Aug 8, 2019

Sheer Act of Will

I’m sitting in the shade at the Kotel (Western Wall) waiting for my friend Ruthie who’s standing stock-still, praying. In front of me are Ruthie’s sister-in-law and a woman she’s escorted to the Wall. The woman shakes my hand: she’s Sandra from somewhere Texas; it’s her first time in Israel, first prayers at the Kotel, and as one of the Bnei Noach, (a Noahide), she’s truly moved to be here.

This last part takes explaining.

Judaism not only doesn’t encourage converts, there were times and will be another when converts are not accepted at all. The Torah however puts a requirement on all non-Jews to observe seven out of the 613 mitzvot (commandments). Those who choose to observe these mitzvot are called Noahides.

Sandra has unfolded a blueprint of the Second Temple on her lap. A former sheriff’s deputy, she’s particularly interested, she says, in where the Great Court had been housed. In her twang she recites, with profound respect, the Noahide mitzvah to set up just laws and courts.

I have other interests. Does she have a horse? Where is her holster? Back in Texas does she carry a rifle on her shoulder or pack a set of pistols, one for each hand? Could we see her badge?

Sandra confides, “I managed to hang a plaque in the corner of the courthouse back home without ruffling any feathers: Zion will be redeemed with justice, and those who return to her, with righteousness.”

Her horse trots off, her holster disappears; Sandra has stirred up a two colliding memories.

Inside the old Brooklyn Federal Courthouse there was a relief of Lady Justice and an inscription, an exhortation: Justice, justice shall you pursue. It moved me. I started jury duty one Monday morning feeling I was doing something holy.

The case was this. The defendant, coolly, expensively dressed, was accused of using an ex-girlfriend as a drug mule. He had the girlfriend, mother of three of his children, conceal heroin in her person in Jamaica and fly to JFK, where he was waiting to relieve her of her burden.

The FBI was also waiting; the defendant and his mule were arrested. Why she was in prison and he was free we wouldn’t learn until after the trial. The testimony had a horrible peak. Our jury was led out of court. When we returned the girlfriend, in a pathetic prison dress, was seated in the witness box. You could hear chains clanging whenever she moved.

Five minutes of her testimony was enough to tell me that the defendant’s story (he was at the airport to meet a relative who never showed; the girlfriend had planned the drug deal all by herself) was boloney. This woman couldn’t plan her way into a parking spot. Her kids (his kids) were being raised in Jamaica by her mother; she was looking at decade in jail with no parole. She looked pitiful; the defendant looked at his watch.

Deliberations lasted three days. One of our jurors was farcical: with a roll of paper towel and bottle of blue spray she’d found under the sink she busied herself cleaning the coffee machine, the counter, the mini-fridge, the table. When she finished she’d start again, the whole time mumbling “the man ain’t guilty.” We could not get her to sit with us or explain her verdict.

One of the two male jurors, Thomas, was scary. “Cops, the Feds, the whole damn government lies.” It was because of their lies, he bellowed, that his ex-wife was granted her divorce and sole custody of their kids.

“Same thing here. The defendant ain’t guilty. The Feds,” he explained like we were dumbbells, “set him up – it’s a big damn sting.”

Jenny, a gentle spoken juror who had lost two grandsons to drugs, pulled some pretty little glass vials out of her purse and held them up for Thomas and the cleaner to see. “I found these in front of my house this morning”, she said, “you gonna tell me they were planted there?”

Thomas said “Pfffft” and turned away. The cleaner scrubbed a coffee stain, “I have said it, the man ain’t guilty.”

After it was all over, Jenny and I supported each other arm in arm on our way to the subway. I had a migraine, she was weeping. “They were biased from the get go”, she whispered, “they had no right to be on a jury.” I wanted to tell her about Lady Justice, about the inscription inside Brooklyn Federal Court, but my head was thumping; I had to concentrate on getting home without vomiting.

I come back to the present. Sandra is telling us about the High Court and the stringencies its sages took to judge without bias.

“There’s a whole list of judges who disqualified themselves because a litigant did them some tiny favor! You must know them: ‘A feather blew onto Amemar's head, and a man removed it. Amemar disqualified himself from judging his case. Samuel was walking on a bridge, and a man lent him a hand. The man had a case; Samuel disqualified himself from judging him.’

“That’s what we want! That’s what I look forward to,” Sandra sighs, “someday.”

Sandra, I see, has missed it. She hasn’t seen the scrupulousness of judges sixteen hundred years ago on display today. I share my colliding memory; my sister had a jury duty story of her own.

My sister’s defendant was a pusher charged with selling heavy drugs in front of a Brooklyn high school. The week of testimony was grueling; the week of deliberations worse. In the end however, the entire jury found the perp guilty.

After listening to my sister’s account of the trial I’d asked her what the defendant looked like.

“I don’t know,” she’d said, and shrugged. 

I was baffled. Was the guy masked? Was he behind a curtain? Was he somewhere remote? What?

“How come you don’t know what he looked like?”

My sister explained, “I didn’t look. I didn’t want to be prejudiced by his appearance.”

For one solid week, and part of another, my sister averted her eyes from the center of attention of a packed courtroom. Gluing herself to the gene pool inherited from thousands of generations of Jewish mothers, my sister willed herself to judge with righteousness.

All three women’s eyes grow wide, they ooh and ah. Ruthie knows my family is assimilated way back, so does her sister-in-law, but Sandra and I have just met.

“Your sister must be a very devout woman,” marvels Sandra.

I do not say no.

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