Arms dealing. Corruption. Family drama. All in Yiddish—and the only person on call to translate it is one spritely 71-year-old woman in Queens.
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 theatre…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. Five months after the war, 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.
“I stayed but I was supposed to go,” she says. “It dragged out.”
Her marriage soured, ending in a divorce. But Kohn didn’t want to separate her children from their father, so she stayed in New York. In the early 1970s, Kohn’s neighbor was getting some documents translated at Globe Language services, a translation company in Queens. While he was there, a secretary at the company asked him if he knew anyone who could translate from Hebrew to English. Kohn began working there shortly after.
For Kohn, Yiddish translation jobs are relatively rare. The majority of her work is Hebrew and Polish and her employers can be either the prosecution or the defense. In the case of the Malcolm Smith trial, defense attorneys hired her after the FBI revealed it had the extra recordings. Kohn worked to translate the tapes for his lawyers, so they could sculpt a defense around Smith. But in the end, he was sentenced to seven years in prison, as were many others involved in his trial.
Before the Second World War there were twelve million Yiddish speakers worldwide, about two thirds of the Jewish population. During the Holocaust, five million Yiddish speakers were killed. “When Israel was formed, Hebrew was chosen as the language of the state,” says Agnieszka Legutko, director of the Yiddish program at Columbia University. “The only group that kept speaking Yiddish without a break were the Hasidic, ultra-Orthodox Jews who still use [Yiddish] as the language of everyday life.” A study by the UJA Federation found that there are roughly 500,000 Orthodox Jews in New York City. They mostly live in Brooklyn and small cities across Upstate New York. In the 2009-2013 American Community Survey, 155,582 people reported primarily speaking Yiddish at home, with 53,116 of those people speaking English “less than very well.”
Jews escaping the Holocaust settled around the world. Many lost their Yiddish while assimilating into the local culture, Legutko explains. Now, the few remaining secular Yiddish speakers are largely Holocaust survivors and academics. But Yiddish is undergoing an academic revival in the United States, with 25 different universities nationwide offering programs. Universities teach standard Yiddish, a version of the language developed by the Judaism academic institute YIVO in the 1920s.
“The Yiddish that Hasidim speak is 75 percent German, 15 percent Hebrew, and 15 percent American English,” Legutko says.
Most of Kohn’s work is mundane. Her last Yiddish case involved mediating a disagreement about patents between two partners of a tableware business. “I now know more about napkin holders than I ever thought I would,” she says. Sometimes, however, Kohn is involved in sweeping crime dramas that touch on the unique cultural currents of New York’s Hasidic enclaves.
In 2013 an FBI agent posing as an Orthodox Jewish woman approached Rabbi Mendel Epstein of Lakewood, New Jersey and told him that her husband was unwilling to consent to a divorce. This was Epstein’s area of expertise. In ultra-Orthodox Judaism, only men are allowed to grant their wives the “get” — a divorce contract — and Epstein specialized in forcing their hands using violence.
The court documents of the Epstein case describe the rabbi assembling a crew of “tough guys,” to kidnap and torture the husband, while forcing him to write the marriage contract. Epstein’s specialty was using a cattle prod on the men he was extorting.
“If it can get a bull that weighs five tons to move,” he said to the agent, “you put it in certain parts of his body and in one minute the guy will know.” He charged the FBI agents $10,000 for the “beth din,” a document produced by the rabbinical court, which would grant a religious seal of approval for the kidnapping and torture, and an additional $60,000 for the rabbi’s crew of “tough guys.”
The day of the kidnapping, the crew arrived at the warehouse the FBI agents had established as the kidnapping site in two dark minivans. They put on Halloween masks and bandannas. One member was wearing a Metallica t-shirt over his clothes and another, a garbage bag. They carried rope, surgical blades, a screwdriver, plastic bags, and items used to produce the get according to Jewish tradition: a board with string attached, feather quills and ink bottles. They were arrested at the warehouse and Epstein was caught elsewhere.
Kohn translated statements given by a father of one of the women who hired Epstein. His daughter felt trapped by her husband, who refused to divorce her and spent most of her days at home alone, crying, Kohn explains. They felt hiring Epstein was their only choice. The court documents describe these women as “Agounah,” Hebrew for a woman who is chained to her husband.
Another witness in the Epstein case, who Kohn translated for, was a roommate to one of the offending husbands. In a case of mistaken identity, he was caught and beaten severely. He wanted to testify against the Rabbi and his hired muscle.
“He tried to speak English and it was clear he had no idea what he was doing,” she says.
The two built a friendly rapport over the course of the trial and he began opening up to Kohn. “I remember he told me, ‘Who is that girl wearing the pearls? I like her.’ He was talking about someone working on the defense,” she said. Later, the two went to a local production of a Yiddish play — “The Dybbuk.” It was his testimony, alongside others, that allowed the jury to sentence Rabbi Mendel Epstein to ten years in prison.
“It all happened without planning; I didn’t design my life,” says Kohn. She cut our interview short, because she had a new case — the deposition of a Hasidic Israeli arms dealer named Eliyahu Cohen. The United States government alleges that he, alongside two accomplices, bought parts for F-14, F-4, and F-5 fighter jets as well as ten klystron oscillators for a Hawk missile system. Using a succession of companies in the United States, Israel and Greece, the three men rerouted the jet pieces and weapons in crates labeled “parts for plumbing repair” from their warehouse in northern Israel, to Greece and later Iran. Lieb Kohn, Cohen’s Brooklyn connection, was caught earlier and received 30 days in jail for his role. The United States was seeking extradition with Israel and needed to solidify it in court. It was a matter of national security, and no one could settle it but the 71-year-old Ruth Kohn.
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Max Siegelbaum is a journalist and photographer based in New York City, where he recently returned after spending over two years as a freelance journalist in Cairo, Egypt.
Maureen Drennan is a photographer born and based in New York City and her work has been included in exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Newspace Center for Photography, and The Wild Project. Her images have been featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times, California Sunday Magazine, Photograph Magazine, and the UK Telegraph.