Posted: Friday, March 17, 2017 – 3:09 PM
By Ron Fields
After my classes at USC I would sit in at the small claims and traffic courts on South Wall Street to enjoy the goings on there. A few years ago I sat in for a day watching the involved participants at the second trial of the State of California vs. Phil Spector. My contemporaries liked to play golf or shoot pool after classes while I liked to witness the actions of what went on in the courts.
Another form of trial, as the collective knows it, took place when the renowned Superior Court Judge Joseph A. Wapner became the centerpiece of The People’s Court, a then-new TV program that led the way to many others following what became the daily televised small claims court-like show. He ended up doing an astounding 2,484 episodes.
Judge Wapner, had a successful legal practice when then-California Gov. Pat Brown, father of current Gov. Jerry Brown, appointed him to be a municipal court judge. Wapner later went on to become presiding judge of the superior court, the first Jew to ever hold that position.
He died on Feb. 26 with his funeral March 2 at Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Cemetery. Being an avid fan, I decided to attend.
The chapel was filled to the brim with family, friends and people like myself who came to pay our respects to a man who made the law so interesting and understandable to us civilians. Iconic Rabbi Ed Feinstein from Temple Valley Beth Shalom officiated what proved to be an incredible, soulful service. Cantor Herschel Fox chanted with his powerful melodic voice like no one I had ever heard. His beautiful prayers filled the chapel especially with the El Molei Rachamim, the prayer for the soul of the departed that was as chilling as it was beautiful.
One by one, family members eulogized the judge with terrific stories led off by his son David Miron Wapner, also a lawyer, and a terrific storyteller. There was no missing the love he felt for his father. He reminded us of the Dustin Hoffman film Rain Man where Tom Cruise, on cross country trip with his brother, approaches a woman in a farmhouse, a complete stranger, and asks her to let Hoffman into her home. Hoffman played an autistic savant who refuses to deviant from his daily routine which included watching Wapner on The People’s Court. What a sight that was.
Synchronicity is a concept, first explained by psychoanalyst Carl Jung, which holds that events are “meaningful coincidences” if they occur with no causal relationship yet seem to be meaningfully related. It had been 24 hours since the funeral service had passed when I bumped into David Wapner pushing a basket through Gelsons! I approached and thanked him for the way he, along with his brother Fred and the others, had honored this Guteh N’Shomo, his father Joseph.
Wapner’s lifelong friend Fred Nicolas, whom he met at USC, is 97 years young—the same as the Judge when he died. He spoke of their friendship. After the service concluded, on the way to my car, I bumped into Mr. Nicolas and of course I asked him what he has been putting on his Wheaties. He laughed, telling me he was getting older. Ha, such older he was not.
Speaking of years, Joseph’s wife Mickey of 70 years was present, having lived a rich, worthy life as his partner. They raised two sons and a daughter, Sarah, who preceded Joseph dying at age 56 of heart disease.
The service concluded with a talk by Rabbi Feinstein, who brought the house down. So gifted is this man. I’ve heard more than once that we are fortunate to have three gifted, outstanding rabbis who stand out here in Southern California – namely Rabbi Steven Leader of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, besides Feinstein. The Italians may have their three tenors, but us Jews have our three rabbis.
I entered the chapel that day to pay my respects to the television judge. Some 90 minutes later, I left the chapel having discovered a truly great human being with much compassion for his fellow men, women and children. I’m reminded of my dear Aunt Audree Klein who once told me that after my uncle Bill had died, she began to learn so much more about him postmortem. Similarly, I have learned loads more to appreciate about Judge Wapner since his passing.
Judge Joseph Albert Wapner appeared on 2484 episodes of The Peoples Court.
©Copyright 2017 Ron Fields Ron@RonFieldsDesigns.com