A tale of two lawyers

A tale of two lawyers

Alan Dershowitz talks about his new book; Englewood doctor talks about Dershowitz

Alan Dershowitz and Dr. Michael Cernea
Alan Dershowitz and Dr. Michael Cernea

Imagine that you’re looking at a drop-down menu on your computer.

At the top, the label reads “Alan Dershowitz.”

You click on it, and you see a long alphabetized list of nouns that describe him in some way or other — civil libertarian, lawyer, law professor, legal scholar, liberal, political advocate, writer, Zionist, to cite the most obvious.

You click on writer, and stare at a ridiculously long list of books he’s written, ranging from, say, “Reversal of Fortune” — the one about the Claus von Bulow case, later turned into a movie starring Jeremy Irons, where Mr. Dershowitz was played by Ron Silver — to last month’s “The Case Against the Iran Deal.”

Last month’s book isn’t Mr. Dershowitz’s most recent, though. His newest book is called “Abraham: The World’s First (But Certainly Not Last) Jewish Lawyer.”

Unlike “The Case,” which, he told us last month, took 10 days to write, this one took a lifetime. “I started studying when I was 7 years old, and I’ve been thinking about him for all these years,” the 79-year-old Mr. Dershowitz said. “He has been an inspiration to me.”

Or, as Dana Cernea of Englewood put it, “He has written more books than I have underwear.” We’ll meet Dr. Cernea soon; for now, keep in mind that there is no reason to think that she’s lingerie-challenged. No, it’s that Mr. Dershowitz is astoundingly prolific.

His book about Abraham retells “six stories, and I use them to represent the six types of Jewish lawyers who have been such a success around the world,” he said. His book, which goes on to recount trials in which Jews have figured, both as defendants and as advocates, and then to consider why that might be, begins with the six prototypes.

“The stories start with Abram,” his name as his story begins, “shattering his father’s idols,” Mr. Dershowitz said. Abram was a literal iconoclast, the midrash tells us; he broke his father Terah’s idols, and then used his father’s logic to blame the destruction on the idols themselves . “Throughout history, Jewish lawyers have been idol shatterers. Most of the Zionist leaders were lawyers — Herzl and Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin. The whole anti-apartheid South African legal fight was based on Jews trying to shatter apartheid. Many of the people in the Bolshevist revolution were Jews who had been to law school.”

The second story was of Abraham arguing with God to save the Jews of Sodom. “I argue in front of federal judges who think they are God,” Mr. Dershowitz said. Beyond that, the model is of “lawyers who are tough and adversarial but argue within the system,” as Abraham did when he argued with God, convincing him to save the city were there even ten decent people within its walls.

The third group is “house Jews, who will obey any immoral order in order to be thought well of by the establishment.” That, he said, describes Abraham’s craven reluctance to argue with God when he is told to give up both his sons — Ishmael, born to Hagar, left to die in the desert, and Isaac, “your son, your only son, whom you love,” as God put it, to be sacrificed, bound, slaughtered, and burned, by Abraham’s own hand. Both survived, but through God’s intervention, not Abraham’s. Mr. Dershowitz consigned Felix Frankfurter, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s friend, advisor, and eventual Supreme Court nominee, to that category. “House Jew,” he said with distaste; “I am particularly interested in Frankfurter because I am the Felix Frankfurter emeritus professor of law at Harvard Law School,” he said.

Titian’s painting of the sacrifice of Isaac, made from 1542 to 1544, hangs in a church in Venice.
Titian’s painting of the sacrifice of Isaac, made from 1542 to 1544, hangs in a church in Venice.

The next categories are the Jews who rescued captives from imprisonment, as Abraham, with an armed band at his back, rescued his nephew Lot. Although he writes almost exclusively about dead lawyers in his book, “so I don’t have to explain to living ones why they’re not in it,” he mentions his good friend Irwin Kotler in that context.

Next come lawyers who are “a little bit sketchy,” he said. “A little bit sleazy.” Although he named no names in this category, he derived this category from Abram’s prepping his wife, then named Sarai, to say that she was his sister. That saved Abram’s life but opened Sarai to rape, although whether it happened is not clear in the Torah text. Abraham did it again, later; this time Sarah unequivocally was untouched but Abraham was guilty of risking her safety and his own decency.

The last category, Mr. Dershowitz said, was canny real estate attorney. After Sarah dies, Abraham negotiates for her burial site. “Unlike Trump, he didn’t put his name on it,” Mr. Dershowitz said. He was careful to pay a fair price, to do it publicly, and “it became the Machpelah,” still in Hebron today, a place venerated by Jews.

“The essence of the book is why Jews are so attracted to the legal profession, and why they’re so good at it,” Mr. Dershowitz said. “It’s because they’re never out of practice. They have been accused of all the crimes in the world, including some that never existed. And now the national state of the Jewish people is always on trial, and we are defending it constantly.

“So we damn well better be good at it.”

So remember that drop-down menu? Let’s go back to it. Let’s expand the one about rescuing captives. Let’s click on Cernea.

Something that is not in Mr. Dershowitz’s book but is a story seminal both to him and to the Cernea family is how he was instrumental in rescuing young Dana and her younger brother from Romania in the mid-1970s. It was the first of his rescues, and it changed their lives.

From left, Sarah Sichel; her mother, Dana Cernea; Alan Dershowitz, and Dana’s husband, Eric Sichel, stand shoulder to shoulder in 2006. Below them, sisters Elana and Rebecca Sichel stand next to their grandfather, Michael Cernea.
From left, Sarah Sichel; her mother, Dana Cernea; Alan Dershowitz, and Dana’s husband, Eric Sichel, stand shoulder to shoulder in 2006. Below them, sisters Elana and Rebecca Sichel stand next to their grandfather, Michael Cernea.

The family’s story started before World War II, in a town in Romania, with a Jewish family, the Catzes, eager to get out. They bought tickets for a boat to Palestine, but it was oversold, and they were bumped, so they were stuck there. But they survived the war.

Dana’s father, Michael Cernea, was born in 1931; he was named Moshe Catz, but that was not a name conducive to success in immediate post-war Romania. “They said they had to manufacture a name that sounded Slavic, so they turned Moshe into Michael” — Mikael in Russian — “and Cernea sounded Slavic, with the C from Catz and coming from the name of a town, Cernaut, between Romania and Russia — but they made it up at the kitchen table.”

Michael Cernea and his wife, Stella — nee Sarah, but like Moshe that name was far too Jewish — both earned Ph.D.s in Marxism-Leninism. That was not a field in high academic demand, though, even in the Eastern Bloc, so soon Michael Cernea went back to school for another doctorate, this one in developmental sociology.

That field was in high demand, and soon the Romanian government began lending Dr. Cernea out. “He parlayed his first, worthless Ph.D. into something that could possibly get him somewhere,” his admiring daughter said.

His wife studied sociology as well. “She would have done very well, and she made it out,” Dana Cernea said. But she did not have the chance to do that; Stella Cernea died young, leaving her husband with two young children, Dana and her young brother, Andrei.

This was the early 1970s. Romania and its dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, toyed with the idea of reaching out more to the West, although soon it pulled back. Its citizens were not allowed to travel freely, and it was very hard to move away. But high-level academics like Dr. Cernea were allowed to go to other countries to share their expertise. The Romanian government took half of their salaries, along with credit for their achievements. In return, the academics were allowed to keep some money, and to gain valuable experience.

They were not allowed to take their families with them, though. That would have made it far too easy to defect. Instead, their children were kept behind, hostages to fortune and to their parents’ compliance with Ceausescu’s demands.

In 1972, Michael Cernea was invited to spend a sabbatical year at a think tank at Stanford University called the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences. His colleagues included such luminaries as Bruno Bettelheim, Dana Cernea said.

Another colleague was the young Alan Dershowitz.

Mr. Dershowitz then was involved with criminal law. He was not yet particularly famous, Dr. Cernea said, but he was up-and-coming; his main interest then was first-amendment law. “He became friends with my father — their offices were next door to each other—but Alan didn’t even know my father was Jewish at first,” she said. He had neither a Jewish name nor a Jewish affect. But then Michael Cernea asked Alan Dershowitz, who then was religiously observant, if he knew any place to go to shul for the High Holy Days. That was the start of their real friendship; by midway through the year, Michael told Alan of his desire to leave Romania for the West. “He told Alan, ‘Look I want to escape,’” Dana recounted. “‘The trickiest part will be my children.’ And Alan said, ‘Look, Michael, I swear to you that whatever I can do I will do to support you. Whatever it is within my power to do I will do to help you with your children.’”

At that time, Mr. Dershowitz had not practiced immigration law; those Jewish lawyers who specialized in that area quite reasonably concentrated on helping Jews flee the Soviet Union. Romanian Jews were not on their map.

At the end of the year, Dr. Cernea returned to Romania. He was not allowed to keep in touch with anyone outside the country, so his friendship with Mr. Dershowitz withered, but the deep roots remained.

Through the help of a childhood friend, Dr. Cernea managed to escape Romania a few years later. “That’s another story,” Dana Cernea said; it’s an astounding one, but has nothing to do with Mr. Dershowitz. So, in the mid-1970s, Michael Cernea found himself with the World Bank, an institution from which he has just retired. He retooled his career to specialize, logically enough, in displacement. “Say China wants to build a dam,” his daughter explained. “It will give electricity to millions of people. What do they have to do to secure money from the World Bank? What do they have to do in order to receive this money? What kind of social, cultural, economic provisions do they have to make for the people they are displacing? Can they sustain their culture? Are they impoverishing them?”

The Romanian government made it clear that his children would lead miserable lives in Romania, and that they would not be allowed to leave.

Her father’s best-known book, “‘Putting People First,’ is a classic textbook in cultural anthropology” addressing these issues, Dana Cernea said.

So there Michael Cernea was in suburban Washington, with a great job, intellectual challenges, and the chance to influence other people’s lives for the better — but without his children, and unable to get them.

The Romanian government made it clear that his children would lead miserable lives in Romania, and that they would not be allowed to leave. “When my father defected, we lost all the privileges that the government gave,” Dr. Cernea said. Her mother was dead, after many years and much hardship her maternal grandparents “had received coveted visas to go to Israel,” so they lived with their father’s mother. They did not get the food stamps that had helped stock their pantry, and they were not allowed medical care; in fact, when her brother needed X-rays, a doctor had to sneak into their apartment in the middle of the night and concoct a plan to fake an identity to get the boy the care he needed.

Michael Cernea did not give up, though.

As soon as he defected, he “contacted Alan and renewed their friendship, and Alan said ‘Okay, I’ll help you get your children out.’

“That proved to be a very rocky road.”

At first, Dr. Cernea did the obvious things. He worked with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society — HIAS specialized in getting children out of Eastern Europe. “My father had a little bit of money put aside, and he offered to pay. HIAS asked the Romanians, and the answer was, ‘Hell, no. Those kids are here. Either he comes back or he’ll never see his kids again.’

“My father knew that if he came back, they’d throw him in prison. Either way, he’d never see us again,” Dana said. “I was 9 and Andrei was 6. It was not very good.”

The World Bank, Michael Cernea’s employer, was unwilling to help. It tried to stay out of local politics.

Next, Michael and Alan tried the Red Cross. “It tried, but they were told no, these kids can’t go.”

It was by now two years after he had escaped. He was getting desperate. “They tried private bartering — when you give money to a carrier who bartered for specific children and kept a fee — sort of a like a coyote who gets people across the Mexican border. That was what you did for controversial people, people who had baggage.” People like the Cernea children, whose baggage was their father’s escape, and his visibility.

Probably the coyote would not have succeeded, but it’s hard to know. “That guy got killed in a road accident,” Dana said. “I don’t think it had anything to do with us. I hope it didn’t have anything to do with us.”

During all this time, Michael Cernea was in touch with Dana and Andrei by code, sneaking them messages, telling them not to give up hope. They heard from him through unusual channels. For example, Daniel and Shira Segal were young students of Alan’s at Harvard Law School. “They came to Romania to see us, they brought us a siddur, they brought us extra codes, and they told us not to lose hope.” Still, Michael and Alan “were at their wits’ end,” Dana said. “Alan tried various other things. None of them worked. My father finally said, ‘Alan, if you don’t get my kids out, I am going to go on a hunger strike in front of the White House.’

“And then Alan said, ‘I have one more possibility. Ted Kennedy.’”

Edward Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, was one of the Senate’s most powerful members. Alan Dershowitz, who lived in Cambridge, was one of Mr. Kennedy’s constituents.

“Alan can’t take no for an answer, even from a country, let alone from a person,” Dana Cernea said. “So he said, ‘I will take it to the top,’ and shortly thereafter he talked to Kennedy. He told Kennedy, ‘You have to do me this favor. Get these kids out, through the highest-level intervention you can think of. Kennedy said, ‘I will do this for you, no matter what it costs. No matter what it takes, I will do it.’

“Kennedy went to Nixon’s office” — Richard M. Nixon then was president, although his tenure soon was to end. And this is God’s intervention,” Dr. Cernea said. “Nixon happened to receive a telephone call from Nikolai Ceausescu.” (We should all pause for a moment at this point of the story and imagine a Democratic senator going to a Republican president’s office and being allowed to stay while the president took a phone call. That level of trust — not a word we normally associate with Richard Nixon — is not a feature of today’s politics.)

“Ceausescu was considering not quite jumping ship then, but aligning himself more with the West, just to hedge his bets,” Dr. Cernea said. “He was smart enough to want to do that, although more covertly than Yugoslavia had done, because look what happened to Yugoslavia.”

Mr. Kennedy listened to the conversation, she continued. “When he realized who was on the phone with Nixon, Kennedy went through his pockets, frantically looking for the index cards with the names of those people he had promised Dershowitz he’d try to get out.

“He finally found the cards with our names. When he could tell that Nixon and Ceausescu were approaching the end of their conversation — and it also sounded like Nixon had made some concession to Ceausescu — he got a big piece of paper.

“He wrote our names, and he wrote, ‘These two small children must come out of Romania immediately. No politics involved.’

“He stuck the note under Nixon’s nose. At the last minute, Nixon said, ‘Wait. I have these two children I want out immediately.’ Ceausescu didn’t know who we were, but he said, ‘Done. They can be out tomorrow if you want.’

“So Kennedy finished his audience with Nixon, and he walked out and called Alan and said, ‘You know what? I think I have a chance to get those two kids out.’”

There were some more machinations, but 48 hours later, Dana and Andrei Cernea were out of Romania.

It wasn’t easy for them. They had to leave everything they knew behind. They also had to renounce their Romanian citizenship at the border. “Everything we left behind” — every last teddy bear and family photograph and pot and pan — “became state property,” Dana said. “We took some picture albums, our clothes, a few sweaters, and our mother’s candlesticks,” she added. “I am very good at packing now, and I never hold onto anything.

“Still, Alan had a major problem on his hands,” she continued. The two Cernea children were stateless; they had given up their Romanian citizenship but had nothing with which to replace it. They were allowed into Amsterdam, but they had to stay there; their father traveled back and forth between there and Washington as he worked to get them to the United States.

In the end, it was Alan Dershowitz who came through.

Alan Dershowitz at Princeton University, with Dana Cernea and her daughter Rebecca, then a junior.
Alan Dershowitz at Princeton University, with Dana Cernea and her daughter Rebecca, then a junior.

“I don’t know how he did it, but I do know that he pulled every string he could think of,” Dr. Cernea said. “When we first came to the United States, I remember a very young Alan meeting us at Kennedy Airport with our green cards in his hand.” That was the first time she met the lawyer.

“My father didn’t even have a green card,” she continued; as an international civil servant, he had a G-4 visa instead.

Since then, the Cerneas’ friendship with Alan Dershowitz has continued, and their rescue became the first of many similar interventions he has completed, Dr. Cernea said. “Once he was successful with us, he decided to take on several hard and complex cases of Jews trapped behind the Iron Curtain,” she said. “One of those cases was Anatoly Sharanksy.”

Dr. Cernea has gone on to become an internist, with a flourishing practice in Fair Lawn; she and her husband, Eric Sichel, have five children, ranging in age from 2 to 22. Mr. Dershowitz has continued to act as both her friend and her mentor. “In addition to getting us here, investing both time and energy, he invested amazing human capital,” she said. “He helped and mentored me through college, medical school, and way beyond.”

Dr. Cernea believes that serendipity — or perhaps, as she sees it, God’s hand — has guided her relationship with Mr. Dershowitz, because any one of the opportunities he, her father, Mr. Kennedy, or even Mr. Nixon took easily could have missed, and where would she be then?

To bring the story back to the top of the pull-down menu about Mr. Dershowitz’s book on Abraham — although not as much in his capacity as a lawyer but as a role model for human behavior — Dr. Cernea offers this thought: “Just like Abraham, Alan Dershowitz is immensely hospitable.

“His old house at Harvard University, a rambling mansion where his kids grew up, was always open to students — undergrads and law students — visiting Soviet dissidents, and wandering or wondering Jews of any stripe.” There, with a backdrop of enough food to keep the argumentative students fully fueled, “there always were intense debates,” she said.

It is not surprising that Alan Dershowitz chose a complex and challenging character to use as a model. After all, it takes one to know one.

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