Never let religion or race hinder you from doing what you love most. Retired lawyer Henry Blum talks about living in a world that is so complex in religion and race. Henry shares a bit about his family background being Jewish, having immigrant parents, and raising up daughters who are already married and professionals. He dives into the Jewish religion and what makes someone a Jew, and shares some of their wedding traditions. He also talks about his journey as a lawyer, how he graduated from an Ivy League school and clerked for a federal judge. Henry has been diagnosed with MS and teaches a great lesson about perseverance and never letting your disabilities hamper your growth and success.
Listen to the podcast here:
Breaking Down The Barriers Of Race, Religion, And Disabilities with Henry Blum
I’ve got a special guest here I’m excited to have, the one and only, Henry Blum. Henry called me on something unrelated to the show. I thought, “Why haven’t I asked Henry to be on. He’d be perfect for this.” Welcome, Henry.
I’m honored to be here.
I’m here at Henry’s place in Houston. He said, “I’ve never listened to a podcast. Is that real?” I look at silly things. We’ve got metrics on how many get listened to, which I’ve told people before. I don’t care if anybody listens to it. That’s not our goal. It’s part of development for me. We’ve had a pretty good little listenership out the box.
How does someone listen?
You search The Byrd Chronicles wherever you get your podcast. You can find that on iTunes, on Google Podcast, Spotify.
Is there some topic notation? If someone’s looking for law, Texas society, philosophy or something, can they search for topics?
You can search for various general topics. Mine was law in business, but there’s no real good fit for mine other than general. It is loosely law related. That’s the natural place to find them. There’s probably 500,000 active podcasts right now. It’s not law but overall.
Is that in the United States or worldwide?
It’s probably worldwide. I’d have to check the research, but I’ve heard people talk about it. There are probably over 800,000 podcasts, but there are a lot of them that aren’t active anymore.
This is not your goal. Are these moneymaking opportunities?
Some of them, yeah. There are some of the popular podcasts they’ll throw up on YouTube and regularly have five million, six million views.
It’s an advertisement.
Some of the real busy guys probably make $20,000, $30,000 an episode. It’s real money. Before I walked in, I was thinking, “I bet we pick up a new country,” because we’ve got an audience in seven countries.
You’re going to get Israel. I’m going to let my daughter, her husband and my grandkids know that pop was going to be talking at a podcast. They have tons of friends there. I’ll let them know, check out this podcast.
She’s thousands of miles away and this can get to hear your voice.
In fairness, in this world, if they’re so far away, you can get FaceTime. When I lived in Israel the first time was many years ago, but you could barely get on an international line to call home that would take hours and was pretty expensive. Now everyone’s got a cell phone. When I want to see my daughter or their kids, I call and I’ve got FaceTime.
When did you live in Israel?
It was after high school, in 1980. My wife and I and about 100 other friends, we were not dating at that time. We went on a huge program before gap years were something that was done. The Zionist Youth Movement that we remember is Young Judaea, which was at the time sponsored by Hadassah, which a Jewish Zionist Movement. It’s a year program and the program started probably in the ’60s before the Six-Day War. It was a great program. Before there were gap programs in Israel, people don’t know the year course program. Now there are hundreds of programs.
I knew you had spent a lot of time in Israel, but I didn’t realize you lived there. Did you grow up in Illinois?
Yes. I was the only Jew in my class until middle school and there were five of us. It’s not a booming Jewish metropolis. We went there. My wife and I went back from a junior year abroad at Hebrew University. We were at a kibbutz in the southern part of Israel. Now we’re visiting at least once or twice a year.
Now you have a good reason to go. It’s not that you didn’t before. Your oldest daughter lives in Israel. You’ve got two girls. I’ve met them but it’s been years. They were in high school when I met them. One of them worked at your office for a while.
Both of them took some turns. You may have met both of them.
I know I’ve met them both at your office. I couldn’t remember. I knew one of them had worked there. You know how memories work.
The thing that’s weird for me is that our older daughter who has two children is going to be 30 on October 5th. I remember I don’t like to be in the middle, the person of attention, if anything. I like to celebrate other people. For me, it makes me uncomfortable. My wife threw me a 30th birthday party. I chose to take the time and with all those friends from there and the Jewish community. I knew she was doing it, so it wasn’t a surprise. My parents surprised me by coming. I remember my father, he said, “Do you feel old now that you’re 30?” I said, “No, but you must feel old that you’ve got a 30-year-old son and all of a sudden a 30-year-old daughter. What the F?”
I’m with you. I was telling you Mallory gets her driver’s license. It’s good though. It’s fun to watch them alongside and keep them out of jails and prisons. We’re doing well.
It’s not always a given, but grateful when we do that.
I can deal with jails and prisons. Jails, I got in trouble for the night. The prison thing, we’re going to have a problem.
My only challenge when I was in school is skipping school. We get caught in this high school. The cops were out of this and they did Scared Straight thing. They put us in a cell. They gave me one call and I called my dad. There was no way dad was going to come and get you. You’re going to stay in this cell for a little while. My friends got kicked out, but I was there inside the cell.
I’ve been to jail a few times as a lawyer too. We’re going to keep this story to myself because I was grown and knew better.
The last time I almost got arrested. It was at a Republican convention for Bush 41 here in Houston. The Ku Klux Klan was going to be demonstrating there. A bunch of friends and I went to counter-protest of the Ku Klux Klan. We got a clan and a bunch of Jew boys together, pushing and shoving comes. The police came through on their horses, separating us and people got arrested for that. I was grateful not to be arrested.
It can happen. For a little background for those of you who don’t know Henry. He’s one of my few actual lawyer guests so far, although he’s retired. I met Henry several years ago when he was serving as a mediator-arbitrator and worked with him hundreds of times. We got to be in friendship with him and always respected him. He’s an all-around good guy. He’s bright. I meant it when I said it’s a treat having you. I’ve got friends of all different backgrounds black, white, purple, all different races, religions, cultures. He’s also my most Jewish friend. Every time, inevitably we’re around. For anybody of the Jewish faith or race, I’m in that setup, but if I ask any seemingly dumb questions, it’s out of ignorance and wanting to learn. Every time we’d come across each other and it was like a Jewish holiday or something, I’d always ask you silly questions and like, “Educate me.”
One of the things that attracted me to Jason is that we’re different and we’re like-minded in many ways. In all the ways that matter, we’re exactly the same. My mother was telling me about when she became a citizen. They escaped Budapest in 1941. When you become an American US citizen, it’s not that you’re joining a nationality, you’re joining an idea. That’s what we have lost so much of. We’ve lost that idea. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white, Jewish, Muslim, Christian. It matters that you become a subscriber to the idea that is American. I’ve worked for a federal judge after law school. I have the privilege of participating in three naturalization ceremonies. There’s not a dry eye from the federal judge to his clerks.
I can always tell when they’re doing the federal courthouse in Beaumont about a block from my building. I pass by it on the way to work, most days depending on how I get there. I can always tell when it’s Naturalization Day because you see the most beautiful group of diversity in the parking lot at the front steps while everybody gets to security coming in. Everybody’s in their Sunday best. You see all different types, but you see smiles. You see a group of people who are at the happiest day probably of their lives because they’re getting the chance to have their chance.
It is a milestone that those of us who were fortunate to grow up here do not have. For someone who is, my family that survived the Holocaust got to this country. To come to shores that are safe where you can achieve is an amazing thing. The first generation, they always have it hard. They take whatever job they can get, they do that, but they get to raise kids who get to go to college. Some are forced to go to Austin. That happens. We could have been restaurateurs, but if you do it for those generations. When you were describing that multiethnic gathering that you see at the courthouse, that is what America looks like. That’s what America was always mentally.
Did your dad’s family emigrate from Budapest as well?
No. My grandmother, Sally, moved here in 1970 right before World War I. They weren’t from the big city of Budapest. They were in a town that is now part of Slovakia. After World War I, it became Czechoslovakia. Grandma was twelve of thirteen. She had an older brother who had moved to this country and was doing clothing design or manufacturing. Grandma came to do design work for him. She went back to visit the family in Hungary when she met my grandfather, who had served as an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s Army. He was sent to one of the Gulags in Siberia after the war because he was Hungarian. When he came back, it was no longer Hungary. It was Czechoslovakia. They required that he swear allegiance to Czechoslovakia. He said, “I’m Hungarian.” He and his Jewish platoon all refused and they were sent to Siberia where he was there for a few years. He came back, they met, married and came over.
Basically, you’re Hungarian from both parents?
Yeah, because the world is close, they were all from the same village area.
It’s probably from Houston to Beaumont.
I think of my grandfather, Henry who died ten years before I was born. They say he spoke eight languages and that makes sense. For someone here sitting in Texas, it’s crazy to think you can speak eight languages. If you grew up in Hungary, you’ve got to speak Hungarian. You’re Jewish so you speak Hebrew. He moved to the United States so he could speak English. If you’re in Hungary and you’re sent to the Gulags so you learn Russian. You learn Slavic. You learn Czech. You learn German because everyone spoke German. You probably know some French. All of a sudden, you’ve got these languages out of necessity.
I was telling you about my good buddy, Mark. His family is from Latvia. His dad still speaks 40 years later. It’s a pretty heavy accent. He’s the nicest man. He speaks seven languages. He has some of the best stories. I’ll get them all in one day. He wrote about comparing languages. When he first immigrated, he didn’t speak any English. He couldn’t get a job because he spoke no English. He’s an engineer and got the Master’s level engineering degree from a regular university, but he couldn’t get a job at McDonald’s. He tells us all these great stories about him saying, “This word means this in French and it’s very similar in Italian. It’s got to be that in English.”
I don’t know his name, but anyone who’s reading this should look him up. He’s Hispanic. He does a thing about being an immigrant and learning the language. There’s somebody saying, “English is the most complicated language. All of these words mean different things.” He said, “Of all the complicated words, shit is the most complicated of all.” My shit is good, but your shit is bad. There are all these examples. There are a billion definitions for shit.
It’s got to be like that in some languages. Some of the Asian ones are complicated to me, the Chinese and the various dialects and Vietnamese. I’ve had some friends try to teach me some things in Vietnamese. It’s a hard get.Nobody has monopoly with the truth. Click To Tweet
You and I could learn Chinese. I have taekwondo. Those are words that you can learn and translate in your mind. The Vietnamese and Laotian and such are hard because they’re tonal languages. When you say, “Ni Hao,” that’s Chinese. Chāo bá is different from xià ba. That’s not a good example.
I know exactly what you’re saying and they’ve tried to teach me that same crazy thing. I can’t do it. Whenever someone’s trying to teach me something in another language, I always revert to my second language, which is Spanish, in my head. You could be trying to teach me German and I think it’s a natural instinct for me to go to my next language and that’s Spanish.
I do the same thing. My Spanish is as good as a three-year-old, but I can get by. When I don’t know the word in Spanish, all of a sudden it comes out as Hebrew and people look at me and say, “What?”
Do you speak Hebrew?
I knew you read it and wrote it.
It’s interesting because conversationally good, newspaper good. As a lawyer, I have no legal Hebrew language. I went to meet with an Israeli mediator who’s come to some international conferences. You know Jeff Abrams. Jeff is involved in that international mediation stuff. They met and wanted to get us all maybe together to go to Israel and meet the mediation community there. She was shocked that I spoke Hebrew and did so well until it came to the legal terms and I have to inject English because I don’t know how to say it.
In its context, typically in conversation, we’re not trying to use legal terminology. In Israel, do they have a similar legal system?
Israel is a common law legal system because Israel was colonized like Syria or Libya. They were calling us with French and they have stature or code systems but Israel has common law.
I asked that sounds silly. My knowledge at one time at about 1997 or 1998 when I was still in college, parts of Israel was pretty good because I was a political science major. I was sitting in some political science statistics course one day and this lady walked in who looked a little too old to be in the class and well-dressed to be in the class. She didn’t look old enough to be the professor and she was. It was one of the hard courses I took, but she was good looking. I signed up for her class the next year. I wanted to be around her. She taught a course on basically Israeli-Palestinian conflict. My knowledge stopped though in 1997 when that class was over. I rely on you and your Facebook posts from time to time to educate me.
I don’t know how much it’s changed that Facebook is very beautiful. It’s great for family and old high school friends to stay in touch. All of a sudden, especially in this world, political stuff comes up. There’s no nuance in there. You can’t tell sarcasm. It becomes convoluted.
I don’t know this for a fact, I’m repeating what I’ve heard, from what I understand is part of that is their algorithm within Facebook. They have found what I understand that there’s more interaction based on the conflict on the platform than pictures of kittens. The algorithm works to show you on your newsfeed when you look at it, things that you would come into conflict with more often than it shows you other things. I don’t know if that’s true. That’s what I’ve heard some people who are much more technologically savvy than I say. Colloquially, I would tend to agree because when I get on there, that’s the type of stuff I see.
Particularly I have too, but I’ve pissed some big people. Some of that may have gone that way.
You don’t put anything crazy.
I do comment shit when someone says something.
When it’s empirically not true and I get mad.
I try not to get mad anymore about stuff like that but I’ll tell them they’re a dumb-ass. I don’t think most people appreciate that. I’m right there with you. If I’m wrong, I am obviously wrong or spouting something untrue, I’d want someone to tell me.
You started this off saying a smart guy and I am. I’m a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Texas. I’m the top quarter graduate of an Ivy League law school. I’ve clerked for a federal judge, a big law firm. I’ve got the paper. I only became smart and good when I realized and internalized that I don’t need to be the smartest person in the world. When you believe you have to be the smartest person when you’re a young whippersnapper, you do. You cut off all the learning you can do from all the people who are around you. Being able to do that makes you smart, nobody has a monopoly with the truth.
I try to learn every day. I’ve been trying to focus myself on doing that. In my nature, I’ll get lazy with it. What I mean by that is I have to make myself, for instance, start a book to read. I’m not trying to read it to finish it, but I have to stay engaged when I read something because if I don’t, I won’t. I don’t have that focus. I read enough all day at work. That’s the last thing I want to do but watching nonsense on TV is not going to educate me. I try to do it through reading. I do it through listening as well.
You do what you’re doing around that. This is a big part of that.
This is being part of a different form. It makes me uncomfortable. That’s where I grow. I get in the spots where I’m uncomfortable. What I mean by being uncomfortable, it’s easy. I like you. We’ve been friends for years. That’s not the uncomfortable part. Usually, if I’m sitting across the table, asking questions, I’ve got an angle. Someone is paying me good money to have an angle, be ready with my information, to try and draw out the information under oath in a way that’s most favorable to my side. That’s not what this is. This is not adversarial for me. I want to promote people who I like, who are smart, interesting or funny, or my friends.
That’s where the growth comes. This a beautiful thing. I’m excited to do it.
When we do it at the office, we use my small conference room. I’ve got a conference room up front and a small one back by my office. I went ahead and stocked it with a full bar. We do this at the office. We’ll have a cocktail.
If you weren’t driving back to Beaumont, I’m not going to do that.
We’re not going to do that. I don’t drink near as much as I used to.
We’re still alive.
Even once God’s making it hard for me. I don’t handle that. You lived in Israel many years ago and again later.Everyone's got things that they deal with. You grow, thrive, and blossom when that doesn't define you. Click To Tweet
It’s for regular visits.
Your girls grew up here in Houston because your oldest daughter has been living in Israel for quite a while.
It’s for several years.
When did you retire?
It was April of ’96. I was diagnosed with MS when I was 27 years old. Everybody in the world has MS. Everyone’s MS is different. Everyone’s got shit that they deal with. You grow, you thrive and you blossom when that doesn’t define you. You started off this conversation before we got on this talking about you’re not defined by the work that you do. You either are paralyzed by whatever your disability is, whether it’s financial, it’s physical or it’s emotional, whatever it is. Everyone’s got something. We’re neither paralyzed by it or helps you grow. If it helps you grow to get the full thing, it’s something to be grateful for. The only reason I quit mediating is that I almost got shitty handling.
You did. I’ll attest to that.
Now with this side, I can’t even hold a pen properly.
You’ve been fighting it for a good while. I’ll tell you this, even mediating, it wasn’t easy for you to get around at the office every night, but you never complained once. You never let it get in the way of a new mediation, but I always respect that. It wasn’t something we talked about it. You came in there and we did our job. You had a little harder time getting into your chair, but who cares? I always wanted you to take a chance and we’re going to have something to laugh about later.
That’s the thing, you’ve got to be able to laugh about it. You can’t take yourself too seriously.
I didn’t realize you were that young. You’ve been dealing with it for some time. I’m sure in your dark moments when you’re alone and it probably affects your spirits, but I’ve never seen it consistently, outwardly for a long period of time.
When I was young, I was diagnosed for a couple of years.
Was that when you were at Fulbright?
Yeah. I was like, “I’m at the top of everything. All of a sudden, I get thrown this. This is going to kill me. It’s going this and that.” I realized that it doesn’t define me. I’ve always made sure to exercise, eat right, and do all that stuff. That’s probably good. We’re all going to die and stuff’s going to happen to all of us to spend your life worrying about something. I remember when I first got it, I thought, “What did I do wrong?” That’s tough. I don’t walk very well right now. I can use my crunches and move around quick. I’ve got a chair that gets me around easily enough. I’ve discovered that, “I can’t walk.” It doesn’t end my life in any way. There are all kinds of stuff.
I still see the smile on your face. Are you happy?
I’m very happy.
You have a great family. You have a wife who you’ve known forever and whom you love dearly still.
We started dating when we were eighteen years old.
What’s baby girl doing, the non-30-year-old?
She’s getting her Master’s in Social Work at the University of Houston. She’s at an internship. It’s required for her studies at Texas Children’s Hospital in the neonatal unit counseling parents. That’s what she’s going to do. That’s the job she wants to get when she graduates. That’s where she’d like to start. I suspect she’ll end up getting a Ph.D. so she can both counsel and teach. She’s very good. She likes it much. Here’s now the definition of what Millennials are. Her husband, who is a son to us now, they start dating in college that he’s been part of our family for a few years. He is from São Paulo, Brazil, an Israeli family, born and raised in São Paulo. He’s in the immigration process. Bruce Cohen, he’s an immigration lawyer. I’ve known him for a long time. He’s their lawyer. When they first started working together, he said, “You’ve been dating forever. Getting married will make this process easier.” I was sitting at our house one morning in this place with the dining room table. I was learning and studying and I got in a text from my daughter saying, “Look at this picture.” I looked at the pictures and two of them in front of a computer screen. I called her and said, “What does that mean?” She said, “We got married this morning at the courthouse.” They registered their car.
How far did your heart dropped to be surprised by that?
It didn’t because earlier that week, she and I had been talking about it. She came over and were saying that they needed to get married. I said, “That’s wonderful.” Let’s do a traditional Jewish wedding. We’ll get the rabbi. We will have a few friends. It won’t be big. We can then have all the requirements of the Jewish wedding. We’ll do a bigger party later. I thought that it had her on the side of things, but they got married. The thing is he’s never asked her to marry. He’s never given her an engagement ring, but he’s got a ring. He designed it. He’s got the stones. It was made in Brazil with his mother’s jeweler. My wife has seen it. I’ve seen the design, but my wife has seen the ring. It’s beautiful, but he over the years now, one pass and say got married. He said there’s two no damn ring up. It’s like tapping your fingers.
What’s he waiting on?
I have two beautiful, smart, strong women. Each of my sons-in-law came to ask permission to marry them, which was the right thing to do. Walter Rosen, I apologize, I never asked my father-in-law for permission, but I should have. They did and I said to each of them, “I want you to know that this time in your life is the only time with my daughters. You will have an emotional upper hand over them. They know that you’ve come to ask permission to marry them.” They know that I have given permission. Now they’re on pins and needles of waiting for a ring. Now, my first son-in-law waited a couple of months. That was pretty quick and at the time appropriate. My second son-in-law is taking this to the extreme, there’s going to be insurrection.
The oldest daughter, what took her to Israel?
That was where this all started. They’ve grown up here in Houston. I was always traditionally observant for someone who grew up in a small town Arkansas, the only Jew until middle school.
For those who aren’t Jewish, what do you mean by traditionally observant? You hear terms like Orthodox.
You hear Orthodox. You hear reform. You hear Hasidic. You hear all these things. Those are all different interpretations of how to observe certain laws, the Laws of the Torah are God’s laws. Those are laws we’re obligated to observe if you are traditionally observant, you observe those. You may do it in different ways, but basically, it would do the same thing. I’ll be an Orthodox Jew. Orthodoxy doesn’t buy because I don’t know what that means.
You don’t have the curls and the black hat.You are either paralyzed by whatever your disability is or it helps your grow. Click To Tweet
That’s an expression of Hasidic Jews. It’s only a small fragment of Hasidic Jews. They have different outfits and whatever. There are historical reasons for those. I follow the laws. I pray three times a day. I keep the dietary laws. I keep the Sabbath and all those. That means that I’m observant, someone who doesn’t follow those is no less Jewish than I am. We’re all Jews. If you’re a Jew, you’re a Jew. It means that they don’t follow those laws the way I do.
This is going to sound so silly to your family in Israel when I ask some of these questions, but it’s out of wanting to learn. I’ve always had in my mind this juxtaposition of you can’t become a Jew. Most Jewish people I know would welcome me to the synagogue. If I did whatever I had to do would welcome me to the faith, I’m assuming, but that couldn’t make me Jewish.
The Torah specifically requires that the convert is as Jewish as someone born a Jew. They’re obligated to the same responsibilities and the same privileges as a Jew. They have to be treated as somebody who’s born Jewish. What makes you Jewish is that your mother is Jewish.
I know the maternal lineage.
If you are a ger tzedek, a righteous convert. In other words, you’ve converted to Judaism, you are as I was focal on the Jew, there’s no distinction. Our rabbi has made it clear to me that now we get a little bit more into a deeper understanding of Judaism, a populistic understanding, but a Jew is a Jew because he or she has a Jewish soul. Everyone has a soul and everybody in the world is different. The Muslim, the Jews, the Christian, the black, the white, we all have souls. There’s no genetic difference. People think that there’s a genetic difference between a black person or a white person. It’s ridiculous. It’s nonsense. We all have souls given to us by God. That’s what I believe. Jews have a special soul, a unique soul, as one group has a unique soul and another group has a unique soul.
The Jewish soul is what makes us a Jew. Nobody of right mind would ever convert to Judaism. To be a Jew means to be hated around the world. It needs to be stereotyped. It needs to be castigated. It needs to be expelled. Nothing good comes from being a Jew societally. There are all kinds of bad things. Who would want to become a Jew? The only one who wants to become a Jew is someone who was born with a Jewish soul. They’d be in a non-Jewish environment. Their soul is Jewish. It’s been Jewish since their creations. They’ve come home, but that’s what a convert does.
One of my dear friends, he’s married to a Protestant girl. She converted a few years back. I didn’t know if that was common. I know when we were in our twenties and much younger, his family are great people. I don’t think his parents have much had an issue with it. His grandparents might’ve been bothered by him not marrying a Jewish girl, which you see throughout all faiths and cultures. I get that, but I didn’t know if that was something that was common if a Jewish boy or girl married a non-Jewish boy or girl or conversion or if it’s difficult.
There are conversions. The reformed conversion and the Orthodox conversion are different. An observant conversion requires that you accept it. You observe all these. You observe the same all those things. That’s a more difficult process. Both of them take time. They take soul searching and all these things. It’s a big commitment.
Have you been this consistent with your observance?
It’s always traditional in a very non-traditional world. There were only two families when I was growing up in town, the kosher homes, but outside of the home.
For the non-Jewish folks, generally?
Generally speaking, meat is a critter that you can eat. For instance, we can eat a cow. We can eat a goat. We can eat deer. We can’t eat a horse. There are things we can’t eat. A mammal to be kosher has to chew its cut, which means it’s got multiple stomachs and its hooves have to be clove. For instance, a horse chews its cut but does not have cloven hooves. We can’t eat a pig that has cloven hooves, but it does not chew its cuts. It’s not a tasty critter or a healthy critter. It’s something that is prohibited to us.
It’s traditionally through the Torah, many thousands of years.
Growing up, my daddy had clothing stores and restaurants. By the time I was seven, I was working in the restaurants. When I was in my teens, I did have a flirtation with crispy swine because the crispy swine is some of the most phenomenal leading you could ever have. It’s wonderful. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that working at the restaurants, I would make myself a delicious cheddar cheese mushroom bacon burger that I made myself on the grill. If you broke the ribs except for the swine. It’d be kosher.
I grew up in the restaurant business. I love to cook. I can’t do it anymore. My wife has become a good cook. Every weekend, we cook for the Sabbath and we invite people. It’s always a big thing. We cook and we experiment too. There’s always a substitute for kosher things oftentimes. You can make all these vegan cheeses that are made out of nuts. We don’t know the flavors there. You could make a cheddar bacon burger. It tastes good. It was a place in Jerusalem that was all the rage right now. It didn’t do anything for me. We went in September when we were there. They do all these non-kosher foods that are kosher version. You get a Philadelphia steak sandwich or you get a bacon cheeseburger, all these things. My wife and I make lasagna every now and then. We make a ricotta cheese. My wife is from New York. She makes ricotta cheese, mozzarella and nuts, it’s good.
You practiced at a big law firm when you were young and a busy mediator, arbitrator. Being in the law practice, being observant the way you are and that I’ve always known you to be. Religiously, was that ever difficult being a lawyer?
It’s one of the biggest reasons that I left Fulbright & Jaworski. It’s a great firm. I’m still in touch with people. They were great to me. It’s a wonderful place. As we had kids, I was getting more observant. Going into services, I wasn’t working on Saturday anymore. Saturday was a big face day either to show face. Instead of working on Saturdays, I was there on Sunday.
All the senior partners were out of the Baptist church or golfing.
They wouldn’t see it. They knew my billboards as good or better than most people on the team. It looks like a job. They knew I always do good work, but they didn’t see me. I looked around and I was trying to envision my life at this wonderful place where I was the only Jew on my team at that time. There weren’t a lot of Jews. Fulbright was the first big firm in town to make a Jewish partner. It was always progressive.
You probably didn’t have a big Jewish lawyer community in Houston and certainly in New York and Philadelphia many years ago?
How many Jews in Houston would you guess?
I’d probably say 250,000.
There are 26,000 affiliated Jews in Houston. Probably 40,000 Jews because we make a big input here. We are lawyers. We are business people. We’re university professors. People see us. We are small. Only 2% of this country is Jewish. Of that 2%, a small percentage is observant.
A huge percentage are in the New York area or they were years ago. I don’t know if that’s true or not.
New York, Chicago, LA, Dallas has many more Jews than Houston. Dallas is let’s say 100,000. What’s amazing is that right now, people live in New York and they migrate to Florida. They go to Boca.
I remember at a point, this may have been when I was in college, but it was something like the Jewish population in New York was about the same as it was in Israel or maybe it was many years ago, but it may be different now.
Now there are more Jews in Israel from the first time and anywhere else in the world. There are about seven million Jews.
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It changed it. I left Fulbright to go to Dow, Cogburn & Friedman, which was mostly a Jewish law firm. They’re wonderful people, but it was not a place that I was ever going to be happy. I liked the work that I did. Dow, Cowburn was not a good fit for me. I left there to open up my own firm that eventually became mediation practice.
I never knew you from the practice, i.e. us being on the same side of a case or working a case together or being against each other.
I only had several years of litigation and mediation.
I know you from the back half of several years. You’re always fun to go to. I was thinking about the reason I asked that original question on your observance mixed with your profession as I don’t remember what case, but I think it was fairly sizable. It was a Friday afternoon. We were mediating with you. It was going and sludging through. Maybe there was a glimmer of hope you weren’t giving up on it, but it was going slow. Finally, you came around and I don’t know if it was a holiday or what was going on. You basically said, “X, Y, Z is going on. I’ve got to be out here by 6:00.” It was something about you can’t be out after dark or you can’t eat after dark. It was something going on.
If we need to pick it up later, I’ll come in on Sunday. I’ll be gone this time.
That helped get our case though. I kept thinking on the way home, I don’t know if he used his observance as a trick to get us or it happened.
My kids here, I didn’t have the benefit of Jewish education. My kids went to Beren Academy, one of the Orthodox schools where they learn text, history, math and science and all that stuff too.
Is it a Hebrew school basically or more than that? Is it full-on education?
Everything you’re given in a great private school, you get it there. Half the day was devoted to Jewish language and religious stuff. They worked through long days and they worked hard. Our older daughter, the one in Israel, became observant. It made a big impression on her. Our younger daughter does not have the same strongly Jewish and observing in their own way but doesn’t have the same passion. I’m hoping that someday she and her husband will move to Israel because I plan on retiring there someday. We’d love to have everyone in the same place, but it will be designed that it brings them out so much the religious aspect.
That’s their choice to make. You’re a good enough person and dad. That’s their choice. You’ll certainly encourage it.
When they were young, a roof over the head and money in their pocket enabled their choice to be more like my choices. You never lose the responsibility emotionally, financially of a child. That’s forever. That’s the way it’s going to be. I remember my younger daughter once said to me in high school, “Daddy, I want to jump out of an airplane.” I said, “That’s fine. You’re welcome to jump out of an airplane the day you move out of my house. You’re welcome to jump out of an airplane if you swear to God you will not tell me that before you jump. Do not make me worry. After you’ve landed safely, you are welcome to tell me that you jumped out of an airplane. If you tell me the night before, it will be police picking you up.”
You practiced for many years. Do you miss it? What I mean by that, there are probably parts of it you don’t miss at all. There are parts of lawyering that I could deal with never again and be happy. Was there any part of it, particularly with your mediation practice that you miss?
I have it in my library. I’ve got a saying of Tagore who’s an Indian philosopher in 1800. The piece says, “I slept and dreamt that life was a joy. I woke up and saw that life was about service. I served and saw that the service was a joy.” What I miss of the law is what you love of your practice is and the reason hopefully we went to law school is we wanted to serve people. We wanted to help people get through something that was beyond their daily understanding. We always want to provide comfortably for our families. There were lots of ways to get that. I have people from my high school class much less intelligent. I don’t know what that means but less pedigree but who are smart and they know how to make money and they give you those things.
There’s always an easy way to do it. I like to think that we lawyers go to law school because we want to serve. I miss the opportunity to go help people untie their burdens. I told you that I had friends who had legal problems that stemmed from hurricane Harvey and house problems. You volunteered to come down here and talk to them and see if you could help them, see the forest with the trees. That’s how we decided to sit down and do this. Our first call is to serve so I miss that part. I do. I now get to do something that I never thought I’d do in my life. I spent seven or eight hours a day studying, writing, thinking and doing cool stuff.
We talked before and that’s what I wanted to get more detail into. Technically, you’ve retired but you’re still at work and you’re doing stuff. You’re growing.
We both heard people say, “I don’t know what I would do if I retire.” If you don’t know what you would do if you retire, you have a boring life. We should be developing interests. We should love our spouses, our families, exploring, enjoying and being present with everything. If that’s the case, there was so much to do. This gets you differently.
That’s why I started the show. It was for me because I’m a lawyer so I felt like, “I do that for work.” We should loosely tie the show to it. That’s why the tagline is, “Where law meets life,” because I am a lawyer. I’m not defined by that. That’s a part of me and that’s who I am. That’s how I provide. That’s how I help people. I help people in other ways too. I’m a father to my son. I’m a husband among other things. It was a way for me to accentuate those things, grow and learn from people like you.
I can only imagine that your experience doing this has so deeply enriched many lawyers.
It’s going to be. When I get a little more comfortable with it. I’m not as comfortable as I’d like to be with it yet. The format is a little different than what I’m used to. I’ll get there. I’ll just keep doing it. It will get better, but that’s the great part. I know I have room to grow if I stayed to keep doing it.
If you’re doing something and you have no room to grow, it’s time to stop.
You were a lawyer for many years. You do your work, you’re writing and you’re reading on a regular basis. If you were that boy who was going off to Israel for a year after high school again and had to do it over, would you do it the same way?
First of all, no, because if I had my derivatives back in 1981 when I was done with my year, I wouldn’t stay and go immediately into the Army. I wouldn’t have been in the first invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and my friends who were in there. I would have lived in a kibbutz. I would’ve been a farmer. That was my highest aspiration. In my heart, I was due to be a farmer. I can’t tell you how I’m touched at such a deep level with that. We’d also be living in a communal society at the kibbutz where everyone was looking after everyone else. Everyone else is getting their needs taken care of as being loving and appreciated. To me, that’s not a political system that the world could live by.
Is it not like what we call a religious compound over here?
No. It’s socialism. The kibbutz movement is what founded Israel. Immigrants are coming to Israel. They’re moving and returning to Zion. They don’t have jobs. They don’t have a way to support themselves. They met a couple of other people in similar situations. They decide, “I have a job now so I’ll go out. I don’t have a pair of shoes. I’m going to borrow your shoes. I’ll wear shoes. You guys hang back and I’ll bring food or money, whatever.” The next day I don’t have a job but you do. They combined together collectively to be able to survive in a strange and hostile new environment. That’s extended and grew into what became the kibbutz movement, which hundreds of kibbutz seemed all around the country that turned a malaria-infested land with no trees and no arable soil into a vibrant, fertile place.
One hundred years later is not the way things work. It could be less now, but there are only 26 of 100 that were there that still are socialists. Everyone according to their needs and everyone contributes according to their ability. Most of them are small towns where you live and you contribute to the community. You go out and you’re a lawyer, you’re a doctor, you’re a business person. It’s a small town where you live with collective responsibility. That’s what built the country. Ideologically, I think very deeply it appealed to me that people would leave with such respect and care for one another, and recognition of common worth, differences, bad or good. It’s also able to farm the land. I grew up in corn and soybean country. My backyard when I was a kid was cornfields. I appreciate that life.
You didn’t go that route.
I came back to my parents.
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My parents said, “There’s no way you can go to the Army. You come back. You can go afterward.”
Could you have joined the Israeli Army?
I went college and do well thinking of the next thing. I had no lawyers in my family. I had no idea what practicing law was.
Your dad was in the clothing business just like his mother.
I had no idea. I thought, “This will be interesting. It’s a learning profession. I like that.” You can help people and can serve people. I did that. Especially in my last several years, I so appreciated and loved what I did. The time was good for me. I would have been a farmer or a restaurateur. My family had restaurants.
Do they still have any of the clothing business or restaurants?
No, but they bought the building.
It’s at least continuing lease for your mom. Does she still live in Illinois?
She is in Champaign. She is a social worker. She’s been a family counselor for many years and is still counseling people, ten or so people that she sees. She did 90% or maybe 80% of her counseling for free. People who needed counseling would otherwise get her. She’s 81. She’s got heart issues. She can’t get out. People come and they do errands for her. They shop for her. When something breaks down, one of the guys will come and fix it. She’s got a whole community of people to take care of her. It’s awesome.
She’s a special woman. I know she’s created some special children and grandchildren essentially. I’m not surprised to hear that she’s well-loved in the community. Do you ever try and talk to her to get down here?
Yeah. We were there for Passover. She can’t travel. She has congenital heart disease. It was catching up with her. She spent three weeks in the hospital where it was Passover. We all spent time there. We’re trying to get her to move. I want her to come to Houston. We sold our home. We’re sitting in this place and this building. She had me and my wife and our younger daughter around. She had decided that if she would ever do that, she’d go to Atlanta where my brother is, who was a managing partner of his law firm because in between New York and Houston, my sister is in New York.
It’s an airline hub.
I call her every day. I’m sure my siblings call her every day. If it’s not every day, someone’s calling her at least every other day. We know someday she will not answer the phone. She will die on the ground. She will live the rest of her life where she wanted to. She had a few weeks in a rehab facility after she was in the hospital. The place that her insurance enabled her to go to was full when she got around. She went to a Medicaid place. People who don’t have good insurance suffer shit. It’s horrible. It’s immoral that our elders are sick. People in our society shouldn’t have to be in such a horrible place. We were able to move her, but how can you put someone in a place like that?
It happens every day in every community. We don’t like to think about it or talk about it, but it happens.
It does. It’s not that I believe that you deserve anything. I deserve anything. Anyone deserves anything. We deserve what we work for, what we make. I believe that but as children of God and people of conscience and good values, we cannot turn our eye to someone. If there’s someone who doesn’t have healthcare, they suffer for that. We need to make sure they have healthcare. It’s not that they deserve it, but we can’t turn our eye to it.
It’s instinctively we should look out enough for each other to at least give basic medical cares, which we’re signing. I can’t argue with that.
Even if you don’t believe that it’s economically cheaper for us to make sure that people have housing and healthcare. There’s less crime. There’s less sickness. Those are the things that are such a burden on society. Not the $100,000 that they spent for some of the medical and food and all that stuff. That’s nothing.
I got to transition. We’ve been talking about your daughter in Israel. You traveled to Israel more than anybody I know. I’ve got certainly friends that have been there. You go regularly and have for years. Talking to someone like me, is that somewhere safe for me to go or would you caution against it or would you have any recommendation to increase the likelihood of safe, I’ll go?
Israel is a beautiful, wonderful country and a shitty name. They’re surrounded by enemies. There is stuff going on right now, but Israel within the next few years has diplomatic relations with all the Gulf States except for Iran because they’re an existential threat. You can’t go to dangerous communities anywhere. For the most part, a woman can walk alone at night and not be molested. It’s an amazing thing. There is not the crime in Israel that there is in Houston, but there is. Every now and then you get a war. Every now and then you get a terrorist attack. Those are newsworthy and they make a big splash.
We were there in 2014 for a family vacation. It was on Saturday. It was Sabbath. We turned the news on the first Gaza wars. Tanks were going down. It’s a war. We were gone the next morning down south. We took the area of Gaza to visit friends and their shelter. We didn’t change our plans. We got on the road. There are convoys of tanks and trucks. When you drive around Texas, we had so many races here. You see that stuff all the time. These guys were going to war, but the reality is different there. You don’t stop because there’s a war. The country is small.
What about six, seven million people or is it more?
There are six or seven million Jews and probably three million or four million.
I didn’t realize there were so many non-Jews.
Israel is the only country in the Middle East where it’s safe to be in Muslim, Christian, Buddhist because all religions are respected and honored in Israel. That’s not the case in the West Bank. It certainly not in cases in any other surrounding countries.
How easy is it to travel to Israel? Is it pretty easy and open? Can I go with my American passport?
You don’t need a visa. Houston does not have a direct flight. It did for a little while. There wasn’t a big enough customer base. We go for the best flight. We sometimes fly Turkish Air. We fly up from here. There’s a flight every day. These are at night from here to Istanbul. That’s about eleven-hour, twelve-hour flight, and then three to four hours from Istanbul to Israel. That’s easy. The world is small.
Do most people speak English?
90% of the country speaks English.If you don't know what you do if you retire, you have a boring life. We should be developing interests. Click To Tweet
My wife and I could get around easily.
My kids have been telling us the story. They have a gay friend who he and his boyfriend broke up. They were planning on going to Italy or something. This friend of theirs decided he was going to go anyways. He went to Italy. He had more time and he said, “I’ve always wanted to go, I’m going to go to Israel.” He goes to Israel. He’s in Tel Aviv, a gay man, and he’s there on for the Pride parade. The Tel-Aviv Pride Parade is an enormous parade. There are over 200,000 people participating. It’s in the Mediterranean. The city’s beautiful. It’s modern. It’s artistic. There’s so much vibrant. He’s a gay man and surrounded by people who are supportive of them. At home, he said, “I’m going to be going back off. I have a dear friend I grew up with. We were babies together. He’s a multibillionaire and lives in Saint Petersburg, Russia. He regularly goes with his family because if someone is living in Russia, Israel is a safe place for him to go to every town in Spain. It’s safe.
Historically, if nothing else, it is a place that’s intriguing to me. That I’d love to go and see. It’s an important place.
You should in your life have the opportunity to go to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and walk Via Dolorosa, go to the Sea of Galilee and see all these places because it’s history. It’s my history. It’s Slavic history. It’s our history. It’s a universal place.
I may do this. I may wait until Vivian retires. You all are living there. I’m sure I’m going.
For sure you do it. If you want to do it before we are almost always there. If you ever want to go, we’ll make sure that we overlap. We set you on the right trail.
I’ll wait for these kids to get a little bigger though because I don’t want to take three kids that far because they won’t appreciate it. Until they’re a little older. I don’t want to spend the money that’s going to cost to take three knuckleheads to Israel. I can imagine it would be several thousand dollars to get each one of them there.
In December when we go, that’s an expensive time to go because it’s Christmas and Christian pilgrims want to be there. An economy flight is probably between $1,200 and $1,600.
That’s what I figured.
That’s fair. There’s nothing wrong with that. If it’s offseason, you might get that same thing for $800.
It’s been a few years since you retired. Do you ever see yourself going back to the law practice in any way, in any fashion?
No, I thought for a while because I love what I did. I did because I felt I was serving to the extent that I was able to. It was hard for me to wean myself off that. I thought for a while that I might do some consultant with lawyers and their clients. You know how hard it is to get a client into mediation was all of a sudden for the first time you see the growths of their cases. They’re having to look at it as a business decision as we were explaining to my friends earlier. I thought I might be helpful. I wasn’t thinking this in terms of making money but being able to volunteer and help lawyers meeting with their clients in preparation for mediation or preparation for trial, preparation for some of these things so they could look at the case a little bit differently. My uncle was an orthopedic surgeon in town for many years. When he retired, his son, my cousin Hank, he said, “Why don’t you come to operate in my operating room?” Uncle Buddy said, “No, I either operate in my operating room or not at all.”
When you talked about consulting, I thought about that for you, but I had that flash in my head. The reason I did was when you talked about ultimately retiring in Israel, I thought maybe an occasional consulting role there might be more meaningful and helpful to people because of the perspective that you give. Not that you would know the history of Israeli common law, but given it is a certain structure, you might be able to provide some context of which that’s in some ways different, some ways more advanced. It’s another way of looking at things that they could give people an edge.
Mediation is a new thing. The Supreme Court in Israel only within the last few years had a ruling that allowed mediation in the courts. It’s a burgeoning community. I told you before that I met with a lawyer in Tel Aviv because Jeff Abrams and I would like to go and work with them and help those people figure how mediation can be something that’s part of the practice. That’s where we’ll consult. That’s where it will do that. I haven’t done that many. At 4,500 mediations, that’s a lot more than anyone in Israel has done. People have done 100 maybe.
That’s more than anybody in Israel will have done combined in a few years. It takes a while to do this. You’re uniquely established for that. You are well-educated. I know it’s been years, but didn’t you go to Columbia? I couldn’t get into Columbia Law School. I almost went to Yeshiva University. I couldn’t at Cardozo’s. My wife talked me out of a school in New York. I had this plan.
First of all, no one would look at you and say you weren’t Jewish.
They might let me in. I said, “It’s a good school. We’re going. We don’t have to get married. You can get a job. It will all be good.” A few months later, we were married and living in Lubbock, Texas. It tells you who wears the pants. To my point though, you’re well educated. You have the credentials to people half a world away that would recognize these things. You had the experience. You have the innate love for the country. It sees its success and for the people. You have the time now, but you still have the ability and mental capacity. It’s something that would probably bring you that joy that would benefit whole communities over time.
Here’s the one closer at home. I’m afraid it would seem classist and racist. Texas Southern has a law school. It’s a fine law school. It’s named for one of our great justices, Thurgood Marshall Law School. It turns out good lawyers, but it’s not a highly privileged law school. It’s a harder place to get a job in any of the big firms. That’s a harder jump. In Houston, Texas, it’s the most diverse city in America. There is not a cadre of black mediators. I would love to go participate in some of their clinics. There’s a professor there that teaches alternative dispute resolution. I would love to go and lecture from time to time or volunteer with their clinics from time to time to give a how-to, where to go, who to look to, how to set this up thing. It seems like if a white Jewish boy from an Ivy League law school would go there, we could be racist to classist and not appreciated. I would feel uncomfortable.
That might be just a mental roadblock you’re putting up there because we’re all driven by a little bit of fear sometimes, good or bad. I don’t know that it would be seen that way. There’s a young lawyer, who’s a friend of mine. I know him before he was licensed. He was working at the capitol for a friend of mine who is a state rep. If I’m not correct, he took some type of position at the school, I’d love to call him and say, “I’ve got a buddy who’s a good mediator. He’s semiretired. Why don’t you all have him come out there and talk to people?” It would be good for anybody who would listen to you and it’d be good for you.
The thing is that it’s not that there needs to be black, Jewish or white or whatever mediators. With your clients, when they come to mediation, they’re scared. They don’t know what’s going on there. If there’s someone that they can immediately establish a rapport or feel some level of comfort, it’s a good thing. There are people in town that speak Spanish and my Spanish was not good. I can share some mediators in town who are fluent Spanish speakers. That’s a great thing. There should be a black cadre of mediators because that’s part of our trial bond.
It’s not necessary, but in some situations, it certainly can be helpful because there are certain cultural shared experiences that at times can lead to people easing their guard and make smart decisions to get disputes resolved. I agree.
I had a dispute between two southern Baptist black churches who were fighting over property and all that stuff, any religious conflict is going to be salty. Why can’t I have black preachers in both rooms? For whatever reason, both rooms decided that they were going to tell racist jokes to the white mediator and they were telling black jokes. At some point, I said to them, “Not only can I not ever tell any of the jokes you’re telling me, but I also cannot even allow myself to laugh at them.” They said, “We know that’s fine with you.”
I’ve seen it in my own practice on me being able to speak Spanish.
That makes a big difference, Jason.
I don’t go into it unless it’s necessary. It’s not perfect. When I was young, it was pretty good. Now, it’s like a sixth-grader, but it’s enough that if I show that effort, particularly with anybody, a client or even an opposing party, there’s an immediately shared sensibility almost.
There’s an appreciation.
It breaks down barriers. It helps build trust. Even if you’re not perfect, it helps build trust that you’re making that effort. It’s almost a base level respect. Languages are beautiful. In fact, Spanish is a much more beautiful language than English. I just don’t live in a Spanish-speaking country. Now that being said, Houston has got a million Spanish speakers. Did you realize that?
I didn’t know it’s a million. I grew up taking Spanish classes. I forgot all my Spanish when we lived in Israel. Being in Houston, I’ve regained my Spanish. Our house cleaner comes in a couple of times a week. I go downstairs. I’m hanging out with the people who work in this building. They’re all Spanish speakers. I speak to them.
Most of them speak English.
Yeah, they did. They love that I’m trying to speak Spanish. They’re nice to me by trying to do it.
I said that’s the most predominant second language in Houston, but there are dozens if not hundreds. This is the most diverse city. Henry, I love you. We’re going to have to do this again. You and I could talk for hours. I don’t know if anybody wants to read it. I know you have a workout scheduled here pretty soon. You’re great. It was fun. We’ll do it again.
Jason, thank you very much.
I look forward to it again. Thanks.