At BHS event, Judge Jack Weinstein recalls growing up in old Brooklyn
A lot has been written and said about Judge Jack B. Weinstein’s prolific legal career, but during a packed event at the Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) on Tuesday night the judge took a look back at his life before the law — his days growing up in Brooklyn, his years as an officer in the Navy and the ways his youth influenced his career.
Judge Weinstein, of the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of New York, sat down with Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, to discuss his life. To prepare for the event, Weinstein drove around all the different parts of the borough that were important to him, many of which he had not visited in over 40 years.
Weinstein spoke about his birth in Wichita, Kansas in 1921, and moving to Brooklyn about five years later. He discussed growing up on Rodney Street in Williamsburg where his father once owned a shoe repair shop, going to P.S. 205 and Seth Low Intermediate School in Bensonhurst and eventually his days at Lincoln High School in Coney Island.
“I was a terrible student in P.S. 205,” Weinstein admitted. “Fortunately, I had a handsome father and beautiful mother. My father would visit the lady teachers and explain why I shouldn’t be left back and my mother would visit the principal.”
After graduating high school, Weinstein went to Brooklyn College, which was free to attend at the time. Weinstein recalled volunteering to fight in WWII prior to graduating, but was instructed that if he finished his degree he would go into the Navy as an officer, which is what he did. During the war, Weinstein realized that his free public education still put him at the level of other officers who had graduated from Yale and Harvard.
“To take a trolley to Brooklyn College to be exposed to Greek philosophy and mathematicians and other things — it changed my life,” Weinstein said. “And it was free, absolutely free. My education was remarkable and it made all the difference in the world in my ability to move on.
“It made me a firm believer of what government can do when it’s properly handled because much of my life was due to public buildings like Seth Low, Brooklyn College and also the [Brooklyn Public Library] and the [Brooklyn Museum].”
Weinstein went to Brooklyn College during the Depression; his father had lost his job so the family often ate stolen food or food that “fell off a truck,” as the judge put it. Being poor meant that he had to work during the day, mostly odd jobs, while going to school at night. Among those odd jobs was a stint as a Broadway actor, and not because he wanted to be an actor — he was admittedly a weak actor — but because the job guaranteed $25 a week.
It was at Brooklyn College where Weinstein met his wife Evelyn Horowitz Weinstein, as she was giving away free cigarettes on campus. Weinstein didn’t smoke, but recalled meeting her again in the library, where the two hit it off.
“I took her up to Manhattan, and for $1 you could get a steak dinner, for 15 cents you could go to the movies and another nickel you could get home,” Weinstein said. “Unfortunately, she lived in East New York and I lived in Williamsburg. It was a chase. Eventually, I got her back [to Williamsburg], but that involved marriage.”
When Weinstein returned from the war, he used the G.I. Bill to go to Columbia Law School for free. He credited the G.I. Bill with making a drastic change in his life and said he saw that reflected in other people and the economy as well.
“I can’t believe that the little kid who was scared of the trolleys is here with a great professor [who is] actually lying to you about my importance,” Weinstein joked.
The judge also discussed a number of aspects of his legal career during a Q&A session. Some of the questions he spun as a joke: “I’m most proud of waking up every day,” he laughed. But he did touch on some of his work with the NAACP and Thurgood Marshall. “He was a giant. I went to work with him and he sort of took me on as a kind of mascot.”
Weinstein’s discussion also focused on his work on the desegregation order of the Mark Twain Intermediate School in Coney Island. Like much of his legal career, his views were heavily shaped by growing up in Brooklyn.
“I walked the streets of [Coney Island],” he said. “It was a deteriorated, bottomed-out, red-lined, all black neighborhood, created in part by the city sending all of its welfare people there and the federal government allowing red-lining. I walked those streets, and as a result I was horrified, and that has affected my work in desegregation in many ways. After all, I ate stolen food, to put it bluntly.”
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