Monday, December 28, 2015

Oy, The Things She Hears in Court 

In 2007, Moses "Mark" Stern borrowed $126 million dollars from the investment firm Citigroup. Stern is a father of eight, who has a full beard and wears a yarmulke in the center of a ring of frizzy unclipped brown hair. As a young man, he emigrated from his birth country of Argentina, where he belonged to the Orthodox Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism, to live in the Hasidic community in Monsey, New York.

Stern was a real estate developer who, according to the New York Post, had a taste for Maseratis and Ferraris. He borrowed the money with the intention of buying eleven shopping malls. Through his business connections, Stern had become a longtime backroom political player in New York State politics. The ambitious deal failed, Stern's company went bankrupt, Citigroup sued him, and the court ruled against Stern. The FBI approached him with a deal: wear a wire and get a reduced sentence.

Wearing a wire, Stern met the mayor of Spring Valley, New York at a hotel and asked the mayor to use her political power to purchase a piece of land in the town under eminent domain and then sell it to him, so he could develop it into a community center. She agreed and over the next few months, the two met frequently, with Stern occasionally handing her a bribe.

Several months later, Stern met with Malcolm Smith, a state senator from New York, in a restaurant in Rockland County. During that meeting, Stern gave Smith $10,000 and discussed giving him another $100,000, to distribute to a small cohort of US senators in support of Smith's run for Mayor of New York, according to court documents.

Over the next year, Stern met with several other New York politicians in restaurants and hotels, handing over thousands of dollars to push his community center project forward. He introduced Senator Smith to "Raj," an undercover FBI agent. According to court documents, Raj bribed Smith repeatedly for the promise of future political favors. "We're going to play golf somewhere," Raj said to Smith. "Your golf bag will be a little heavier when you leave the course."

Smith was indicted in April 2014 when the FBI filed its substantial body of evidence against him. In June the case was declared a mistrial. The FBI revealed that they had 28 hours of recorded conversation that hadn't been translated yet, which they hoped would contain the evidence necessary to reopen the case, and put Smith away. The problem was, the conversations were recorded in Yiddish, a language that UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural protection arm, designates as "definitely endangered." When the judge declared the case a mistrial, both the defense and the DA office raced to find Yiddish translators. Because of the rarity of the language, there is only one Yiddish courtroom translator on call in the Southern District of New York City, a 71-year-old woman named Ruth Kohn.

Kohn has straight blond bobbed hair and was wearing a bright red blazer with a glittering penguin broach on her lapel when I met her in downtown Manhattan. She speaks with a geographically unplaceable old-world Jewish accent and peppers her conversations with Yiddish words. Kohn is plain spoken when she talks about the tabloid-worthy details of some of her cases and has a dry sense of humor. As one of the only Yiddish translators in the New York Court system, Kohn's work serves as a physical record of a language that has been quickly disappearing over the last century. Her translations have helped put a serial rapist, a thuggish Rabbi and countless others behind bars.

The work of a courtroom translator is painstaking and poorly paid. State court pays $140 for half a day and $250 for a full day. The federal court pays $418 a day and $226 dollars for half a day. Kohn has to make a record of every single word spoken inside the courtroom, which can sometimes be dozens of hours of recordings. She does live simultaneous translation for courtroom testimony and translates conversations recorded with wiretaps. She started by translating documents, later moving on to courtroom work, where she became enthralled by watching the daily dramas unfolding before her.

"I began staying after my part was done," she says. "It was
like theatreā€¦even better."

Kohn was born in Chelyabinsk, a small town in the Ural Mountains, during the Second World War. Her parents were refugees from Poland and had fled the pogroms back home. Five months after her birth, her family returned to Poland, where they remained until Ruth was eleven, when they moved to Tel Aviv, Israel. As a young woman, Ruth "studied journalism for a little bit in Tel Aviv," but she "never got into it. You need strong elbows and chutzpah."

She learned Polish when she was living in Poland; Hebrew in Israel; and Yiddish from her parents speaking it at home. She went to New York on a vacation in 1972, and met her husband there the same year.

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