Oy gevalt! How Yiddish halted trial of century

By Dan Friedman, July 4, 2014

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 Senate, who allegedly bribed Republican Party leaders in New York to support his bid to become mayor of the city.

Moses "Mark" Stern, the chief informant in the case and a member of the Satmar Chasidic community in upstate 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 for the two extra 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.

Dan Friedman is managing editor of the Jewish Daily Forward

Last updated: 3:45pm, July 4 2014