Bettering Plainfield with the facts since 2005

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Anti-Semitism: In the ear of the hearer?

Union County Superior Court Justice William L'E. Wertheimer.
Is anti-Semitism in the ear of the hearer?

This Plainfielder wondered that as he read the Ledger story filed yesterday afternoon (see here) of the Supreme Court's dismissal of a complaint against Union County Superior Court judge William L'E. Wertheimer lodged by a Jewish attorney who accused him of making an anti-Semitic slur.

I've had experience in Judge Wertheimer's courtroom, once as a juror in a voir dire and a couple of times accompanying friends who had matters before him.

Wertheimer has an acid wit and a sharp tongue. He can be very, very funny indeed. I have also seen him make attorneys blanch and come close to wetting their pants. He does not suffer fools -- or liars -- lightly.

Perhaps my most memorable experience was accompanying a friend to court who was suing our current mayor, Sharon Robinson-Briggs, to prove her legal residency when she was elected to the Board of Education in 2003.

I am sure it is an experience the Mayor would wish never to repeat.

In any event, the incident at hand concerns a sidebar between Wertheimer and two attorneys, out of hearing of the jury in a case, in which the trial's schedule was discussed. One of the attorneys, William Gold, wanted to end a certain day's session by 4 p.m. to attend a Passover Seder. Wertheimer asked whether he should tell the jury they would leave early that day so that one or both of the attorneys 'could attend a Bund meeting'.

That is the comment to which Gold took offense, protested to the judge, and ultimately filed a complaint.

Gold's interpretation of the remark was that Wertheimer was referring to the German-American Bund, a pro-Nazi organization from the 1930s (with a local presence in more than one community in Union County) that many still remember (see more here).

Long story short, after due process, the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct, which brought the original complaint and conducted a confidential trial, recommended to the Supreme Court that the complaint be dismissed.

I wonder if Wertheimer knew more than Mr. Gold, and was perfectly aware of a Jewish socialist and workers' organization known as 'the  Bund'?

Active in Poland, Russia, the United States and elsewhere, it had a long history as a leftist party both in Europe and America (see here, and here).

How would I know about any of this?

In an earlier incarnation, in the early 1970s, I was a researcher and cataloger for a seller of rare books in New York City, Sam Ambaras.

As a 13-year-old during World War II, he helped his mother and sister escape the Warsaw Ghetto, make their way to the Russian-German lines at Vilnius, sneak the three of them across the enemy lines and make their way to safety in Moscow, where his father's brother was the Architect of the Kremlin.

The whole family, including his father who had fled earlier (abandoning the family) were deeply involved in the Bund.

The Workmen's Circle apartments (outlined in red) on West 7th Street.
When I moved to Plainfield in 1983, long after Sam's death, I was told that the small brick apartment building across West 7th Street from the Plainfield Tower West senior apartments had been built in the 1920s -- by none other than The Workmen's Circle, another name by which Bundists were known (see here).

So, was Wertheimer being anti-Semitic, or was he just more knowledgeable than Mr. Gold and being playful?

I don't know for sure, but I do know that it's a very small world and I would dearly love to know more about the Bund and its Plainfield history.


Alan Goldstein said...

I grew up in the Bronx on Hillman Ave in the 'Amalgamated' co-op housing begun in 1927 by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. Unlike the co-ops of today, there was no profit to be made when you left, as my family did when I was about to enter 8th grade. The Workman's Circle was active in the neighborhood as a fraternal organization, and in fact, my parents met as counselors at Camp Kinder Ring, a summer camp begun by the organization. I was just a kid, but I have to say that I never once heard it referred to as anything close to the term 'Bund'.

I can't tell what Judge Wertheimer was thinking when the word 'Bund' crossed his lips. By the same token, I sometimes wonder what others are thinking when they bring up my Jewish heritage, although it is never part of the conversation, and hardly part of the 'persona' I convey as an individual.

I suppose some people just like stereotypes and cheap characterizations. One person I know, a friend of a friend, is prone to making Jewish-tinged jokes in my presence, as if out of thin air. That speaks more for his weirdness than anything else.

As far as weirdness goes, Wertheimer's comment in the face of a request to wrap things up early so the attorney could attend a Passover seder, fits right in with something or other that lies in the recesses of his imagination. It's probably on a par with those who bring up local political issues when commenting about something entirely unrelated. Some things in life are just inexplicable and we're not always on top of our game every waking moment.

Anonymous said...

Dan, Judge Werthheimer often says provocative things for their shock value because he thinks they are funny. Sometimes he is right and sometimes he is wrong. This time he was wrong. He knows what Bund means, and probably knows it had 1930's and maybe 1940's private meetings at a restaurant called Schwabishe Alb in Watchung or Warren.
The Judge's reference to the Bund in the same sentence as the Pasover Seder was crude and thoughtless, but probably not antisemitic.

Anonymous said...

What would the reasonable person think when they hear the term "bund"? That should be the measure of whether or not it was an anti-semitic remark.

Anonymous said...

Judges frequently pose "counterfactual" hypotheticals to weigh the fairness of a position or request, e.g., if one can adjourn a trial for seder, can one stop the trial for a bund meeting? I think all the judge was going for on the spur of the moment was a secular opposite to pose against a religious seder, and he came up with bund. Who among us could do better, and maybe some of us could do worse? It's hard being a judge.

olddoc said...

Werthimer was out of line even if he was just being a smart ass. The Supreme Court dismissal of the complaint is reprehensible. I have only known one ethnic group associated with "Bund" in the United States and it certainly was not a Jewish organization. Don't give that judge credit of having such knowledge.