By Dan Hust
SOUTH FALLSBURG For a guy who gets his mail simply as “Yits 12789,” April 10’s renaming of the Town of Fallsburg’s courtroom in his honor was, not surprisingly, just as informal.
Despite his credentials as former town justice and beloved Woodridge resident, Isaac “Yits” Kantrowitz found himself at a roast full of laugh-out-loud zingers rather than a formal recognition ceremony.
And that suited him just fine.
“I thought I had plenty of time to come up with remarks that would befit a man of Yits’ stature in this community,” Fallsburg Supervisor Steve Vegliante began. “It was quite a daunting task ... town employee, town justice, husband, father, pillar of the community, highway department employee um, wait, Little League umpire!
“That’s right, folks: only in Fallsburg can a nine-fingered, one-eyed man judge balls and strikes for pre-teen baseball,” Vegliante continued as the chuckles reverberated inside the South Fallsburg courtroom.
“I wonder how many budding baseball careers were ruined when they heard, ‘You’re out now get the hell out of here!’ And for the life of me, I will never understand how after a pitch I would turn around and see Yits hold up a sign for two balls and one and a half strikes.”
Yits’ missing finger and glass eye served up no end of mirth that Sunday morning.
County Court Judge Frank LaBuda was first introduced to Yits when passed a glass of seltzer containing the glass eye courtesy of Yits himself.
Charlie Levine, Yits’ son-in-law, recalled an Orthodox Jewish man appearing in front of Justice Kantrowitz, missing even more fingers than the judge.
Yits couldn’t help but inquire, and the man replied, “Israel, 1967.”
Yits then held up his own hand, pointing to the missing finger: “Woodridge, 1938.”
Levine also provided a dead-on imitation of Yits’ famous speech impediment, noting how long it took for people to realize his regular saying of “I plight thee my troth” was really “I pledge you my trust.”
“Fifty percent of the defendants walked out of this courtroom not understanding if they were guilty or innocent,” Levine related to another round of guffaws from the capacity crowd.
One word most everyone understood, however.
“He still calls everybody a schmuck,” laughed Family Court Judge Mark Meddaugh.
Well, not always, according to close friend and County Historian John Conway.
“A lot of people are just morons,” he related, grinning.
Yet “everybody reveres him,” Conway added, “and they all know him as just ‘Yits’.”
So much so that at President Ronald Reagan’s 1985 inauguration, Conway joked, Yits was called up to stand next to him on the platform.
“This guy nudges me,” the historian “recalled,” “and he says, ‘Excuse me, but who’s that guy up there with Yits?’”
There was time, however, for serious accolades last week, including citations from NYS Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther and the Sullivan County Legislature.
“It’s really been a privilege for us in the Legislature to know these communities have people, humor and all, who’ve dedicated their life to serving the people,” observed Legislator Leni Binder, also a Woodridge resident.
“He always used his common sense,” complimented retired NYS Supreme Court Judge Tony Kane, who as an attorney appeared before Yits. “... I think this courtroom is appropriately named in his honor.”
“For the 12 years I reviewed his decisions,” added Judge LaBuda, “I never found one in error. Yits, it’s been an honor and a pleasure to know you, and I wish you good health and long life.”
“To be a good judge, you have to be compassionate about what you do,” said Judge Meddaugh, holding Yits up as an example of why the state should not do away with non-lawyer town justices.
“What made Yits such an incredible judge was his ability to treat everybody the same,” agreed Tim Havas, one of several local attorneys to herald the justice. “... It was almost like he was inviting you into his own house.”
“Yits and I had a great time for 19 years. We didn’t have one argument,” current Fallsburg Town Justice Ivan Kalter remarked. “He served with compassion, competence and skill.”
Of course, he added, “Yits is a character.”
And Yits was not about to change anyone’s mind, recalling the time when Kalter’s counterpart, fellow Town Justice Bart Rasnick, questioned a police officer as to why he had ticketed a man for having no hubcaps on his car.
“The officer said it was indecent exposure,” Yits related with relish. “His nuts were showing.”
Still, with the town board unanimously passing a resolution then and there lauding him for his 16 years as town justice, Yits understood the magnitude of the small sign above the door listing it as “The Honorable Isaac ‘Yits’ Kantrowitz Court Room” dedicated within his lifetime, no less.
“Being part of the American justice system at its most basic level ... was something I always took seriously,” he told a crowd that included wife Gloria and a legion of adoring family and friends.
“It means more to me than I can ever tell you.”