In a span of four short days, the world lost two giants: longtime Israeli Supreme Court Justice Mishael (“Misha”) Cheshin, who died on September 19 at 79, and famed New York Yankees catcher Lawrence Peter (“Yogi”) Berra, who passed away yesterday. Israel, the United States, and the rest of the world are the worse for these losses.
Now, I recognize it may seem shallow and crass to compare a distinguished high court justice, a world-renowned jurist who authored numerous decisions of critical importance, a deeply learned man of letters, to the guy who’s famous for saying “It ain’t over till it’s over,” an amiable athlete, a man who made his living catching and hitting a ball. But I intend no disrespect, and I firmly believe that both men—who seemingly never met each other and may never even had heard of one another—would welcome a comparison of their lives, which presents some striking similarities.
Both men served with distinction in their respective countries’ militaries. At age 18, Yogi was assigned on D-Day as a gunner’s mate aboard the USS Bayfield, the flagship landing vessel at what would become Normandy’s famed Utah Beach.
For his part, Cheshin, who for medical reasons went undrafted by the IDF, later in life served in the reserves as a military prosecutor.
Both men were also early bloomers, spending minimal time in their respective “minor leagues” before being called up to the majors. Cheshin began studying law at Hebrew University at age 17 and, when appointed to the Supreme Court in 1992, became the first Israeli high court justice elevated directly from the private sector.
Yogi, too, labored only a single full season for the Norfolk Tars of baseball’s minor leagues before joining the Yankees in the fall of 1946—the first of what would be 18 distinguished seasons in the majors.
And both men suffered difficult losses late in life. Carmen Berra, Yogi’s beloved wife of 65 years, passed away after suffering a stroke in early 2014. More shockingly, four years ago, Cheshin’s beloved son Shneor perished at the age of 43 in a hit-and-run biking accident on Route 5 near Rosh Ha’Ayin.
Unlike Cheshin, Yogi, of course, wasn’t Jewish, but in addition to his Jewish-related bon mots (my personal favorite: when told that Dublin, Ireland had recently elected its first Jewish mayor, Yogi supposedly said “Only in America!”), like many American Jews of his era, he was a second-generation son of European immigrants (it bears noting that Cheshin and his family also immigrated—from Lebanon to Israel), and he lived an honorable life of dedication to his wife, children, and grandchildren. (In these pages, a young Jewish New Yorker recently praised Yogi, on the occasion of his 90th birthday, for reflecting “Jewish values.”)
But more famously, Yogi and Misha, may they rest in peace, shared an undying, relentless love for language.
As illustrious as Berra’s baseball career was—he was an 18-time All Star, a three-time Most Valuable Player, a 10-time World Series Champion, and a unanimous inductee into the Hall of Fame—he’s probably more famous as a coiner of pithy, humorous, mostly self-deprecatory sayings that, while simple and funny on the surface, reflected deeper truths. At root, Yogi was America’s know-it laureate.
The Yankee’s legendary expressions are too legion to recite, although see here for a useful compendium and here for analysis and occasional debunking of their provenance (after all, as Yogi said, “I really didn’t say everything I said.”).
But as Wall Street Journal language columnist Ben Zimmer contends, some Yogi classics warrant praise for their linguistic and philosophical beauty. Phrases like “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded” showcase, in Zimmer’s words, “how something that sounds redundant or tautological could have a deeper meaning.” Of course, if nobody truly went there (“there” supposedly was a former favorite restaurant), it can’t possibly be crowded. But “nobody” could also mean “nobody of consequence,” or “nobody whose opinion matters.”
Cheshin evinced a comparably deep love for the Hebrew language and for its Biblical roots.
In arguably his most celebrated decision, in the Shomrat rape case, Cheshin, waxing Ecclesiastical, famously wrote that “‘No’ always means ‘no,’ and there is no ‘no’ that is ‘yes.’ No blind man can see, and no drunk is sober. No wise man is stupid and no quitter is persistent, there is no black that is white, and there is no night that is day. ‘No’ means ‘no.’”
He was also a notorious Lewis Carroll fan and often peppered his rulings with quotes from Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, including one that touched on the nature language itself:
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’
Cheshin concluded this ruling with the following paean to judicial humility—and to the power of language: “We, the Court, are not the inventor of language, nor are we its ‘master,’ in the words of Humpty Dumpty.”
Appropriately, President Reuven Rivlin praised Cheshin as “the poet of Israel’s judicial world,” while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu limned him as “a lover of language and the Bible.”
But above all, the justice and the catcher both enjoyed persistent adulation in an otherwise polarizing environment.
Apart from four gimmick games he caught for the New York Mets, Berra played his entire major league career for the crosstown Yankees, a team beloved by millions, but hated by millions more (myself included). Yet as competitive and committed to his teammates as Yogi was, he always transcended the game’s petty rivalries, its picayune disputes, its inane statistical debates. Yogi, especially in retirement, attained the role of baseball’s elder statesman, its sage—in short, its symbol.
So too for Cheshin, who during his time on the bench staked out a more-or-less centrist positions on national security and other pressing issues, at times angering both the right and the left. More than anything, he embraced and embodied Israel’s justice system itself, at one point memorably vowing that “the Court is my house. I will cut off any hand raised against my house.”
Fittingly, the usually fractious Israeli political spectrum united to pay respects to Cheshin. Opposition leader Yitzchak Herzog commended the justice’s “integrity and his inspirational writings,” which he called “the cornerstone of justice in Israel,” while Nissan Slomianski, a Bayit Yehudi Member of Knesset, noted that his “creative and unique style left their mark in the rulings he left as a legacy for future generations.”
As we mourn the loss of these two great men, let us commit ourselves to the ideals they embodied: grace, humility, commitment, love of language, and devotion to the greater good. It’s the least that Yogi and Misha—and the Jewish mayor of Dublin, and Humpty Dumpty—would expect of us.