Illustration by Tablet; Photo courtesy of Victoria Cook
Illustration by Tablet; Photo courtesy of Victoria Cook
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The Chosen Ones: An Interview With Victoria Cook

The New York superlawyer talks about her eclectic religiosity without God, explains why she fears left-wing anti-Semitism more than the right-wing variety, and admits her unusual love of gefilte fish

Periel Aschenbrand
January 13, 2017
Illustration by Tablet; Photo courtesy of Victoria Cook
Illustration by Tablet; Photo courtesy of Victoria Cook

Victoria Cook is a graduate of Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She’s now a partner in the entertainment group at Frankfurt, Kurnit, Klein & Selz, and has been featured in New York Law Journal‘s “Top Women in the Law,” New York-area “Super Lawyers,” The Legal 500 for copyright law matters, and more. She’s also a former yeshiva girl who co-produced “Screwed,” a documentary about pornographer Al Goldstein.

Cook grew up religious but doesn’t believe in God. She eats kosher but has no problem dipping her bread in the leftover juice of a bowl of mussels. She is also a fierce Zionist—of the left-wing. In short, she may not be exactly what Walt Whitman had in mind when he wrote the line “I contain multitudes,” but she’d certainly make him proud if he had the chance to meet her.

PA: You grew up Orthodox.

VC: Ish. My mom grew up Orthodox, my father grew up very Reform though very Jewishly identified—but his mother owned a ham company. The biggest ham company in America.

PA: Come on.

VC: But my Dad went along with my mom in having a kosher house.

PA: Where did you grow up?

VC: In a place in South Jersey where we were basically the only Jews and I was driven 45 minutes every day to go to a Jewish day school. In high school, I was a boarder and I lived with old Holocaust survivors at an all-girls religious high school.

PA: Wait. Why????

VC: I don’t know! Half of my girlfriends from that time live in the shtachim (settlements). The more modern ones live in Beit Shemesh because they wear long jean skirts.

PA: It’s all about jean skirts.

VC: Long jean skirts were my life for a while.

PA: Do you hate jean skirts now?

VC: No. I love jeans skirts! I fetishize them. I wish I still had them. When I was in high school I had a Girbaud one that I wore with my Benetton sweater and I thought I was so dope.

PA: Believe me, with or without the jean skirt, you are dope. When did you start becoming not religious?

VC: I started keeping Shabbos in eighth grade and made my family do the same and I kept kosher all through college, but I always ate out fish and dairy. But even when I was so religious, I wasn’t really.

PA: Because you were a feminist?

VC: Not even that, I just had no control over myself. Also, I was never a believer. I could never make myself believe that there was a God that cared.

PA: So you don’t believe in God?

No. I’ve tried so hard. I wish I did.

PA: You get more and more interesting the more I talk to you.

VC: I really believe in our narrative and that the world has bought into this one narrative so much, that we keep reliving it. Is there a God who said it was true? I don’t know. But we somehow, on a primordial level, as a species and a culture, we—we specifically. . .

PA: The Chosen Ones?

VC: And everyone else who is willing to buy in to that book. We have decided that in every generation someone comes up to destroy us.

PA: Can you talk about how your Zionism coincides with your politics?

VC: Two days after the election I was freaking out because I knew so many Orthodox people who voted for Trump. I mean, Jews did okay: 75% of us voted for Hillary and of the other 25% not everyone voted for Trump. But a lot of us did. The community in which I grew up in and which I ultimately associate myself with in my kishkas really thought Trump was better.

PA: For Israel?

VC: Yes. Which I think is misguided to begin with. Let alone, I also think it doesn’t matter. If voting for someone like him represents Torah values, that’s really upsetting! So I started this secret Facebook group, Torah Trumps Hate, because I really felt so much gratification and support and learned ideas through all those secret Facebook groups during the election when I felt you had to be so pro-Bernie if you were on the left. I partially blame him for her defeat.

PA: Did you always like Hillary?

VC: Not at first, I threw her under the bus for Obama in ‘08.

PA: His politics on Israel?

VC: They’re not mine. They are super complicated and they are very influenced by post-colonialist theory, which, I think, is not a very fair lens to use on Israel which is much more about a people who are returning to their indigenous homeland. All the settlements are the same to him. He doesn’t see a difference between East Jerusalem and Efrat, on the one hand, and Amona on the other, and there’s a huge difference. Or Ariel, on the one hand, and even the Gush in general, on the other, isn’t the same. These are historically Jewish places. East Jerusalem was Jordan’s after 1948, not Palestine’s, but it was historically Jewish forever even before that. It was the area in the Old City with the Jewish quarter for centuries until it was made Judenrein by Jordan after ethnically cleansing Jews in 1948 but yet Israel still offered it as part of the peace offer in 2014 to be an international city. And none of the offers were acknowledged. But the right-wing elements in the Jewish community in general felt so vindicated by that [U.N.] vote. “See, he’s always been a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” and this stems from so much racism, on every level, from him being a ‘secret Muslim’ to him being black. . .

PA: Secret Muslim is my favorite.

VC: Also because Bibi is American ultimately, I believe he has American racism in him in the most disgusting way. Did you hear what he did the other day? Elor Azaria was convicted of manslaughter. He should have been convicted of murder! He killed a person who was fully incapacitated. And Bibi said they should grant him amnesty! Not only is Israel a land of laws; it’s based on Halacha, it’s based on laws! So anyway, I started this Facebook group, and they are all people who have a very strong commitment to Judaism in their life.

PA: Basically, you made a Jewish Pantsuit Nation.

VC: Yes. But traditionally Jewish. Not everyone is Orthodox but lots of people are.

PA: Were you always very political and left wing?

VC: Yes. My dad was an ObGyn and an abortion provider. We were constantly harassed, my dad was told to wear a bulletproof vest, and we were taught to duck and cover. We had Operation Rescue protest us all the time. He was a Republican anyway. He voted Reagan-Reagan-Bush but then he voted for Clinton. But my mom’s dad was Orthodox, but a very, very traditional Democrat. Even in his old age, he was very mad at the Supreme Court opinion that said crack was different than cocaine. He believed it was deeply racist. And he ran for mayor of his town once. And my mother was mayor of my small town, so we’ve all always been very political.

PA: This is insane.

VC: People really tried to kill us. The F.B.I. was involved.

PA: One of the things that’s so interesting about you is that you’re just filled with contradictions but then, somehow, it all makes really perfect sense.

VC: I think it only makes because I’ve lived 46 years as this person. But I do feel like people get very surprised by certain things about me. Like I’m so left on certain things but then I’m seemingly off the left derech because I’m a Zionist and I won’t say I’m not a Zionist.

PA: What do you think about all the anti-Semitism on the left?

VC: It’s scarier because it’s dressed up as anti-Zionism and it’s creating the moral landscape of future generations of young people. So you have your orientation about how you see the world based on things like that and it’s the whole post-colonialist theory, which by definition only sees Israel as a settler colonialist project. So they are constantly inundated with misinformation—actual lies—about the history and the reality of the state and in the meantime, the state’s not always acting so good… Anyway, the point is, people are more than willing to care about anti-Semitism when it comes from the right—but if it comes from the left, it’s like, crickets.

PA: Do you think we’re all going to be killed?

VC: No, but I think it could easily become like France.

PA: What’s the most important thing here?

VC: There needs to be a community of traditionally committed Jews who still care about progressive values. What I learned in Yeshiva, no matter how closed-minded it was in some ways, was that we must have good values.

PA: Speaking of good values, what’s your favorite drink?

VC: Red wine.

PA: How do you eat your eggs?

VC: Hardboiled. From the Lebanese deli near my house.

PA: How do you drink your coffee?

VC: With milk, no sugar.

PA: What’s your favorite Jewish Holiday?

VC: Sukkot.

PA: Why?

VC: I like a Sukkah.

PA: That’s such a legit reason.

VC: And there are no eating restrictions. But I like Passover, too. Lately I care about Passover more because I feel like it’s a really important, foundational story.

PA: Did you have a Bat Mitzvah?

VC: Yes. In Israel. At the Kotel. With an Orthodox rabbi.

PA: What did you wear?

VC: A Dotted Swiss dress, which was very that moment.

PA: What shampoo do you use?

VC: Drugstore.

PA: Gefilte fish or lox?

VC: Gefilte fish.

PA: No fucking way.

VC: Love gefilte fish. Sweet gefilte fish. I had it last night for dinner. I buy it at the kosher market.

PA: I just want you to know I’ve never gotten that answer before.

VC: I love it. My husband thinks it’s so weird.

PA: It is.

VC: I grew up eating it out of the jar with the jelly.

PA: Ugh. Five things in your bag right now?

VC: Antibiotics. Receipts I’m supposed to turn in, that I’ll never turn in. Lipstick. A contract to review. What number am I up to?

PA: Four.

VC: I mean, it’s like a garbage bin. What’s not in my bag is a better question.

PA: I’ll let you get away with four. What’s your favorite pair of shoes?

VC: Cowboy boots.

Periel Aschenbrand, a comedian at heart, is the author of On My Kneesand The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own.