After 30 years, this New York Yiddish translator still has her days in court

By Renee Ghert-Zand (Times of Israel)
February 22, 2016

NEW YORK — A lawyer requested a Yiddish interpreter for the deposition of a client in New York.

When interpreter and translator Ruth Kohn showed up, the lawyer asked her if she speaks Lithuanian Yiddish. She speaks Polish Yiddish.

“But my client speaks Lithuanian Yiddish,” said the concerned lawyer.

“Listen, you’re lucky to even get a Yiddish interpreter at all,” Kohn told him.

That was 15 years ago when there were a handful of Yiddish translators on call for the New York court system.

Today, Kohn is the only Yiddish interpreter and translator registered with the federal courts in New York, the region with the majority of the United States’ 159,000 Yiddish speakers.

These days, most of America’s Yiddish speakers are Hasidic Jews, but at one time Kohn would also translate for Jews who had immigrated to the US from countries such as Russia, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. However, the case in which the lawyer requested a Lithuanian Yiddish translator was the last Kohn worked that involved a non-Hasidic Jew.

Different Yiddish dialects aren’t a problem. As Kohn had expected, she and the lawyer’s client understood one another just fine.

“Yiddish is Yiddish. All Yiddish speakers can understand one another,” Kohn said in a recent interview with The Times of Israel at her home in Manhattan.

Yiddish alone doesn’t pay the bills

Kohn’s job involves translation of written documents and transcription of recordings (such as wiretaps), in addition to real-time interpretation during legal proceedings. She is registered to do all of these functions, not only in federal courts, but also in the New York and New Jersey state courts.

“I do simultaneous interpretation for defendants, preferably with earphones. The federal court has good equipment, but in state court I have to sit there and whisper into the person’s ear,” she complained.

In general, Kohn, 70, is less keen on working in New York state courts than in the federal courts. She’s not shy about explaining why.

“I hardly work for NY state anymore. They pay so little that it isn’t worth it for me. I’ll only work for the state courts if it’s for a full day, for which they pay me $250. At least in federal court, I get paid $418 for a full day,” she said.

Kohn does not rely on Yiddish translation for her living. In fact, only 20 percent of her work involves the language. Mostly, she translates and interprets Hebrew and Polish.

Self-employed, she works for the court system, as well as for interpreting agencies when they receive translation requests from lawyers and court reporters. Since she works on an on-call basis, she often doesn’t know in advance what a given workday will look like for her.

She also does occasional Hebrew translation work for the US Department of State, and as an experienced and respected professional in her field, she has also been hired to rate court-administered tests for new interpreters.

A reluctant early Yiddish speaker

As someone who spent a significant portion of her life avoiding speaking Yiddish, it is somewhat ironic that Kohn has ended up making a living (at least in part) from the language. Born in Chelyabinsk in Russia’s Ural Mountains during World War II, she and her parents returned to Zhary in western Poland in 1945 when she was just five months old. She learned to speak Yiddish from her parents at home, but wasn’t enthusiastic about using the language.

“There was anti-Semitism in post-war Poland. I was blond and blue-eyed, so I pretended not to be Jewish out of the house and at school. I closed my ears to Yiddish,” Kohn said.

She resisted her father’s efforts to teach her to read and write the language, but she learned the basics, which later helped her when she took advanced Yiddish classes in New York.

“Yiddish is phonetic, so I was able to teach myself. I learned grammar from the courses, and I started to read books in Yiddish. But I still read like a 3rd grader… well, maybe a 6th grader,” she shared.

It was only in 1984 that Kohn fell into translating by chance in New York and started taking Yiddish more seriously.

After her parents brought her to Israel in 1957, she learned to speak Hebrew. They spent a stint living on a kibbutz, after which the family settled in Upper Nazareth. Following her graduation from high school, Kohn served in the IDF’s ordnance corps in Haifa before studying sociology and English literature at Tel Aviv University.

Kohn ended up in New York in 1972 after marrying her first husband, whom she met while on vacation in the United States. Although the marriage ended in divorce, Kohn decided to stay in New York so that her three children could remain close to their father.

A spate of emotionally trying Hasidic sex abuse cases

As a court interpreter and translator, Kohn must remain objective as she works. Nonetheless, it is impossible for her not to be affected emotionally by what she is exposed to. After doing the work for more than 30 years, she’s come to understand a lot not only about Yiddish, but also about people.

In the last 15 years, most of the cases Kohn has worked on have involved Hasidic Jews. Adapting to Hasidic Yiddish has been challenging. It involves less grammar, but more English words and biblical references than academic Yiddish. However, she found dealing with the subject of the legal proceedings to be even more so. A rash of sex abuse cases involving Yiddish-speaking Hasidic Jews over the last decade rattled Kohn.

It was her job to translate the calls made by Israel Weingarten from jail, as well as to interpret for his wife as she gave testimony in court. Weingarten, a rabbi from the Satmar Hasidic sect was convicted in 2009 of sexually abusing his own daughter from when she was 6 until she was 16.

Among the other Hasidic sex abuse cases Kohn worked on was against Baruch Lebovitz, a Borough Park Hasidic cantor convicted in 2010 for sexual assaults on a 16-year-old boy. In 2012, the conviction was vacated due to a prosecutorial error. A new trial was ordered, but in 2012 Lebovitz pleaded guilty and was given a reduced sentence, which amounted to time served plus a few months.

That case spawned subsequent legal action against a number of men in the Hasidic community. Among them was Sam Kellner, whose son was Lebovitz’s victim. Kellner aided the Brooklyn district attorney’s office search for other victims, but later he himself faced extortion and bribery charges. It was alleged that he had paid off a grand jury witness to claim he had been abused by Lebovitz, and also that he had demanded payment from Lebovitz in return for his convincing victims to keep their mouths shut. Kellner was eventually exonerated and went on to sue media outlets and Lebovitz’s lawyers for defamation.

Simon Taub, a Borough Park Hasidic Jew who made millions in the garment industry, was also embroiled when he was arrested on charges of grand larceny after he was caught on tape allegedly blackmailing Lebovitz’s son. Taub asked for around $250,000 for his silence after accusing the younger Lebovits of sexually abusing Taub’s son. Taub was already notorious for his long-running divorce proceedings against his wife, with whom he lived in the same Borough Park house—but with a wall separating them.

“Those cases ended about five years ago. Taub, Lebovitz and Kellner were all connected. They were all wheeling and dealing. I was translating the wire taps on them,” Kohn recalled.

“I learned to know these Hasidim as horrible people, especially the Satmar,” she added.

‘People can’t answer without telling stories’

Yiddish also came into play in the high profile case of former New York state senator Malcolm Smith. Smith was sentenced in 2015 to seven years in prison following his conviction on federal corruption charges, including conspiracy, wire fraud, bribery and extortion.

Kohn was asked by the prosecution to translate 28 hours of wiretapped conversations in Yiddish between Moses “Mark” Stern, the key government informer, and various Hasidic Jewish individuals. Kohn ended up having to bow out because of a conflict of interest (she had initially been hired to work on the case by the lead defense attorney.) Another Yiddish speaker was brought in, which got the case back on track after it had been derailed in part by the previously untranslated recordings.

However, not all of Kohn’s work involves high profile criminal cases. She also translates for civil proceedings, and those, too, can be sad.

She recalled one particular case in which a Hasidic woman continued to have children despite a history of difficult births and rabbinic dispensation allowing her to avoid further pregnancies. The woman ended up dying in childbirth, and her husband brought a medical malpractice suit against a clinic his wife had gone to.

Kohn doesn’t always know how the various cases she works on end, which can be frustrating for her.

She also finds it frustrating, but at the same time satisfying, that people don’t answer lawyers’ questions succinctly.

“The hardest words for people are ‘yes’ and ‘no,'” Kohn said. “People can’t answer without telling stories. This can make me impatient, but to tell you the truth, I love the stories and I love this job.”