“Whoever did not want to hire me as a lawyer found themselves in court with me as their judge!” With these words chareidi judge, Lee First, began our interview. In the 1950’s she became a lawyer and was later promoted to Supervising Judge for the Workers Compensation Board of the state of New York. At ninety-one she has just published her second autobiography in which she shares Torah thoughts and her personal wisdom.
We sat together in the lobby of the Ramada Hotel in Jerusalem, where Lee stays several times a year to be with her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Dressed fashionably and always smiling, she is someone who loves beauty, joy and life. She is definitely one of the most enlightening women that I have ever met. Her youthful energy is contagious.
Her new book, Life Can be Fragile, Handle with Prayer, is truly uplifting. It begins with an explanation of the minhag to dip bread in salt, a substance that does not stand alone. The purpose of salt is only to enhance what we eat. So, too, we must make it our mission to improve someone else’s life. That is Lee’s byword.
In her book Lee quotes her mother, Rebbetzin Gittel Blech, o.b.m, who, when asked how she achieved a happy marriage that lasted over sixty years, her unforgettable response was, “I accomplished it because I did not know that I had to be happy!” Happiness does not depend on our external circumstances, but on our attitude.
Justice is Blonde, Lee’s first and most popular autobiography, was written about thirty years ago. As she explains, “My beloved husband, Harry First, o.b.m., passed away two years ago. Yet I refused to lose my good spirits. According to Jewish law a widow is allowed to remarry after thirty days! I knew that I must continue to give to and teach others. My grandchildren visit me and always appreciate my divrei Torah, which makes the meal ‘complete.’ Thus last year, after turning ninety, I undertook a project of every morning writing them down in an updated version of my autobiography.”
From the Rescue Ship to Law School
Lee, who arrived in America when she was twelve years old and could not speak one word of English, never imagined that one day she would be known as the Honorable Judge First.
“It was 1939, the winds of war raged throughout Europe, but my father, Rabbi Benzion Blech, o.b.m., miraculously succeeded in bringing his parents from Vienna to Switzerland. My father, who was a direct descendant of nine generations of rabbis, received a rabbinical position in America. Therefore we attained the certificates necessary for immigration. My father dedicated his life to teaching Torah in Yeshiva Toras Emes in Brooklyn, and is forever remembered by his many students.”
As we converse in the lobby, several tourists in the hotel fondly call out to Lee, “How are you today, Judge?” A judge always remains a judge, even after retiring. Lee continues her story:
“My grandmother passed away soon after arriving in Switzerland, but we took care of my grandfather, who was crippled, throughout our voyage to America and he lived with us when we settled in Brooklyn. We traveled from Switzerland to Spain, where we waited fearfully many days for the departure of our boat to New York. The boat was overcrowded, there was hardly enough food, and in these unsanitary conditions my father got very ill. The boat docked in Madrid to enable him to be hospitalized, and we were reunited as a family three months later.
“In 1941, we arrived in America, where an aunt had prepared lodgings and food for us. I learned to speak English, and became fluent in several languages. I began my studies in Brooklyn College with a goal to become a teacher of foreign languages. But these plans quickly changed when I met my future husband, Harry First, who was a law student and encouraged me to embark on a legal career. He believed that I would succeed. There I was, a rabbi’s daughter from a Torah observant home, as a law student in an era where female lawyers were almost totally nonexistent!”
After their marriage Lee and Harry opened a law practice, “First and First.” Six years later Lee gave birth to a son, and soon afterwards had two more children. Determined as she was, she hired help for the children, and continued building her law career.
“It was not easy, but we found a maid that we trusted to be with our children. I would give her instructions to make sure that they napped before I came home at five o’clock, so that we could spend enjoyable family time together until they went to sleep, which was relatively late. I was trying to be successful in both roles, as a lawyer and as a mother. Staying at home all day with three very young children also wouldn’t have been easy for me!”
In 1977, Lee became a judge for the Workers Compensation Board of the state of New York. After several years she was appointed as their supervising judge, and became president of the Metropolitan Women’s Bar Association. Lee always gives her husband credit for all of his wholehearted support for her career promotions.
Entering the courtroom as a judge was a tremendous accomplishment. Only twenty years earlier when she was about to present a case as a lawyer, the presiding judge called her over and told her quite firmly, “I suggest that you leave the court. Go home, and have your husband come instead. I only speak to lawyers.” Lee adds, “Can you imagine what would happen if the same scenario would occur today?”
Lee’s colleagues were always impressed by the words of wisdom from the Torah and the sages that were interspersed between the lines of her legal decisions. Those present in the courtroom would often ask themselves: “Are we standing in the courtroom of a judge or a rebbetzin?”
“Did you ever regret one of your verdicts,” I ask.
“No!” is Lee’s unequivocal response. Her lighthearted manner suddenly becomes serious, as is suitable for a judge. “A judge must be quick in rendering his decisions, without hesitation. I always felt that Hashem had endowed me with the capability to analyze my cases with clarity, and give a decision without any unnecessary postponement, which can be extremely difficult for the litigants. In America there is a saying, ‘Justice delayed is justice denied.’ Litigants who are not satisfied with the decision always have the option of appealing to the Supreme Court.”
Though her exciting career in court is history, Lee still finds herself busy almost every minute of the day. When asked how she maintains her youthful exuberance, she divulges her secret: “After retiring as a judge I devoted myself to matchmaking and to arranging singles events in New York. Besides the successful matches, spending time with the young crowd helps me to stay young myself!”
Our interview ends with one of Lee’s amusing anecdotes. “When my mother was in her nineties she could barely hear anymore. I bought her a hearing aid, which she adamantly refused to wear, exclaiming, “I have heard enough!”
Judge Lee First has dedicated her new book to her beloved husband, Harry First. It can be purchased through Riverdale Judaica at 718-601-7563.