By Hannah Berman

My mother used many amusing expressions. Some of them I understood and others I did not. One of her favorites was: “Louie Nizer for the defense.” She would mumble those words when I, or anyone else, would attempt to defend the indefensible.

If I got a poor mark on a test, I would often make the claim that I was absent from school on the day that the test material had been taught. When I lost a beautiful new pen I had received as a bat mitzvah gift, I said that I didn’t lose it but that one of my classmates must have stolen it. And later, when, as a new driver, I drove through a stop sign and got a ticket, my somewhat lame explanation was that a tree branch, laden with leaves, extended too far into the street and totally blocked any view of the sign.

It was at those times that my mother would go into her Louie Nizer routine. When I was younger I had no idea who the man was — nor did I care. But I was clever enough to understand that this Nizer fellow must have been a defense lawyer. It was a reasonable assumption on my part. Later on, I learned that Louis Nizer was a shrewd and voluble trial lawyer who made a long career of representing famous people in notable cases and whose autobiography, My Life in Court, was a bestseller.

I don’t know if Louis is pronounced as “Louie,” or if my mom was just being cute about it by referring to him as Louie. But I think of her expression often and I’m occasionally tempted to use it. However, I make sure to say those words only to people of my vintage. My children didn’t know who he was, and chances are that they still don’t. And fast-forward many years later — whenever I have a conversation with any of my grandchildren, I make every attempt to use expressions I feel they will understand. I try to mention names I believe they will recognize. But as I recently discovered, this doesn’t always work out.

I was engaged in conversation with two of my adult grandchildren who were trying to explain why a friend of theirs had done something that had gotten him into major trouble with his parents. My grandkids were giving me a lot of information that just didn’t move me. I was quite obviously disapproving, so they continued trying to convince me by saying that I didn’t know the whole story and by assuring me that there was a reasonable explanation for why their friend had done what he did. I listened, but I didn’t buy any of it. My first impulse was to use the expression I had so often heard my mother use. But I realized that if my own children, the parents of these grandchildren, didn’t know who Nizer was, then surely these two young adults would not know. So I stopped short and instead I came up with the following somewhat snide remark: “Perry Mason for the defense.”

I smiled as I said it, and I was proud of myself for so quickly making the switch. But things didn’t exactly go my way. That reference was no better, as the two of them looked at me quizzically and asked, in unison, “Who is Perry Mason?”

Oy! I should have known that Perry Mason was every bit as unfamiliar to them as Louis Nizer would have been. My updated information wasn’t nearly updated enough. I should have muttered something like, “Alan Dershowitz for the defense.” That’s a name they would have recognized.

From now on, when the occasion arises, that will be my mumble. But in my mind, I still hear my mother’s voice saying, “Louie Nizer for the defense.” That’s the way it is and I realize that it’s the way it will always be.

Hannah Berman lives in Woodmere and gives private small-group lessons in mah-jongg and canasta. She can be reached at or 516-295-4435.


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