Paul Tractenberg of West Orange turned 83 about a week ago.
About a month before that, he won his first poker tournament. But it’s not as if he’d been working toward that goal for his entire life. It not only was his first win, it was his first tournament.
Not at all incidentally, the tournament was in support of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces; Mr. Tractenberg is a great supporter of Israel and of the IDF.
Mr. Tractenberg has had a life filled with ambitious goals that he’s met and surpassed; he’s a lawyer, a professor emeritus at Rutgers University’s law school (he taught there for 45 years and has been retired for 5 1/2), a longtime activist for civil rights in general and for appropriate, equal education for children with disadvantages in particular, the author of many articles, and the holder of many visiting professorships all over the world. (His resume is 13 pages long; most of them filled with the titles of his published work.)
He’s a lifelong Jersey boy (notwithstanding those brief times abroad, in DC, or even once, unavoidably, in Staten Island) and a committed Jew.
And then there’s that tournament he just won…
Mr. Tractenberg was “born at the Beth,” he said; to translate from Weequahic-ese, he was born at Beth Israel Hospital there, he went to Weequahic High School, “and I graduated five or six years after Philip Roth did,” he said. “I didn’t meet him. I didn’t know him. But when ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ came out, entirely unfounded rumors circulated that I was the model for the main character, who was a public interest lawyer.
“I don’t think that I was the model — there were just professional parallels — but I had to go around saying that I never had a relationship with a piece of liver.”
It was a very Weequahic childhood.
He lived right across the street from Maple Avenue Elementary School, he said, and the school’s playground had a plain brick wall with no windows. “I chalked a strike zone on that wall, and I practiced on it,” he said. He was practicing to become a pitcher.
He came from a baseball-obsessed family. His father would take him to Yankee games; he remembers seeing them play the Red Sox. One of his father’s coworkers had played baseball professionally and was friends with Casey Stengel. Once, Mr. Tractenberg remembers, his father got a letter from his coworker to Casey Stengel, and father and son walked to the Yankee clubhouse to deliver it.
“And as we were standing outside, out walked my hero, Joe DiMaggio. He was resplendent, with perfect creases in his pants and his shoes shined to a high gloss,” Mr. Tractenberg said. He shook hands with young Paul, “and I didn’t wash my hands for three weeks. And then an attendant brought out a baseball signed by the 1947 Yankees.
“I still have that ball.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, “My life’s ambition until I was 17 was to be a professional baseball player,” Mr. Tractenberg continued. “I had some offers when I was in high school, but I wasn’t prepared to go that route. And then I pitched the first game of my freshman year in college, and I hurt my arm.”
That college was Wesleyan; after he graduated he went to law school at the University of Michigan. An early first marriage ended after 15 years, two children, and not enough maturity, he said. His second marriage, to Neimah, who was born in Israel, has flourished for 43 years, and Mr. Tractenberg said that he is very close to his stepson and his family and adores his four grandchildren, who also live in Essex County.
Neither of Mr. Tractenberg’s parents, Jack and Ida — both of whom were the American-born children of immigrants — were religiously observant, and neither had to chance to pursue higher education. “They were Depression-era kids,” he said. “My father had to drop out of high school. He was well-read but not formally educated. He lied about his age to join the Army when he was 17,” in 1919. “I grew up in a totally assimilated home. My father worked evenings, and I can’t remember ever having a Shabbat dinner.”
The Weequahic where he grew up was both deeply Jewish and not particularly Jewish at all, Mr. Tractenberg said. Almost everyone he knew was Jewish, but there was not much visible religion. “Virtually all my Jewish friends and I celebrated Christmas,” he said. “We would spend Christmas day comparing gifts.” His father “had developed a very active, almost ugly hostility to Judaism, and to organized religion. But to my amazement, when I was approaching bar mitzvah age, my father said ‘You have to go to Hebrew school and get bar mitzvahed.’” He did, at Temple B’nai Abraham, which then was led by the nearly legendary Rabbi Joachim Prinz. “He was a towering figure, but not much engaged with bar mitzvah kids,” he said. “There were five us of us being bar mitzvahed together, on a hot day in June, and the one comment Rabbi Prinz made to me, when he was coming around for the benediction, and I was swearing heavily, was to say ‘You’re schvitzing a lot!’
“And I remember the little Jewish music teacher in Maple Avenue Elementary School, which was overwhelmingly Jewish,” he continued. “Mrs. Kleiman. She was a good violinist, and she would lead us around the hallways at Christmastime, singing Christmas carols. So here was a bunch of Jewish kids, led by a Jewish teacher, singing Christmas carols to other Jewish kids.”
Jack Tractenberg managed a bowling alley in Elizabeth for many years, and then he and his brother “opened a neighborhood tavern in Trenton,” his son said. “It was not a high-end place. It was a rough-hewn neighborhood place.” And Ida Tractenberg, “who was a beautiful woman, had an overactive pituitary gland, ended up with a hunchback, and wouldn’t go out in public.
“It was a difficult childhood, and my parents ended up living their lives vicariously through me. They reveled in everything I accomplished.”
Paul Tractenberg graduated from law school in 1963 and moved back east. After a stint in Staten Island so he could be eligible to take the New York bar exam, the family headed back to Essex County, where he’s been ever since. And “I guess having children forced my hand about religion,” he said. So his relationship to the religious part of the Jewish community evolved.
The family joined a synagogue. The first one was Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in East Orange; the rabbi there introduced Mr. Tractenberg to Neimah, and later performed the wedding. As his relationship with Neimah grew ever stronger, so too did his relationship to the Jewish state and the Jewish people.
“Neimah grew up in Israel, and we traveled there regularly,” Mr. Tractenberg said. “Being there sparked something in me.”
As a result of their deepening commitment, “we decided that Reform wasn’t cutting it for us, so we joined Beth El in South Orange,” Mr. Tractenberg said. The family stayed there until a controversial rabbi made it inhospitable for them; “we followed the cantor to Beth Sholom in Livingston,” Mr. Tractenberg said. That’s where the family is today.
Neimah Tractenberg retired from a long career at the Jewish Federation of MetroWest, where she was in charge of missions and worked in development.
Meanwhile, after a few years at a law firm, Sullivan and Cromwell — a job he enjoyed for its intellectual challenges, not to mention its financial rewards, but realized was not for him long-term — Mr. Tractenberg left to work in the counsel’s office to the “still-pretty-new Peace Corps in Washington,” he said. “It was a great experience.” The new group’s founding director, Sargent Shriver, was inspirational. “But his successor wasn’t up to Shriver’s level,” he said. The general counsel soon left. “He didn’t suffer fools well,” Mr. Trachtenberg said. Clearly, he didn’t either. Soon he also left, lured by a job as onsite counsel for New York’s Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s blue-ribbon commission reviewing the state’s human rights laws; next, he was counsel to the New York City public school system, “which was under a mandate to decentralize itself.”
As his career continued, Mr. Tractenberg found himself at the center of cutting-edge legal situations. He worked for a fair housing group in Newark, and his career took him ever deeper into issues of fairness in education. Even while he was at another law firm, Fried Frank — the only law firms he worked at were the storied ones — “I always had the idea of teaching law at the back of my mind,” he said. “Living in Newark, being a Newark kid, I always thought of teaching at Rutgers Law School in Newark.”
He did. And he followed his passion for education law there too.
Perhaps Mr. Tractenberg’s most durable legal achievement was the Education Law Center, which he founded at Rutgers Law School in 1973. For the next four decades, the center, with Mr. Tractenberg visibly at its head (and its heart), was the guiding force in the battle to compel New Jersey to provide a “thorough and efficient” education to all its students by rebalancing funding between poorer and richer districts. The center’s challenge resulted in the famous Abbott v. Burke ruling. “That was the case where 31 poor urban districts filed a case, with the Education Law Center as its lawyer, challenging unequal funding,” Mr. Tractenberg said. In various forms, “it’s still going on, and it has resulted in literally tens of billions of dollars for state education aid being directed at those poor districts.”
For two years, Mr. Tractenberg overlapped with another Rutgers law professor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who taught there from 1963 to 1972; the two stayed in at least sporadic touch for the rest of her life.
Rutgers “was her first real job,” Mr. Tractenberg said. “She graduated from Columbia Law School in 1961. She was first in her class. If she were a man, she would have been fighting off job offers and Supreme Court clerkships, but she couldn’t get an offer. Felix Frankfurter,” then a Supreme Court justice, “rejected her. He said he couldn’t possibly hire a woman. She couldn’t get a job at a firm.” When Rutgers hired her, “there were only 17 women serving as law professors in the entire United States,” Mr. Tractenberg said. “Rutgers was one of the few schools that had more than one woman on its faculty. It had two.
“She was paid less than men, she had a shorter contract, and when she got pregnant she had to borrow clothes from her mother, who was bigger than she was, so she could hide her pregnancy.
“At the behest of the growing number of women students, she became involved in women’s rights issues.” The field was almost nonexistent then, so Ms. Ginsburg had to do a great deal of research, which affected the rest of her career.
When he joined the Rutgers faculty in 1970, Mr. Trachtenberg said, he and Ms. Ginsburg “became friendly.
“It was fascinating. She was really shy, quiet, and withdrawn; intently focused on her subject matter but not a particularly sociable person until she got to her 80s, and then she almost had a personality change. She not only became the Notorious RBG, she seemed to revel in it. She didn’t seem comfortable in her own skin when I met her, but she increasingly became comfortable in it. In her 80s, she loved it.
“My most intense contact with Ruth and Marty” — her husband, the lawyer Martin Ginsburg — “other than our shared two years at Rutgers was in the mid 1980s, when the Danforth Foundation was running one-week seminars for federal judges. One year, when the subject was education law, I was invited to be on the faculty, and so was Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was not yet on the Supreme Court. It was at a ski resort in July.
“Because we knew each other, we had our meals together, and we hung out together.
“One morning, I’m at breakfast, and she’s not there yet, but Marty is, and he looks incredibly happy and buoyant. So I said, ‘What happened? Is today a special day?’ and he said ‘Ruth smiled this morning.’
“That means that even with the love of her life, she was on the dour side.
“But Marty died in 2010, and she lived the last 10 years of her life without him, and it was almost as if she took on some of his characteristics.”
What about poker?
“I have been a longtime player in a weekly home game that started as a Rutgers law faculty game,” Mr. Tractenberg said. He already was tenured when the game started, but many of the players were not, until “we realized that no nontenured person who played the game ever got tenure. We knew it was correlation, not causation — but stilI it was hard to fill the table with faculty members, so we branched out to practicing lawyers.” The game’s been going on for 45 years, although it’s been on hold during the pandemic.
Mr. Tractenberg had never played in a tournament, “but I got an email promoting the New Jersey branch of the FIDF,” the Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces. “I said, ‘Great! I’m in! It should be fun.’
“I thought that it would be mainly philanthropic, not competitive. But I did pick up a poker book…”
The game was entirely online. That was brand-new for Mr. Tractenberg. “All you see is the image of a poker table, with the name of the player in each position and some buttons.” Those buttons are what a player pushes to play the game. “It’s very different. A few times I hit the wrong button. It’s really hard to stay carefully focused, because it is just a screen.
“It takes a different skill set.
“I went into the New Jersey elimination tournament because I thought the IDF is a worthy cause to support,” he continued. “I was prepared to support it and say ‘thank you very much’ at the end. I got consistently bad cards dealt to me in New Jersey, so I played very tight. I folded if I had to. I didn’t do a lot of bluffing. And it worked well for me.
“I was kind of husbanding my chips and waiting for good cards, which almost never came. I was shocked that I wound up third in New Jersey, with those poor cards. I felt that given the cards I had received, I played very well, and I was very pleasantly surprised to find myself finishing third.
“The rule is that the top five got to go to the next level.
“At the national finals, I told my wife that ‘I just don’t want to embarrass myself.’
“There were about 55 players, and about half a dozen of them were ringers — professionals or very serious amateurs, including Eli Elezra and Gershon Distenfeld. All I could see was table names. This was all gravy to me, getting to play in the national final.
“You get $5,000 in chips in the national tournament, and if you lose it in the first half you are entitled to rebuy twice. In the second half, you have whatever chips you have. Within half an hour, I lost my $5,000 in chips and I decided I would rebuy. This is a good cause.
“So I rebought, and it was like those chips were magic. Suddenly I kept getting great cards, winning unlikely hands, and the next thing I knew I had 380,000 chips and the next player had under 100,000. What little I knew about tournament poker was that if you have a big stack you have to try to bully people. So I did.
“And then I went all in a number of times, and they beat me. And the next thing I know is that my chip stack is heading below 100,000, and somehow they had more than 300,000.
“This was the final table. I thought that I’d had a good run. I no longer had the big stack. I probably would be bullied out of what I have.
“And the next thing I knew, I had all the chips.
“It felt amazing. It was surreal. Particularly when we were down to two tables, maybe 16 players, and I wind up at a table with Eli Elezra. I had a pair of fours dealt to me. It was a playable hand, but still… Not at all often a winning hand. But I went up with just the two of us, Elie and me.
“I thought okay, I’m in for it, and the last card turns over, and it was a small card and — I won the hand! I knocked him out of the game!
“It was a total surreal moment. I went head to head with a professional player who won five bracelets in the World Series of Poker.”
A month later, the awe was audible in Mr. Tractenberg’s voice.
“It was surreal,” he repeated. “I never thought I could seriously compete, let alone win the tournament. This almost 83-year-old guy who had never played tournament poker winning the tournament.”
And all because he wanted to support the IDF.