Philip Straniere, a veteran judge, is facing a ponderous decision these days: Esther or Vashti?
Straniere, who has served on Staten Island’s 2nd Civil Court District 15 years, is considering the two major female characters in the Torah’s Book of Esther for an important song parody in a Purim shpiel he is writing.
A lifelong member of the borough’s Temple Israel, he has written a few such humorous Purim plays, takeoffs of popular Broadway musicals, for his congregation — when he’s not dropping bits of humor and well-known or arcane cultural references into his legal decisions. Or cracking wise from the bench.
“It’s cheaper than therapy,” he says — not seriously, of course — one recent morning in his judicial office, which is lined with New York Yankees photos and memorabilia, and supplied with such books as an encyclopedia of humor and a dictionary of puns.
At 65, with a clipped moustache and full head of white hair, he’s a man who clearly enjoys his vocation and avocation, and is receiving recognition for his ability to bring humor into both.
Straniere, who previously served in private practice for two decades and has written a humor article for the Richmond County Bar Association Newsletter on “Ten Tips for Trial Attorneys,” was among a few judges across the country featured in a recent Wall Street Journal profile of colleagues who introduce humor into their written decisions. “I’ve written … some humorous pieces for the Richmond County [Staten Island] Bar Association,” he told the Journal. “One was a play on the ‘Who’s on First?’ routine that dealt with the service of process.”
The New York Times also did a recent story about Straniere (“In This Judge’s Decisions, You Never Know Who Will Crop Up”) that called him “the bard of Staten Island courts” and described his “prolific, if unorthodox” use of “homespun advice, original lyrics, puns and, on occasion, withering sarcasm.”
Guilty on all counts, the judge, an Eagle Scout, says. He employs the humor and cultural references to engage the plaintiffs and defendants in his cases, many of whom don’t have attorneys to interpret most judges’ standard, turgid legalistic prose.
“A teaching tool. I use [the humor] to make a legal point,” he says. “I try to write so people can read it; I’m writing for the public. The trick is not to make fun of the litigants.”
“Unable to fulfill his childhood dreams of playing center field for the New York Yankees (couldn’t hit the curve ball) or starring in a Broadway musical (couldn’t tap as fast as Ann Miller),” Straniere’s official biography states, “he is attempting to achieve his parents’ expectations of him to make the world a better place … by serving the public as a judge.”
Straniere recently discovered that a Long Island attorney had used the humor in the judge’s decisions as the basis of a 115-page academic paper for delivery at the conference of the Mid-Atlantic Popular/American Culture Association in Philadelphia. Kenneth Ryesky, from East Northport, had researched the judge’s decisions online and never contacted Straniere beforehand.
The paper — “Never a Stranger to the Popular Culture: A Survey of Arts, Entertainment and Popular Culture References in the Judicial Opinions of Judge Philip S. Straniere” — stated that the judge “take[s] pains to write opinions of fine literary and legal value,” and “author[s] decisions which constitute pleasing literature in their own right.”
Ryesky, who pointed out that he “has never appeared before Judge Straniere,” cites references in Straniere’s decisions to such far-flung figures as the Odyssey and Sholem Aleichem, the Golem and Monty Python, and myriad Broadway productions. And, predictably, the Yankees. The paper brings dozens of examples of Straniere’s written wit.
“I need to keep current on legal developments, which entails lots of reading, including judicial opinions from the various courts,” Ryesky tells The Jewish Week in an e-mail interview. “I noticed a pattern in the Straniere opinions … and started keeping a separate ‘Read Note’ file on them. That ‘Read Note’ file eventually morphed into a scholarly paper – I needed some variety (and, perhaps, some comic relief) from the scholarly works and other writing I typically do.
“The use of a sense of humor by a judge is an indicium of intellect, which the public expects of its judiciary,” Ryesky says. “More importantly … the use of humor in a judicial opinion indicates that the judge who issued the opinion wants it to be read and noticed. Humor in judicial opinions is the antitheses of the secret trials typically associated with totalitarian regimes, and the secret judgments by corrupt judges during the battle for control of the Erie Railroad during the late 1860s. Judicial humor, as utilized by Judge Straniere, implicitly means that the judge is taking ownership of his or her judicial pronouncements. And the public wants an accountable judiciary.”
Among the examples of humor in Ryesky’s paper is, in a case centering on a property’s certificate of occupancy, the rhetorical observation that “to be politically correct, this Court is rejecting the sexism illustrated by calling [certain housing units] ‘mother-daughter’ homes. Such a connotation lacks sensitivity and fails to reflect ‘father-son’ relationships. Would a housing development containing mother-son homes be an ‘Oedipus complex?’” And, chastising a defendant, who claimed he was “too busy,” for failing to perform a required action promptly: “Seven years is a long time to be busy. It took Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition less than half that time to circumnavigate the world in wooded ships … Cal Ripken Jr. (1981-2001) played consecutive 1,134 games of baseball in seven years … World War II in Europe lasted only six years (1939-1945). Yet the defendant was unable to complete his contractual obligation to the plaintiffs in seven years.”
Straniere says he discovered his penchant for written humor when required to write a holiday play for his high school Student Association. The finished product, about “elves on strike,” was a success.
Later, he did some summer stock and community theater acting.
So he was prepared when the then-rabbi of Temple Israel asked him to try his hand at a Purim shpiel about 20 years ago. He’s done it a few times, producing Megillah-based versions of “My Fair Lady” and “Bye Bye Birdie,” replete with corny rhymes and groaner puns.
The goal is “to remember the history … our Jewish history,” says Straniere, who’s a member of Jewish War Veterans and chair of the Staten Island Jewish Committee on Scouting.
Other members of Temple Israel will produce this year’s Purim shpiel next week, he says. He’ll attend, with his next holiday play, a Jewish spin-off of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” in the back of his mind. That’s where Esther and Vashti come in.
He hopes the new Purim shpiel will be ready for next year. If he’s asked to write the play then. “I’m always available.”
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