Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Never Judge a Book By Its Cover

Ash Wednesday brings back memories of my second year in law school. I was in the thick of a grueling schedule, tired of lifting books that felt like two tons, no longer phased by the young men on the subway, selling incense and "fine body oils," and bootlegged movies.

I was feeling like a slacker. The only extracurricular activities that I was involved in were Hangman, Tic Tac Toe, and M.A.S.H, which my buddy and I played on my notebook in every class, in between taking notes until our hands went numb.

Then, one day, a guy in class told me about some Irish Law Society, looking for new members to join. They hosted happy hours, networking activities, and even a professional mentorship program. They seemed all welcoming, so I signed up.

Weeks later, I received a letter in the mail, informing me that I was paired up with a state court judge, who was to become my mentor. I called my dad to tell him the exciting news.

He cautioned me, “Well, you’d better tell the judge that you’re Jewish.”

“Dad, WHAT are you talking about! You really think religion is going to come up in our conversation? Plus, it’s none of his business what I am!”

Wednesday came. As I walked five blocks to city hall, I passed many people with ashes on their foreheads. Ash Wednesday? Interesting timing, I thought.

I entered the judge’s office and was greeted by large Irish flags and a group of sweet young women, named Patty, Theresa, Sinead O'Connor. Patty led me into the judge’s chambers and within minutes a wild, ruddy-faced, white-haired, stocky, fifty-something judge cruised in and took his seat across from me, with Patty seated to my right.

“Judge, would you like some coffee?” Patty inquired. It was clearly their morning routine.

“Nope, givin’ it up for Lent!" he declared. That caffeine is just not good for you, you know?” Patty nodded sweetly.

I nodded too, shifting in my seat. The judge smiled and looked across the desk at me. “So, what are you giving up for Lent?”

He literally didn't even get my name or introduce himself.

What am I giving up for Lent? What am I giving up for Lent? What is Lent? I thought to myself, frantically.

Now, seriously, I'd be lying if I said I didn't think of all kinds of things that I could have pretended to be giving up for Lent: Lima beans, vegetables, pork. But I just couldn't bring myself to lie to the judge.

There was dead silence in his chambers. Patty and the judge stared at me, waiting for an answer. I took a deep breath.

“Well, my answer is . . . going to surprise you.”

Dead silence.

“I’m Irish . . . but I’m Jewish.” I smiled at the judge. Total confusion swept over his round face.

Dead silence.

Then the judge snapped back. “Well, what is your Irish side giving up?” He winked at Patty, feeling very wise and witty once again.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't think of all kinds of things that I could have pretended my "Irish side" to be giving up for Lent: soda bread, Guinness bear, sausage. I thought about telling him my "Irish side" was giving up Jesus, but I thought that would surely ruin my chances of securing him as a mentor.

I just couldn't bring myself to lie to the judge, nor myself.

"What's my Irish side giving up? Um . . . nothing.” I replied, somewhat apologetically.

He stared at me blankly. He just didn't get it.

The judge and Patty looked at me oddly, and then the judge broke the awkward silence, “So, where do you go to school?”

“Temple,” I exhaled, “and that’s as in law school, not synagogue!”

The judge kindly offered me a summer internship, but I already had a job at a plaintiff's firm, so I had to decline. He invited me to come watch the proceedings in his courtroom whenever I wanted to pop in. He was extremely generous with both his time and his advice once our awkward meeting hit its stride.

Unfortunately, I only saw my "mentor" one more time, when he was singing a spirited version of "That's What Friends Are For" at the Irish Society's holiday (or should I say, Christmas) party. But, I will never forget that judge and I wonder if he will ever forget the Irish Jew (who's still not giving up a damn thing for Lent). I certainly never expected that I would teach a judge a lesson about not prejudging other people. Leave it to the slacker . . .

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