OY, THE THINGS SHE HEARS IN COURT
DECEMBER 25, 2015
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.
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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