Eleven years ago a sensational criminal case sent shock waves through New York’s legal system. Sol Wachtler, the former chief judge of the state of New York was widely respected and some say in line to become governor. But that ended in november of 1992 when he was arrested for harassing his former mistress — Manhattan socialite Joy Silverman. Wachtler pled guilty and served 13 months in prison. Now, he has co-written a new novel called “Blood Brothers,” a courtroom drama. Here's an excerpt:
Mangrove swamps are very much a part of the vast Georgia wetlands bordering rivers with strange, Indian-sounding names like Ogeechee, Ohoopee, and Oconee, and a swamp known as the Okefenokee. Not much is seen of them because they are in the backwater, snake-infested, little-traveled areas of the state.
The tendrils of the mangrove tree look like large tubular fingers dipping into the brackish water of the swamp. They seem designed as much to keep the plant out of the water as to draw nourishment from it. They do their work noiselessly-the dense heat and silence of the bog disturbed only by the drone of clouds of mosquitoes.
On this late afternoon the peace of dusk and the stillness of the water were disturbed by the lurching of a small skiff. A life-and-death struggle was taking place as three white men strained to hold a man in the bottom of the boat. The captive-Aaron Boddie, a black man-knew what fate awaited him. He was to be torched, burned alive, with his charred bones left to rot in the swamp. His struggle was so violent that it looked as though the boat would capsize.
One of his captors hoped it would. Though he had been a willing partner in the conspiracy to murder Aaron Boddie, he’d had a sudden change of heart. He was now equally determined to prevent this act of ultimate evil from taking place.
I loved the Augusta of my youth. Not only the wide streets and beautiful homes framed by tall trees, but also the places outside of town. The red clay hills, which in another time were harvested for the manufacturing of bricks, and the brown cornfields mixed with the green and white fields of watermelon and cotton.
And the people. By and large, they are soft-spoken and gentle, though they tend to distrust strangers. Georgia culture binds its residents close to the land and the family. Georgians are intolerant of those things, people or institutions, which could be perceived as a threat to either. They’re not against change, exactly-it’s just that they don’t trust it or what it might bring in its wake. They seem to feel that most strangers seek to alter their regional lifestyles-not, perhaps, with the same vigor as General Sherman in his march to the sea-but even those who suggest subtle change are suspect.
This distrust is often mistaken for bigotry. Anyone who grew up in Georgia in the middle of the last century learned something about bigotry. Don’t get me wrong. The people in the Georgia of my youth were not mean-in fact, for the most part I think they were really good and decent people. And don’t confuse bigotry with hating. Georgia bigots didn’t hate strangers, or blacks, or Catholics, or Jews, or Northerners, or foreign-borns-they just didn’t care very much for them.
And they didn’t get their likes and dislikes mixed up with strong emotions. They could like you very much without loving you, and they could dislike you an awful lot without hating you. And even if they didn’t care for a person because of the color of his skin, or where he was from or what he was, they could still find him acceptable so long as he stayed “in his place.”
I always knew that I was different from all my friends because I was Jewish. There were other Jewish families in Augusta-mostly merchants who ran furniture, jewelry, and clothing stores. When they weren’t tending their shops, they kept pretty much to themselves. It just seemed natural for the Jews in town to socialize with each other and not with the other citizens in our town. We had our own pool club, and the adults visited each other at night-mostly to play cards. I had no Jewish friends, and sensed that the fact that I was Jewish was best kept secret at the risk of having no friends at all.
All I learned about being Jewish I learned from my parents. They made it clear to me that being Jewish meant that I believed in God but could not accept the belief shared by Christians that Jesus was the son of God and someone to be worshiped. In fact, I was told that it was a sin to consider anyone but God as being divine. Divine meaning the person who had everything to say about what happens to you when you are alive and dead. I was led to believe that acknowledging the divinity of Jesus was a sin.
When I asked my parents, flat out: “Was there a Jesus?” They said yes-that he was born a Jew, like me, and he was a teacher-but he wasn’t “divine” and God is angered by the thought that anyone else would be considered as being divine.
My parents also told me that we were not really “practicing Jews.” I didn’t know what that meant. Did it mean that you weren’t good at being Jewish if you didn’t practice at it? Or did it mean that it was enough just being Jewish without having to practice it as a religion? One thing I did know was that if you weren’t a “practicing Jew” you didn’t go to a Jewish house of worship or observe any religious holidays. And I’m not talking only of Jewish religious holidays-about which I knew nothing-I mean any religious holidays.
In grade school religious holidays for the other kids were a big thing, and it seemed that all the holiday celebrations centered around Jesus-the person my home instruction told me I had to stay clear of. Everyone else at school seemed to spend much of his time absorbed in this powerful person whom they believed to be the son of God, conceived and born in divine mysticism. They spoke of the miracles he performed, of his death, and coming back to life in heaven. And they spoke with certainty of the fact that those who did not believe in him were blasphemers doomed to spend eternity in hell.
Of course I could not tell any of my classmates that I was one of those nonbelievers. I guessed one of the advantages of being a non-practicing Jew was that no one-at least no one that I knew-suspected that I was Jewish. The church may have been separated from the state in other parts of the country, but in the rural Georgia of my youth, they would sooner remove the inkwells from the desks than remove Jesus from the classroom.
And so when it came my turn to read from the New Testament I did so without hesitation-but when it came to reading the name of Jesus, I slurred the word or would say “Jeez” ... “And Jeez said unto them.” I was fooling my teacher and classmates while at the same time not offending God.
I had other subterfuges. When we were told to bow our heads in prayer while the teacher invoked Jesus’s blessings, I would keep my eyes open. I felt I wasn’t really praying or committing a Jewish sin if my eyes were open. The easiest thing to get away with was the singing of hymns-I would just silently move my lips.
But it seemed that I was missing a lot by not believing in Jesus. I felt deprived when everyone else was singing Christmas carols and anticipating the receiving of gifts. I felt that my parents were denying me and themselves a joyous season because we didn’t have a decorated tree and holly and wreaths that evoked all the warmth that seemed to surround Christmas. And when Easter came around I started to wonder whether my avoidance of Jesus would deprive me of “salvation” and if I might really be condemned to an eternity of damnation because I said “Jeez” and kept my eyes open during prayers.
But I let all that pass and was content with the fact that none of my friends knew I was Jewish. It was difficult enough for me to fake it here on earth without worrying so much about what was going to happen to me in eternity.
There were other times when my faith-or lack of it-was tested. Like the time the Revival Meeting came to town. The “Revival” was talked about long before it came and was a greatly anticipated and heralded event. We knew it was drawing near when they started setting up the tent on the outskirts of town, where the poor whites lived. That tent seemed huge to me. I guess it had to be, because as my friends told me, it not only had to hold a lot of people, it also had to provide a place for the “Holy Ghost,” as they sometimes called Jesus. During the evening, they believed, the spirit of Jesus would pay a visit to the revival.
My first name was Lukash-my mother’s maiden name-but everyone called me Luke. That suited me fine, because Luke was a good New Testament name. Having a New Testament name in Georgia was not only acceptable, it was desirable-particularly for a Jewish boy who didn’t want anyone to know he was Jewish.
I was bigger than most boys my age and was looked up to as a sort of a leader. Part of the credentials for my role as a boyhood leader was earned by an uncle whom I never met. He’d been a hero in World War II, or so I thought at the time, and his portrait in full uniform hung in my living room. I regaled my friends with stories of the heroism of Uncle Mike (his real name was Micah). My thrilling stories of his heroism were enough to set me apart and a notch above my friends.
And my friends wanted to be with me-to follow me. Like the time I led a whole bunch of them over the Savannah River which runs between Augusta and the South Carolina state line. Sometimes the river ran so dry you could actually walk across its muddy sandy bottom-which is what I decided to do, leading a whole pack of kids from school. We walked all the way to the outskirts of Aiken, South Carolina and back, them following me and me leading them like a general in front of an army.
“We’re in Georgia, We’re in Georgia, We’re in Georgia,” I kept repeating as we crossed the river bottom, and then when we were about halfway over I announced: “We’re in South Carolina, we’re in South Carolina-we’ve gone from one state to another!” And they all cheered-themselves for doing it, and me for leading them.
But there were others. Some smaller cliques gravitated together because they lived in the same part of town. Some of the kids from the richer part of town had their own tight circle of friends-there weren’t many, but they seemed to find each other. Geography had a lot to do with who your friends were. My friends were my neighbors. The others were the kids from the poorer working-class sections of town.
These others were not my friends but they respected me. Well, respect might be too strong a word-better to say they left me and my real friends alone. They were tough kids-the kind who spent most of their days hanging out and smoking behind the gym, behind the shop building, or in the bathroom.
Their world revolved around cigarettes and Jack Demerest, one of the most ignorant, unpleasant, and nasty sonsofbitches I ever knew. Jack was never alone-he was always surrounded by his claque of “kinsmen,” as he called them. They even dressed alike: dirty white undershirts sticking out of torn blue jeans, greasy black hair tied up in ponytails, and rope necklaces around their necks-probably to hide the dirt rings.
It was Jack Demerest who invited me to come to the revival. I took it as a gesture of goodwill and although I didn’t like him, I appreciated his invitation.
“C’mon” he invited, “Even if you don’t want to be saved, they serve up some fine fried chicken and ribs.”
The offer didn’t excite me. I didn’t like ribs, and I sure didn’t care for Jack Demerest-but most of all I was afraid of being in the same tent with Jesus. This was the Jesus who was able to grant instant salvation or damnation. What if he couldn’t be fooled by my false incantations and singled me out of the crowd for instant dispatch to hell? On the other hand, would my not going alert Demerest to the fact that I might be a Jew, thereby allowing him to condemn me to a hell on earth-or at least in the schoolyard. I reasoned that since Jesus was not really the son of God, I shouldn’t fear any instant hell fire, but I did fear Demerest’s mouth. And besides, I did like fried chicken.
And so I went to the revival with Demerest and some of his kinsmen. I only hoped that my parents were right about Jesus and he wouldn’t show up.
Excerpted from Blood Brothers by Sol Wachtler and David Gould. Copyright © 2003 by Sol Wachtler and David Gould. Published by New Millennium Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.