The potential closing of the last full service kosher restaurant on the Lower East Side brought back memories of my last visit to Ratner’s, more than two decades ago. In the spring of 1993 I was finishing my full time work in New York City. In the fall I would be entering the Jewish Theological Seminary to begin five years study leading up to my ordination as a rabbi. I had lived in Manhattan for enough years that my name had finally come up in the jury pool. I did what most people do and I kept deferring the task – once, twice, three times. I had heard that you could defer up to five times. But then I learned that Rabbis did not serve on juries.
Call it civic duty, call it curiosity, call it deeply misguided, but I felt that jury duty was an experience that I needed to have at least one time in my life. So I answered the call and reported to Court Street. To make a long story short, I sat around, watched soap operas for two days, learned Mishna for my entrance exams, and my number got called.
The trial was short, a little more than 24 hours. The defendant was free during his trial so I would to see him on the number 6 subway, both of us going uptown after the day of testimony. The judge had thought that the jury would begin deliberations in the late morning so he had the bailiff take our lunch orders. I indicated that I would like a kosher sandwich. As it turned out, the trial went longer than expected and the jury did not get the trial until after 3.
While the Judge had warned us the day before that we should bring a change of clothes in case it took us more than a day to deliberate, none of us actually believed that we would be sequestered. We deliberated for two hours but were unable to agree on the verdict for two out of the three charges. At 5:30pm the judge called us in to check on our progress and when I told him that we were deadlocked he told us that we could call home but then we were going to be taken to dinner in Little Italy and then to our hotel for the night.
At the Juror’s exit to the building there was a bus waiting for us. The bailiff announced that we were walking to Little Italy for dinner but Juror Wechsler should please get on the bus for her dinner. So I had a date – John the bailiff. He took me to Ratner’s, a kosher dairy restaurant on the Lower East Side that has since closed but was known for its delicious Jewish food, its waiters, and its old time traditions. John was Catholic and had never been there before.
Imagine the scene: we walk into the restaurant, he is in uniform complete with nightstick and handcuffs hanging from his belt, his hand is on my elbow (safety or good manners, who knew?), and he says, “The court house called to let you know that we would be coming.”
John had me explain half the menu before he ordered. Blintzes, borscht, and matzo brie, oh my. He had the blintzes and liked them. I had the matzo brie and let him taste it. We talked about our jobs and our families. He told me about his old girlfriend, the one he was supposed to marry. I told him about rabbinical school and my hobbies. I was used to the small-talk-over-dinner routine from my years of dating and it felt like just another evening out with a new man. Except for the handcuffs and nightstick.
Without even time for a little rugelach, our dinner eventually ended. We met the rest of the jury in Little Italy; they were finishing their Cappuccinos and Tiramisu. We spent a long, boring evening in a hotel somewhere out by JFK airport. No television, no newspapers. Roommates were assigned by the bailiffs who spent the night guarding us. I barely like sharing a hotel room with family, so I certainly did not enjoy spending the night with a strange woman. You can imagine how she felt when she woke up the next morning to find me in my tallit and tefillin. She was probably scared off jury duty for the rest of her life.
The next morning after a much less exciting breakfast of a kosher airline meal eaten with the rest of the jury in the hotel dining room, we returned to Court Street. By 9:30am we had reached a verdict on all three counts of the indictment. The defendant was not even present to hear it. I later found out that he jumped bail and disappeared. I wish I could say that I felt proud of having done my civic duty, that I felt invigorated by my part in meting out justice, that I felt mesmerized by seeing our legal system at work. But I did not. I was tired and frustrated and disappointed. My good deed of jury duty had instead left me disillusioned with the justice system and I was relieved that my obligations as a juror were finished for good.
Of course you know the end of this story. Shortly after I served, the rules were changed, the need for jurors grew, and they started taking anyone. Even my friend, who was married to a New York City police officer, was impaneled on a jury. She figured that if they would take her, they would take anyone. They have even taken me again.
Ratner’s is long since closed and I have long since moved away from New York. Now, when I have jury duty in Towson, I bring a book and I eat alone. But I always think about John the bailiff, and the matzo brie we shared on a Spring night on the Lower East Side.