Like many celebrities, Alan Dershowitz has a split personality.
How does the “real Alan” see his public persona — what his son refers to as “the Dersh character”?
“He can be a bit obnoxious at times, too opinionated, sometimes rude, but never boring,” said the 75-year-old high-profile attorney, Harvard Law School professor (since age 28), prolific writer (30 books plus more than 1,000 magazine, newspaper and journal articles) and outspoken commentator (especially in defense of Israel).
From humble beginnings, born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn, Dershowitz went on to Yale Law School, graduating first in his class. As a criminal lawyer, he has defended clients including Patty Hearst, Harry Reems, Angela Davis, Leona Helmsley and O.J. Simpson.
Dershowitz, whose most recent book, “Taking the Stand: My Life in the Law,” was released Oct. 15, is coming to Rockville on Sunday evening for a Patrons Reception and Book Talk at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington’s Annual Book Fair. In anticipation of the event, he took some time to answer some questions.
A&E: What was your career aspiration as a child?
Dershowitz: To finish high school without getting expelled. I was a terrible student. I didn’t think much about college. But everybody I knew told me I would have to be a lawyer because I had a big mouth and a small brain.
A&E: Who were the most influential people in your decision to become a lawyer, a teacher, a writer, a commentator? Were these actual decisions or evolutionary?
Dershowitz: Everything I did was happenstance. I was never strategic about my career. Once I started to do well in college and law school, I wanted to do everything. I have a terminal case of FOMS — fear of missing something — so I never wanted to choose. My role model for not having to choose was General Telford Taylor, who was my professor at law school. He was an eminent appellate lawyer, a great teacher, a wonderful writer and a public intellectual. I tried to model my career after his. Fortunately, I was able to work with him on freeing Soviet Jews for a decade towards the end of his life. It was one of the great privileges of my life.
A&E: Why do you do so many things? Do they nurture each other or do they dilute your attention or effectiveness?
Dershowitz: I do only one thing, but I do it in different ways and for different audiences. I am a teacher. I teach and learn in the classroom. I teach and learn in the courtroom. I teach and learn from my writing and on television. My teaching makes me a better practitioner and my practice makes me a better teacher. I live an integrated professional life, and so far I’ve managed to miss very little.
A&E: How long did it take you to write this book? Did you have a routine of writing daily? Do you write in a particular place?
Dershowitz: In one sense, this book took me my entire life to write. In a more direct sense, it took me a couple of years. I write every day and wherever I happen to be: on airplanes, on trains, in waiting rooms, on Martha’s Vineyard, in Florida. I have no particular routine. I am an opportunistic writer. I write everything in long hand, with a ballpoint pen on legal pads. I don’t know how to type or use a computer. Fortunately, I have a great assistant who can read my handwriting.
A&E: Which of your books are your favorites?
Dershowitz: Among my favorite books are “Taking the Stand,” “The Genesis of Justice,” “Preemption,” “Just Revenge” and “Chutzpah.” The book I wish I didn’t have to write is “The Case for Israel,” but the outrageous charges leveled against Israel required a defense of the Jewish state. I hope I provided an adequate defense.
A&E: Which of your cases are you proudest of?
Dershowitz: The case I am most proud of is my defense of Natan Sharansky. Along with Irwin Cotler, we used every tactic available to keep Natan alive and to free him both from the gulag and from the Soviet Union. It took too long, but when we first undertook the case, there was real doubt as to whether he would survive the sentence. He is now a proud grandfather and one of the most important and influential spokesperson for the Jewish people.
A&E: What authors do you read for pleasure?
Dershowitz: I have two categories. The first is classical literature: Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Costa. The second is contemporary fiction by authors such as Richard North Patterson and Linda Fairstein. There is a third category falling somewhere in between: Phillip Roth and Saul Bellow.
A&E: Is there something you regret not having accomplished?
Dershowitz: If I did, I would try to still accomplish it.
A&E: Are any of your children or grandchildren following in your footsteps?
Dershowitz: The last thing I would ever want is for any child to follow in anyone’s footsteps. My three children and two grandchildren are incredibly individualistic, each following their own path. If I have had any influence on them, it is to encourage them to be individuals and not to follow into the footsteps of others.
A&E: What do you do to relax?
Dershowitz: For relaxation, I love sports. At my age, it is now more watching them than participating in them. I spend a lot of time at Fenway Park and the Boston Garden. I also love long walks on the beach with my wife, Carolyn.
A&E: What do you see as your future? Do you have more books planned? Are you writing one now?
Dershowitz: Yogi Berra once said that “prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” I have no idea what life holds in store for me. I plan to spend more time in Florida, also a bit more in New York and on Martha’s Vineyard. I am already working on my next book, which is tentatively entitled “Abraham: the world’s first (but certainly not last) Jewish lawyer.”