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How The Mountains Shaped The Man: A Conversation With Attorney and Judge Perry Meltzer of Monticello

Shimmy Blum

When Bronx-born Perry Meltzer migrated to the quiet town of Monticello, he planned to practice law among colleagues whose word was famously known to be their bond. He didn’t dream that during the decades, he’d build a loyal clientele of religious Jews, who came to see him as a loyal advocate who’d help soften local and legal opposition to their summer residences. Still, the biggest surprise that Monticello held was personal, not professional, causing Meltzer and his wife to reassess their self-definitions.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Though Meltzer seems thoroughly at home in the Catskills, he’s actually a native of the Bronx. In fact, he quips, “I didn’t know that most of the world isn’t Jewish until I left the Bronx to go upstate for my first year in college!”

Meltzer was raised with a minimally observant upbringing, attending some afternoon and weekend classes at the East Concourse Jewish Center. In 1970, he realized his childhood dream when he graduated Brooklyn Law School and passed the state bar exam. His first job was at the Bronx Legal Aid Society. But after marrying Jill (Yolis Esther) Rosenberg, a Monticello native, he decided to settle in the upstate New York area fondly known as “the Borscht Belt,” because of the yearly influx of vacationing Jews. Meltzer attributes his original decision to leave the Bronx for the Catskills to his love for her family, fishing, and other countryside activities. But there was a professional consideration as well: one of his wife’s cousins informed him that for Catskill-area attorneys, “Their word is their bond.” Meltzer reflects, “That seemed like an attractive environment for me to practice law in.”

In 1973, he opened his own law practice and has remained in the legal field in Monticello ever since, eventually winning the position of a judge in the Town of Thompson in 1978, a position he has been consecutively reelected to and holds to this very day.

Meltzer’s professional résumé isn’t the only witness to his years upstate; his Catskill experience brought much deeper changes to his life as well. During their early yearly years of marriage, the Meltzers practiced little Yiddishkeit. He recalls, “My wife used to light candles on Friday night and then we’d go out to eat at a (nonkosher) Chinese restaurant.” He spent the Day of Rest clocking in hours at the office. Yet as the Catskills became a magnet for growing numbers of observant Jews, Meltzer found his practice frequented by a number of clients who bore an uncanny resemblance to his bearded great-grandfather, whose portrait seemed a thing of the past.

In the late 1970s, a group of Vizhnitzer chassidim from Monsey appealed to the young lawyer to help them overcome local residents’ intense opposition to their plans for a modern poultry plant in Liberty, New York. Decades later, Meltzer still counts the successful approval of the poultry plant as “one of my greatest accomplishments as a lawyer.”

That success opened doors for him in the legal world; it also began a slow process where he began to redraw the firm societal lines that he’d learned as a child. The lifestyle and mannerisms of the frum Yidden he encountered during those early years appealed to him greatly.

At the same time, his wife, Jill, in her position as the Sullivan County coordinator for the WIC program (that subsidizes food for young mothers and children), had her share of encounters with the frum community, particularly with members of the year-round yeshivah community in South Fallsburg, where the renowned Yeshiva Gedolah Zichron Moshe is located. Perry explains that there was something about that group that immediately impressed her.

“Jill noticed something special in the way husband and wife spoke to each other, the way parents spoke to their children, and the children spoke to their parents,” he remembers. “There was obvious love and respect. You can find such traits outside the frum community too, but within the frum community she never did not see them.”

Jill was the first one to make the jump to a frum lifestyle, with the encouragement of Mrs. Rochel Berzansky and other South Fallsburg friends. She began keeping Shabbos and attending Monticello’s historic frum Landfield Avenue Synagogue, while her husband was more reluctant to take the plunge. He recalls, “On Shabbos, Jill would be in shul, while I’d go to the office, out-of-state graduations, or wherever.” Over the years, the Meltzers have cultivated a close relationship with the shul’s leaders, former Rabbi and Rebbetzin Boruch and Shoshana Leibowitz, and current Rabbi and Rebbetzin Benzion and Rochel Chanowitz. Meltzer is a member of the shul’s remaining minyan or so of steady mispallelim.

Nevertheless, Perry explains that his wife’s religious leanings had some effect on him. “Even before I kept Shabbos or kosher, I began removing the cheese from the veal parmesan served at the Italian restaurant I loved. Jill calls this becoming frum Yiddle by Yiddle’!”

Slowly but surely, Perry warmed to his wife’s desires. He began making Kiddush on Shabbos, then staying home for the day seudah, and so on it went. When Mrs. Meltzer was informed that her kosher ingredients took on nonkosher status after being cooked in her old utensils, a team of rabbanim came to kasher the Meltzer kitchen for good.

By the mid-1980s, the Meltzers were fully frum. Their young daughter, Yocheved Yakova, was enrolled in the Hebrew Day School of Sullivan County during her elementary school years. With a voice full of pride, Perry discusses his most difficult and final step in shmiras Shabbos. “Once I stopped working and smoking on Shabbos, I had to stop driving to shul, which is 1.3 miles from my home. Previously, I’d park around the corner and walk over.”

Now, decades later, he states in a voice that leaves no room for doubt, “I sincerely believe that if I hadn’t become a shomer Shabbos, I wouldn’t be alive today. I see my keeping Shabbos and quitting smoking as two decisions that saved my life.”

When around his family and community and outside his professional duties, Perry proudly wears a yarmulke, a precious object that he stocks in his pocket and car; sometimes he tops it off with a black hat.

 

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