Proud ACLU-NJ legal director defends liberties
by day, takes liberties at night
Ed Barocas, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, has spent his career defending sex offenders, psychiatric patients, and others who live at the margins of society. And now his politics have become, well, a laughing matter.
Attorney by day, Barocas transforms into political parodist at night, a skill he has honed since he was a child in
And political parody, he found, is something that “comes naturally.” He wrote his first parody in college: “Rushdie’s Being Shadowed,” to the tune of Cat Stevens’ “Moon Shadow.”
And while the 38-year-old Montclair resident prefers to treat critics of the ACLU with the same good humor, he acknowledged that there are some people he cannot abide: people who ask him questions like “Why do you want to go out and destroy America?” or the more pointed “Why do you hate religion?”
“They don’t realize,” he said, “they’re talking to the son of a temple president and yeshiva principal who is very attached to the spirituality he learned growing up.”
On Jan. 7, Barocas will perform his political parody shtick at an already sold-out ACLU fund-raiser at the First Congregational Church of Montclair. He’s the lead singer of Eddie B. and the G-Spots, featuring Dave Gellis, former lead guitarist for Meatloaf, Phoebe Snow, and Blood Sweat & Tears; and Jeff Gellis, former bass guitarist for Blood Sweat & Tears. Admission is $20, although Barocas, apparently surprised by the event’s popularity, joked, “Half the audience probably attended my bar mitzva.”
Quiet and serious in conversation over tea and wraps at the South Park Bar and Grill in Montclair, Barocas offered NJ Jewish News his views on his work, on the state of civil rights in New Jersey, on the Christmas wars, gay marriage, religion, and of course, humor.
While he models himself on the likes of songwriter Tom Lehrer, author Ken Kesey, and famed NJ civil rights lawyer Frank Askin, he views his work as deeply rooted in the lessons about repairing the world and working for “the underdog” that he learned in religious school at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in
“I’ve always had a strong sense of empathy and a desire to help the underdog, which is part of the Jewish tradition,” he said. “I’m not at the ACLU because I’m rebelling but because I’m trying to do good work and help people who can’t always help themselves…. The ACLU is about allowing people to express themselves and allowing them to be who they are without fear of the government bearing down on them.”
He was never interested in being a highly paid corporate attorney, choosing instead to follow his passion. “I always feel if I have money, I can go to Tavern on the Green; but if not, I just buy a sub and hang out under a tree in
Following his graduation from
Like other ACLU officials around the country this holiday season, he has been at pains to explain that the organization does not defend the wall between church and state out of antipathy to religion.
“People who oppose the ACLU often highlight the cases where ACLU is in the role of suppressing religion. But we have taken many more cases where people are precluded from expressing themselves religiously.” He cites a recent case in which the ACLU of NJ defended a second-grader in Frenchtown who had been prohibited from singing the song “Awesome God” at a voluntary, after-school talent show.
In fact, one of the benefits of his current job, he said, is that he gets to select the cases. Often, they involve defending religion, something he puts at the top of the list of today’s national agenda, along with gay marriage.
He said he views religious freedom as two sides of a coin: There’s “protecting individual rights to religious expression,” and then there’s “ensuring the government does not show a preference for a particular religion.” The “Christmas wars,” he said, pits one side of the coin against the other. He reconciles the two sides, saying, “I see no reason to restrict religious displays. But the idea is that if you allow a certain display, you can’t show preference for one and reject the others.” As far as private companies go, he said only, “If [saying], ‘Happy holidays’ makes more business sense than ‘Merry Christmas,’ I take no position. The ACLU is blamed for a lot of things we don’t take part in.” And given too little credit, he says, for sticking up for clients like an African-American girl who was refused entrance earlier this year to a swimming pool in Nutley because of her race, or the three African-American boys in Manalapan who were stopped and searched by police — who told their white friends to go home.
On the margins
Still, he acknowledged that his philosophy is often put to the test on the margins of society, which can make his clients appear as less than savory characters. That’s the point, he explained. “Oftentimes, it is the unpopular views and people that the government finds it easiest to restrict. If we allow their ideas to be restricted, then none of us can expect protection in the future either.”
Among the most challenging of his clients, he said, were those he represented not at the ACLU but when he was assigned to the Megan’s Law unit at the public defender’s office, which litigates the registration of convicted sex offenders. “Needless to say, they were clients who would make anyone uncomfortable.” But, he explained, the issues at stake were not about individual people but rather about the constitutional principal of privacy. And he had his successes: A federal court accepted his argument that everyone has a right to privacy against government disclosure of home addresses for any purpose — although it added that in the case of sex offenders, the purpose of invading privacy was justified.
Barocas has had his own struggle, coping with muscular dystrophy. Sitting in a wheelchair today, he said he began to feel the effects of the disease at 13. Even then, he said, it didn’t stop him from continuing to play on the tennis team and it certainly doesn’t seem to have prevented him from chasing his goals since. In fact, he seems very much at peace with himself and his choices. “I don’t always like where I am, but I like who I am.”
When it comes to Judaism, Barocas takes a “Chinese menu” approach. He’s got both Sephardi and Ashkenazi backgrounds, and he picks and chooses what to celebrate and how. His favorite holiday offers a blend of Jewish foods and American thankfulness: It’s the Friday after Thanksgiving, when his entire extended family gets together for some Sephardi family favorites — bourekas, boulemas, and tarama.
And although he considers Sharey Tefilo-Israel his synagogue, don’t look for him in the pews there when he’s seeking spirituality. On Yom Kippur, he said, he usually goes back to the grounds of Nah Jee Wah, a New Jersey Y overnight summer camp in
He recently returned to performing after taking a break for a few years. Playing with Dave and Jeff Gellis, who he found by posting on the craigslist Web site, is new for him but, he said of the Saturday gig, “I’m not nervous.” After all, he’s used to performing in front of judges, and he doesn’t view the two audiences as very different. “You figure out what they want,” he said. “You figure out how to lead them where you want to take them.”