequently) pontificating Democratic senators. Realizing that they were pursuing a lost cause, they could not resist the opportunity to display their liberal dogma to a national television audience.

The hearings exhumed long buried memories of my own (brief) experience in the legal world. Entering my final year in college I had not given much thought to my post-graduation future. But I knew that my likeliest destination — if I rejected the umbrella of safety provided by further school enrollment — was the draft into military service. It was a frightening prospect. Since my closest friends were planning to go to law school it seemed like a preferable alternative. So I applied to Columbia Law School and eagerly anticipated my release from the provincial environs of northern Ohio for the enticements of my home city.

I quickly realized that my choice was misguided. Torts, contracts, and civil procedure were a long distance from my favorite college classes on the Civil War and American literature. At least there was a quasi-history course: The Development of Legal Institutions. But any interest that I might have had in legal history quickly evaporated.

At the beginning of each class the professor scanned his register and called six students at random to the front of the auditorium. There, for the next hour, he fired questions at them as he roamed around the room, occasionally tapping someone on the shoulder for additional input. Some weeks into the semester he announced: “Today is the day of the virgins.” Clearly uncomfortable, the six female students dutifully faced more than one hundred men. Walking slowly past them the professor pointed his finger at one young woman and said: “You, sit down.” Palpably humiliated, she obeyed his command.

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Suppose, I wondered, he had announced: “Today is the day of the Jews.” As an assimilated Jew who had not been to a synagogue service since my bar mitzvah, would I have concealed my identity or accepted the fate of my faith? At that moment, I realized that I had enough of torts, contracts, civil procedure, and legal institutions. Judaism could wait.

Twenty years later I had my revenge. My newly published book, Unequal Justice, explored the modern history of the American legal profession. It received a glowing front-page review in The New York Times Sunday Book Review by Alan Dershowitz. Invitations came to speak at law schools, even to participate in a televised panel with several law school professors. They quickly made it clear that they were there to proclaim their own legal wisdom while I was expected to listen silently. It was my farewell to the legal profession.

By then Israel was moving to the center of my intellectual and spiritual life. As a Fulbright Professor at Tel Aviv University, I learned about Jewish history from a colleague who had fought with the Haganah for Israel’s survival in its Independence War; and from a student who had excitedly broadcast on Kol Israel the triumphant climax to the Six-Day War when Israeli soldiers reached the Western Wall in the decimated Jewish Quarter of the Old City. Haggai and Rafi guided me to places — and ideas — embedded in Jewish history that I would never have discovered on my own.

Israel awakened my latent Jewish self, long buried by the lure of assimilation that had enveloped my older family members. Like so many second-generation American Jews they were determined to leave behind the Eastern European Jewish heritage of their parents, who had arrived from Russia and Romania at the beginning of the 20th century. Israel undermined their expectation, and mine, that I would follow in their footsteps toward assimilation. It was the best gift I ever received.

Impressed as I was by prospective Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, I was reminded that my departure from law school ranked high among my best decisions. It opened rewarding possibilities of Jewish life that a legal career could never have provided. But I knew a wise and thoughtful Justice when I heard her.

Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016, chosen for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a Best Book for 2019

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