When Shmelke Diamond first telephoned my office and said that he would like me to meet his father, a New York State Supreme Court Justice in Nassau County, Long Island, I was uninterested. An honest judge operates within a dry system of legal precedent, and his personal opinions are almost irrelevant. But Shmelke pressed on. “I’m a baal teshuvah,” he stated almost pleadingly. I still didn’t find that any more enticing. I’ve met baalei teshuvah from all different backgrounds and families, so being the son of a judge didn’t seem all that different. It was only when he mentioned that he was a Satmar chasid that he had me hooked. To the best of my knowledge, I’d never met a Satmar baal teshuvah before.
It has been said that it is not flesh and blood but the heart that makes fathers and sons. I thought I knew a thing or two about fathers and the human heart, but when I meet Justice Artie Diamond in his chambers in the rather daunting Nassau County Supreme Court building in Mineola, he opens for me an entirely new vista on compassion and fatherhood.
The courtroom he presides over has been emptied for a lunch break, and a lone court officer guards the room, which has an air of foreboding. Someone once observed that a courtroom is the most depressing place on Earth, ostensibly because of the injustice that is sometimes meted out there. I find that the justice dispensed is equally depressing, as whenever a case is litigated one side must invariably lose, and sometimes even both sides. But Justice Diamond’s candor puts me at ease and makes me feel at home. He is exceptionally warm and amiable.
“My story isn’t unique,” he insists after we are seated and have exchanged pleasantries. “I’m a father of an Orthodox son. But there are many judges who are Orthodox themselves, and now with Ruchie Freier, there’s even a chasidic judge on the bench. The reason my son’s story is particularly interesting is that he grew up in a Jewish family that had been Reform for a number of generations, and he can now pass as a regular Satmar chasid.”
“It is fascinating,” I say in agreement, “because Satmar isn’t known for its outreach.”
“That’s true, but he finagled it and managed to launch himself into the community. He knows how to present himself and makes a good impression. I’ve met both Rebbes; I don’t pick and choose,” he says with a smile. “Both of them have been very generous and kind to me. I’ve also participated in their gatherings on Chaf Alef Kislev.”
“What was your impression of them?”
“There were a lot of Jews!” he replies. And he seems to mean that in a nice way.
I ask Justice Diamond how many children he has.
“Just the one. My wife and I married late; I was 40 and she was 36, and right after Spencer [Shmelke’s English name] was born she got cancer, which sometimes makes it dangerous to have more children. I have since come to understand that Hashem gives you what you can handle, and he turned out to be quite a handful! Everything changed because of him. I don’t think we would have kicked him out of the house [when he became observant] if we had had five children, but being an only child certainly shaped our reaction.”
“When did he start leaning towards Orthodoxy?” I inquire.