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Jewry Duty

August 30, 2009 | by Jeff Astrof

I wear the kippah for 15 minutes and I'm already bad for the Jews.

I still get excited when the mail comes. Maybe it's my nostalgia for a time when letters and birthday cards were actually delivered by the postman. Nowadays my mailbox is home only to bills, solicitations for home refinancing, Chinese restaurant menus and... a jury duty notice!

The letter said I was to appear at a downtown Los Angeles courthouse to serve on a jury the week of July 20th. My first thought was that I had to get out of it. I have nothing against performing my civic duty -- I've never missed voting and I pay my taxes scrupulously, I've never even lied and said my coffee was "to go" to avoid paying sales tax -- but the thought of spending days or even weeks in a stifling courthouse in downtown LA was too much for me to bear. The question was, how?

I had a job so I couldn't plead financial hardship, and I had already postponed twice. Maybe I could make myself an undesirable juror. Some friends at work recommended I issue a racist or sexist or anti-police rant, although that seemed to be unsavory. Especially in a room full of people I would be offending.

Then I had a "radical" idea: what if I wore my yarmulke? After all, the attorneys are looking for people who can be easily manipulated, and with a legacy of thousands of years of arguing, a religious Jew is going to be no pushover. Plus, I'd probably be pegged as some sort of fanatic which would disqualify me right away.

It was the perfect plan. Except for one thing: I don't wear a yarmulke.

Actually, that's not true; I wear a yarmulke when I go to shul or to Jewish events like weddings and bar mitzvahs. But as soon as I'm in public, or at work, I quickly cover my head with a baseball cap or some other type of hat. We call it "undercover Orthodox." Not that I'm embarrassed to be an observant Jew, God forbid; it's just easier for me not to be too public about it.

The idea of wearing a kippah to get out of jury duty went sour pretty quickly. I wasn't really ready to make the commitment so I threw on a baseball cap and headed to court.

As I got on the elevator to go up to the courtroom, a guy exited wearing a black velvet kippah, tzitzis dangling freely, with a gemara in his hands. "Man, this guy must really want to get out of jury duty," I thought to myself.

I walked into the courtroom, awash in the awful feeling that God was about to play a practical joke on me.

I got off at the 11th floor, headed into the courtroom, and as I was about to step in, the bailiff stopped me. "No hats."

"I know, but..."

This guy had a gun and a stern voice: "No hats in the courtroom. Take off your hat."

I wasn't going to be arrested for contempt of court, especially since I'd have to go hatless for my own trial anyway. So I took off my hat, revealing the kippah I was still wearing from praying an hour earlier. I walked into the courtroom, awash in the awful feeling that God was about to play a practical joke on me.

As I was called for questioning, my mind raced for ways to get out of this. No way was I going to issue an off-color rant wearing a kippah. I'd have to rely on the prejudice of the court to disqualify me. As luck -- or Divine providence -- would have it, I was picked for the jury. For the next week I would be Alternate Juror Number Two, or as everyone else would surely see me, "The guy with the yarmulke." I felt nauseous.

The judge announced that we would be taking a 15 minute break before starting, and we jurors filed out. I tossed my baseball cap on the second I crossed the threshold out of the courtroom. I was very uncomfortable and decided my best course was to remain as low-profile as possible. I then noticed the Defense Attorney and asked her if she knew what time lunch was going to be. She curtly told me that she was not allowed to have any contact with any of the jurors and that I please not ask her any more questions. Okay, starting now I would remain low profile. A moment later, we were called back in to the jury room.

"Hats off, please." Darn, I thought the bailiff wouldn't remember.

I marched my kippah-wearing head into the jury box and sat as unobtrusively as possible. The judge asked for opening statements. The Defense Attorney leapt up: "Your honor before I begin I want to disclose that Alternate Juror Number Two approached me and asked me what time lunch was."

Ugh! I couldn't believe it. Everyone in the courtroom looked at me and I knew what they were thinking: "The Orthodox Jews always think about food." And I'm sure they were waiting for the follow-up from the Prosecutor: "He also asked me when he'd be getting his $15 per diem." This is exactly why I didn't want to wear a yarmulke; I wear it for 15 minutes and I'm already bad for the Jews.

When we finally did break for lunch, I grabbed my hat, put my head down and didn't speak or make eye contact with anyone remotely associated with the court or who wore any type of badge or robe. About a block away from the courthouse, Alternate Juror Number One ran up to me.

"I'm not allowed to talk about the case," I quickly told him.

"I know. I just wanted to say that when you took off your hat I was surprised to see a yarmulke."

"Are you Jewish?" I asked.

"No. Catholic. But I liked seeing that you wore a yarmulke. It meant that there'd be someone smart on the jury."

"So you didn't think it was stupid to ask the Defense Attorney what time lunch was?"

"No," he replied, "that was very stupid. But in general, I've found that the religious Jews I know tended to be smart."

Not what I expected to hear.

The next few days, forced to wear my yarmulke, I tried to live up to the standard that it represented. I took notes diligently during the trial and watched everything I said. In fact, I got so used to wearing my kippah that I didn't even put my baseball hat on when I left the courtroom to grab a snack or use the restroom.

The trial ended Friday morning, and despite all my apprehension, I knew I was going to miss the experience. Before we left the courtroom, the judge told us that we were free to discuss the trial now. On my way out, I noticed the Defense Attorney gathering her papers. Now that I could speak to her, I approached her: "I don't know if you remember this, but on the first day I asked when lunch was. I'm really sorry about that."

She told me she felt awful about it and apologized for singling me out. She was new at this and was a little nervous. She then asked my opinion about how she could have presented her case better and I was eager to offer her advice.

I'm not quite ready for the challenge of living up to wearing my yarmulke in public, but I hope someday I will be.

After catering to my unfulfilled fantasy of being a trial lawyer, I checked my watch and told her I had to get home. She thanked me for my input and as I turned to walk away she said, "Shabbat Shalom" in a way that made me know she was Jewish.

I smiled. "Shabbat Shalom," I replied, and left.

I got more out of this week than I could have imagined. I realized that many of the prejudices that I thought people had about religious Jews were my own prejudices, or at least insecurities. I'd like to say that I wore my kippah out the door and haven't taken it off since, but the truth is, I tossed on my baseball hat just as I was leaving. I'm not quite ready for the challenge of living up to wearing my yarmulke in public, but I hope someday I will be.

In the meantime, I'll do my best to act like I'm wearing a kippah and I'll always cherish my week of Jewry Duty.

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