Oy gevalt! How Yid­dish halted trial of century

The Jewish Chronicle - - WORLD NEWS - BY DAN FRIED­MAN

IT HAS BEEN New York’s po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion trial of the century, com­plete with FBI in­form­ers, meet­ings in strip clubs, and video footage of bribes passed in a car park ren­dezvous — and it all ground to a halt be­cause of a lack of Yid­dish trans­la­tors.

Or, rather, the right kind of Yid­dish trans­la­tors.

One of those in the dock was Demo­cratic politi­cian Mal­colm Smith, the first African Amer­i­can to be pres­i­dent of the New York State S e n a t e , w h o al­legedly bribed Repub­li­can Party lead­ers in New York to sup­port his bid to be­come mayor of the city.

Moses “Mark” Stern, the chief i n f o r mant i n the case and a mem­ber of the Sat­mar Cha­sidic com­mu­nity i n u p s t a t e Mon­sey, speaks both Yid­dish and English.

But, since the three ac­cused spoke to him solely in English, prose­cu­tors did not deem per­ti­nent taped Yid­dish con­ver­sa­tions he had with Jewish ac­tivist Joseph Frager, and a Queens rabbi, Zal­man Beck.

Cross ex­am­i­na­tion by the prose­cu­tion re­vealed the ex­is­tence of be­tween 70 and 90 hours of taped con­ver­sa­tions, in­clud­ing about 28 hours in a par­tic­u­lar di­alect of Cha­sidic Yid­dish, which, un­like more com­mon forms of Yid­dish, makes ex­ten­sive use of re­li­gious phrase­ol­ogy.

Once the con­ver­sa­tion was en­tered as ev­i­dence, lawyers tried to pro­vide trans­la­tions by June 16. Ruth Kohn, the last re­main­ing trans­la­tor of Yid­dish for the South­ern District of New York (un­til 2009 there were five on the books) was called on by the de­fence but the prose­cu­tion needed in­de­pen­dent ver­i­fi­ca­tion and the lack of trans­la­tors — es­pe­cially Ortho­dox ones over Shabbat — meant that the work could not be done in time.

Af­ter find­ing that a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of jury mem­bers would not be able to de­lib­er­ate f or t he t wo e x t r a weeks nec­es­sary to trans­late the record­ings,Judge Kenneth M Karas de­clared a mis­trial for Smith and one co-de­fen­dant.

New York news­pa­pers have seized the oc­ca­sion to dust off their Yid­dish dic­tio­nar­ies. They kvetched (the New York Times) about the spe­cific mishe­gas ( New York Daily News) and the whole megillah ( Wall Street Jour­nal).

Un­less he can show en­trap­ment by Mr Stern, Smith will likely be ex­claim­ing “vey iz mir” (“Woe is me”) in Jan­uary when the re­trial starts.

“We’ve lis­tened to 20 hours of Cha­sidic Yid­dish but they’re still say­ing ‘hello’.”

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