Remembering Kenneth J. Bialkin

Kenneth J. Bialkin, who passed away last month at the age of 90, was a man of many and great accomplishments. He was widely regarded as one of America’s premier corporate and securities attorneys, representing some of the country’s largest financial institutions in complex transactions over a career spanning 65 years. He headed one of America’s leading firms (Willkie Farr & Gallagher) and then became a senior partner at an even bigger and more successful firm (Skadden Arps). He was a director of several corporations, an advisor to public and political figures both here and abroad and active in various philanthropies. But his most notable non-professional activities centered on support for the State of Israel and other Jewish causes, including service as National Chairman of the ADL, Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations (where he played an important role in obtaining the right to immigrate for the Jews of the Soviet Union), President and Chairman of the American Jewish Historical Society and President of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. He was instrumental in helping to create connections between Israeli and American companies at a time when Israel was far from being considered the “start-up nation” and guided some of the first Israeli companies to go public in the US.

But listening to the speeches at his funeral, I thought mostly about two lessons that I learned from him.

One of his less heralded activities on behalf of Israel was bringing budding Israeli lawyers to intern at his firm as a way of inculcating them in the high professional standards of leading New York law firms. These young lawyers would stay and work for a year or two and then return to Israel; many of those who participated in this program later rose to become prominent lawyers in Israel.

I was one of those young lawyers. My family had moved to Israel when I completed high school, and I then attended Bar Ilan law school, the first American to do so. When I graduated, I went to work as an articled clerk (a prerequisite to getting a law license) at I. Gornitzky & Co., one of Israel’s top corporate and securities firms. (To put that firm’s prominence in context: it had only about a dozen attorneys at that time.) It was also somewhat formal by the standards of the day; for example, at work, I was expected to wear shoes (not sandals). Being young and impressionable, I was star-struck by the overseas clients coming to the firm in suits and ties and very much wanted to be (and look) like them.   So, the head of the firm, Yerucham Gornitzky ob”m, an outstanding attorney in his own right, reached out to his friend, Ken Bialkin, to see if he could arrange for me to work at his firm as an Israeli trainee. Bialkin agreed, but asked to meet me first.

I arrived in New York, bought a suit and tie (and better shoes) and arranged to meet Bialkin. I had been gone for almost nine years, and I still remember the shock I felt entering the lobby of what was then the Citicorp Building on the corner of 53rd Street and Lexington Avenue. It was far taller than any building in Tel Aviv. (Gornitzky’s offices were then on the top floor of a six-story building on Montefiore Street in the old, Bauhaus part of the city.) The elevator buttons – wonder of wonders! – did not need to be pressed; the heat of my fingers activated them. And the elevator hurtled me like a rocket some forty floors; I couldn’t even begin to compare it with the slow, creaky contraptions in my old building. The reception area was a vast expanse of plush leather couches and coffee tables, behind which were floor-to-ceiling windows that displayed the city’s panorama.

In other words, I was hopelessly hooked from the start.

I was ushered into Bialkin’s corner office on the main floor. Apart from its windows, which displayed much of the same view as the reception area, it was wall to wall bookshelves that sagged beneath heavy volumes of bound documents from past deals. Bialkin’s desk was of solid oak construction but was literally buried under folders and stacks of papers on the desk and alongside it. Bialkin had a thin face, remarkably blue eyes, and a friendly if somewhat diffident demeanor.

I don’t remember what we discussed. I suspect that he wanted to meet me simply to hear me speak English. (He was constantly being criticized by his partners for bringing over Israeli attorneys who could barely speak, much less write, English.) In any event, it didn’t take long for him to realize that English was my native tongue, so he quickly pulled out a firm directory (another shock: his firm was so big that he needed a directory to know the attorneys’ names and phone numbers!) and said that he would be sending me to the hiring partner to complete my interview. “I don’t typically do interviews,” he explained. “I’m much too busy.”

Today, when I think back to that moment and my response, I feel like covering my face from shame. But I was young, Israeli, brimming with self-confidence and moxie, in my new suit. tie and shoes. So I said, “Yes, I can imagine. I’m pretty busy myself.”

That Bialkin did not just throw me out of his office at that moment shows what type of a person he was. His blue eyes flashed, he smiled that diffident smile and called the hiring partner. Because, beyond his many accomplishments, accolades and awards, Bialkin was also a mensch. He understood youth, he understood their ambitions, and he understood people, and how they could sometimes say and do foolish things in stressful situations.   And he would not judge them for how they behaved in those moments. Getting to really know people took time, required patience. That was the first lesson that I learned from Ken Bialkin.

The second lesson I learned from him was that there are many ways to be a member of the Jewish community. I am the product of an Orthodox Jewish family for whom Jewish education and observance were the hallmarks of what it meant to “be Jewish”. Bialkin, by contrast, was non-observant and surprisingly ignorant about even some of the basic laws of Jewish observance, which led to some amusing situations. At a Hannukah gathering that he hosted for a group of distinguished New York Jewish personalities (I remember bumping into Mayor Ed Koch), among the platters circulated was one with chicken drumsticks surrounded by slices of cheese. (When Ambassador Naftalie Lavie, the brother of Chief Rabbi Meir Lau, was offered the platter, I thought he was going to faint.) When Bialkin was told that I would not attend the firm dinner (it was being held on a Friday night, which happened to coincide with the first night of Hannukah), he immediately fired off an email to the partners questioning the appropriateness of the firm hosting its dinners…on the first night of Hannukah.

But when it came to standing up and fighting for Jewish causes or for Israel, Bialkin was a tiger, an unstoppable force. He took personally any perceived affront to Israel or to any Jewish institution and would rise to battle without regard to business consequences. I vaguely remember one such battle in which a prominent New York institution initially refused to host an exhibition from Israel. Bialkin spearheaded a campaign to bombard the institution with calls from New York and Israeli officials, donors and articles in the press. The institution surrendered and agreed to host the exhibition, but for Bialkin this was not enough. “They first have to apologize!” he thundered. He was also a noted philanthropist to Jewish and Israeli causes; most notably, he and his wife, Anne, founded ELEM, an organization that promotes the cause of Israel’s disadvantaged youth.

What I learned from Bialkin was that one also becomes a member of the Jewish community by standing alongside it in times of need. Bialkin may not have been observant or learned in Jewish texts, but he was not a Jew by accident of birth; there was no question about his pride in his heritage. And he embraced Israel for its wonders without being blind to its flaws. It would have been easy for someone with Bialkin’s professional accomplishments and prominence to simply assimilate into American elite society as did many of his peers, including his partners; but he would have none of that. I was therefore happy to see so many prominent Jewish and Israeli leaders at his funeral, according the last token of respect to a man who so richly deserved it. And I was delighted to hear that his grandchildren are receiving a Jewish education, something that he was not fortunate enough to have had. One of the speakers at the funeral spoke about how proud Bialkin was of his grandchildren; I can well understand that.

Ken Bialkin was not a saint. He had an ego, appreciated power, and seized and harbored it tenaciously. We were also never really close personally; the distance between us in age and status was simply too great for that. But he was a great man, who simply threw all temporal temptations and calculations aside when it came to defending his fellow Jews and Israel. I will always regret not having told him what he meant to me, but I will also always remember him. And for me, and for the many others who knew him and his good works, his memory will remain blessed.

About the Author
Yaacov M. Gross is an attorney living in Lawrence, New York.
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