A Look At Lewis Dembitz, Part One

02Jun13

I have started looking up old Louisville Courier-Journal articles for members of the Brandeis and Harlan families, with the goal of posting here anything interesting I find. First up is Louis D. Brandeis’ uncle, Lewis Dembitz. I have mentioned Dembitz before in my post about the Brandeises stay in Madison Indiana. He was Brandeis’ mother’s brother, and a very prominent lawyer in Louisville. It was his example that inspired Brandeis to become a lawyer and to change his middle name from David to Dembitz. Dembitz was also an ardent Zionist, a fact that Jacob deHass used to help convert Brandeis to the cause.

I found a number of articles about Dembitz, but the most interesting one appeared in 1916, about nine years after his death. Since it is so long and works well as a mini-biography, I will include it by itself in this post (with some slight editing.) I’ll highlight the other articles in a later post.

NOTED CHARACTERS MEMORABLE TO LOUISVILLE, NUMBER NINE: LEWIS NAPTHALI DEMBITZ

For more than half a century, Mr. Dembitz was looked upon as Louisville’s official walking encyclopedia…He was an authority on any and all questions. Master of a dozen languages, including Sanskrit and the Aramaic tongues, he always was sought when questions of philology arose. He was a Jewish theologian of note and had the complete history of Jewish rituals at his fingertips. No problems of higher mathematics baffled him–even before Louisville had a United States Weather Bureau, Mr. Dembitz forecast to the minute the total eclipse of the sun, which occurred in 1869. Astronomy was with him a hobby.

With all of his ability as a scholar, he was also practical. He was a brilliant lawyer and the author of several treatises and books on law which are recognized as authorities in the legal world. Louisville’s present system of collecting city taxes was created by Mr. Dembitz during the time he served in the City Attorney’s office. He was ever an ardent politician and was always proud of having cast his vote for Lincoln at the Chicago convention.

Yet, with it all, he was the “most absent-minded man in the world.” He would walk home along the street bareheaded until some friend reminded him of his hat; he would stand inside his office at a window with an umbrella raised above his head because rain was beating against the window outside; he would pass his own son on the street and ask about the health of the young man’s father.

Friends often feared for Mr. Dembitz’s life because of his abstraction. Absorbed in thought and oblivious of his surroundings, he often walked into the path of approaching street cars and vehicles. On other occasions he could be seen hurrying along the street, walking with one foot on the sidewalk and the other in the gutter. Although he finally died as the indirect result of a street car accident in 1907, he narrowly escaped a thousand mishaps before he fell a victim.

Mr. Dembitz was a close student all his life and read almost incessantly. He devoted most of his time to works of a serious nature and was such a master of languages he read in the original the teachings of the world’s most famous scholars. His correspondence circled the globe and the number of letters he received and wrote always attracted considerable attention. Scientists, mathematicians, theologians and political economists of world renown were also included in the list of his “pen” acquaintances.

It was seldom that Mr. Dembitz read fiction, but when he did, he was just as absorbed in what he was doing as though he were buried in the deepest problem of sociology. On one occasion, during his earlier years, he chanced upon Dickens’ David Copperfield after eating his evening meal. He became interested and read on and on. The oil in his lamp finally burned out, the flame sputtered and was gone. The reader did not notice the loss of his light and continued reading by the light which came from the fire in the grate. The coals finally lost their flame and still he continued to read–luckily there was a full moon and just enough of its silvery beams made their way into the room to make clear the printed pages. The sun finally appeared to dissipate the darkness just as Mr. Dembitz reached the last chapter in his novel. [As an avid abolitionist, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was another novel that made an impression on Dembitz. It is said that he provided the first German translation of the novel, which was serialized in an American German-language newspaper.]

But do not for a moment think Mr. Dembitz was such an inveterate student he buried himself in books to the exclusion of all else. He was one of the city’s most ardent lovers of outdoor sports and gained considerable reputation as a swimmer. During the summer months, he never missed his daily row up the river, with a plunge in its waters near Towhead Island as the invariable goal. Winter found Mr. Dembitz skating whenever there was enough ice to permit the sport.

He especially loved boys and young men and a crowd of them always could be found at his office on summer afternoons, awaiting time to close the office for the trip up the river. Many a Louisville man owes his ability to swim to teaching at the hands of Mr. Dembitz. But even as a teacher of swimming, the famous lawyer’s absent-mindedness cropped out. On one occasion, Mr. Dembitz was standing high on shore, holding in his hand a rope attached on the other end beneath the shoulders of a youngster who was just learning to swim. Whenever the boy would sink below the water surface, a jerk of the rope would pull him beyond danger of drowning.

Some bystander engaged Mr. Dembitz in earnest conversation and the teacher forgot his pupil. The boy sank and was about to drown when Judge Thomas R. Gordon, who happened to be swimming in the water dived down and brought the youngster up. Judge Gordon was attempting to swim to shore with his burden when Mr. Dembitz, attracted by shouts, suddenly remembered the boy in the water and gave a vigorous jerk on the rope. Judge Gordon and the boy were both pulled under the surface by the jerk. When they reappeared on the surface, Judge Gordon, spurting water from his mouth and nose and gasping for breath, yelled, “What are you trying to do–drown us both?”

“Well, I could have managed a minnow on this line, but I didn’t figure on hooking a whale,” answered Mr. Dembitz. Judge Gordon’s near-anger gave way to laughter.

Mr. Dembitz was as small physically as he was large mentally. But little more than five feet tall, he weighed not more than a hundred pounds. His face was always hidden beneath a heavy beard above which he wore spectacles. His favorite position while seated in conversation was noticeable–he usually kept the heel of his right foot resting on the knee of his left leg. Mr. Dembitz’s characteristic close reading was even more apparent physically than mentally. He was seriously near-sighted and literally was buried in everything he read. Books, papers and magazines were held only a few inches from his face all his life, but he retained his sight until his death at the age of 74 years.

Knowing Mr. Dembitz’s fondness of outdoor sports. an associate once asked him why he didn’t go to baseball games.

“I went once but left before the first inning was over,” replied Mr. Dembitz.

“Well, that was because you don’t understand the game,” argued the associate. “If you’ll go with me and let me explain it play by play for a few innings I bet you’ll like it.”

“No, I wouldn’t,” replied Mr. Demnitz positively.

“Well, how in the world do you know–you haven’t tried it yet?”

“Nevertheless, I wouldn’t like it–I can’t see the players nor the ball,” admitted Mr. Dembitz.

Business and pleasure never interfered with the lawyer-scholar’s religious obligations. No duty was ever pressing enough to keep him away from his little church–he was a member of the Congregation Anshel Sfard–which worships on First Street just south of Walnut–on the Sabbath day.

Questions of theology always interested him keenly and he early in life made a careful study of the Talmud in the original Aramaic tongue. If, by chance, the rabbi of the congregation failed to appear, Mr. Dembitz willingly and eagerly conducted the services. He ever was extremely orthodox in his views and entertained no sympathy for reform movements in church rituals.

Mr. Dembitz’s doctrine prohibited work on the Sabbath day, and he never was known to violate the teaching. To change the condition of a material object for a useful purpose constituted work in his opinion–he would not sign his own name on a Saturday, which of course was his Sabbath, nor would he so much as open a letter. Mr. Dembitz would often come to his office on Saturday afternoon, would take his mail received that day and go through the letters carefully, fingering the envelopes and finding great pleasure in wondering from whom the communications came. Asked if he thought it wrong to read a letter on the Sabbath, he replied, “No, but should I tear open the envelope to do so, I would be working and desecrating the holiness of the day.”

On another occasion, Mr. Dembitz was named by the Bar Association as a member of a committee to draw up resolutions upon the occasion of Byron Bacon’s death. The committee voted to meet on Saturday morning. When the day arrived, Mr. Dembitz attended services at another church in order to be present at the committee meeting. He arrived at the courthouse in due time and participated in drafting the resolutions. When the time came for each committeeman to sign the document, Mr. Dembitz asked Judge Charles Seymour to sign for him, saying he deemed it a privilege to assist in honoring the dead, but that his religious views prevented his doing any writing.

Although Mr. Dembitz lived in Louisville more than half a century, he was a native son of far distant Poland. His father, Zebulun Dembitz, [he was also known as Siegmund] was a surgeon and the descendent of of an ancient Spanish-Jewish family. When the forefathers in the family removed from Spain to Poland, they had no surname, for it was in the days when men were known , for instance, as Nathan, the son of David. Then came the practice of adopting a last name, and Dembitz’s grandfathers took their from the small town in which they lived.

The son born to this Polish physician in 1833 received at his christening the name Lewis Naphtali. [His given name may actually have been Ludwig.] The boy’s precocity attracted attention within a few years. While still a lad of nine summers, he was reading and enjoying the Odes of Horace, much to the wonderment of older scholars. Two years later, little Lewis suffered an attack of measles and was confined to his bed several weeks. He amused himself by working out a table of logarithms and delving into the mysteries of trigonometry. At the age of 14 years, he entered Glogau University. But his opportunity for college training was short-lived–his parents emigrated to America in 1849, settling at Madison, Ind. [Actually, Dembitz’s mother died in 1844,  five years before the rest of the family emigrated to America.]

Dr. Dembitz found the English tongue distasteful within a few months and soon removed again to New Orleans to practice where he could speak French. The young son, Lewis, decided to wade into the river of life without the parental paddle to guide him–when his parents left for the South, he went to Cincinnati to begin the study of law. A year later, in 1851, he came to this city and the remainder of his days were spent here.

Mr. Dembitz soon gained recognition as one of the foremost scholars of the city. His services as an interpreter were sought on all sides. Not only was he able to speak the modern languages, French, German, Spanish, Italian and English, but he also was familiar with Sanskrit, Aramaic, Hebrew, Arabic, Greek and Latin. He read continually and his wonderful memory enabled him to speak authoritatively on any subject which arose…

Among the books of which Mr. Dembitz was the author are “Kentucky Jurisprudence,” “A Work on Land Titles” and “Jewish Service in the Synagogue and Home.” The first named work is a careful and analytical sketch of the growth of Kentucky law as a system. The book of land titles deals with the ownership of real estate and property rights, a subject in which Mr. Dembitz specialized. His theological work is a complete history of Jewish rituals. One of Mr. Dembitz’s most widely appreciated books is a dictionary of law terms for the use of stenographers and others who are not lawyers.

One one occasion Mr. Dembitz engaged in a discussion on some technicality of the law with George M. Davie… The argument took place in the old law library in the courthouse. Mr. Dembitz was positive he was right, and finally became somewhat angered because Mr. Davie couldn’t see his viewpoint.

“If you can’t see the clearness of my argument, Davie, you are a fool, that’s all,” said Mr. Dembitz.

“Why, what do you mean, you little rascal,” replied Mr. Davie. “I’ll throw you out that window.”

“That wouldn’t change my opinion of you,” answered Mr. Dembitz quietly, without looking up from the magazine in which he was buried.

Like Col. Robert W. Woolley, Mr. Dembitz took occasion to repeatedly condemn the method of collecting city taxes. He declared the system was stupid, ruinous, inefficient and lax in its management. A city official curtly remarked one day that Mr. Dembitz ought to change the system if he thought he could improve it. The dare was too much for Mr. Dembitz–he promptly set about the work of creating a new tax collecting system.

The following year, in 1884, he became assistant city attorney, in charge of the tax office. After long and persistent study and experimenting, he devised the current system of collecting city taxes by levy on personal property, garnisheeing of rents and the enforcement of liens of the city on real estate by equity suits. Older lawyers and politicians declared the new system would not work. Mr. Dembitz went right over their protestations and had the city charter amended to embody his new system. It proved thoroughly satisfactory, and now the city is able to collect an exceedingly high percent of the yearly tax levy.

Mr. Dembitz’s ability as a lawyer was widely recognized. From among all the scholars and lawyers of the United States he was selected to write articles on jurisprudence for the Jewish Encyclopedia. Shortly before his death, he was appointed a member of the Committee of Fifty and attended that body’s meeting in New York City to discuss ways and means of protecting and improving the political rights of Jews and Jewish immigrants in America. His work in the legal world gained for him in 1905 the degree, Doctor of Hebrew Literature, the first honorary title ever conferred on any man by the Jewish Theological Seminary of New York.

To test Mr. Dembitz’s familiarity with languages, Clarence Walker, an expert stenographer, laid a trap for the famous scholar of philology one afternoon.  Mr. Walker had in his office a talking machine for dictation, with circular records which could be run either way, backward or forward. One day he fixed a record on the machine so that it would revolve backward. Mr. Dembitz was called in to hear the queer conglomeration of sounds. When the record had been finished, Mr. walker said: “Mr. Dembitz, I don’t know where this record came from and I can’t find anyone who can understand those sounds. I think them pure doggerel.”

“No, no, no,” hastily interposed Mr. Dembitz. “I cannot translate the sounds, but they are not doggerel; they are the words of a language and a good language at that. Throughout all the record one can distinguish a regular and distinct rhythmical accent–mere words and sounds would never have that accent. They are the sounds of a language with a history and a literature.”

Although the trap failed to fool the scholar, he probably was wondering where on earth his hat could be ten minutes later. He would go in an office, lay his hat down, become interested and walk away–perhaps go several blocks until someone reminded him he was bareheaded. On one occasion, Mr. Dembitz came into the office of Judge Charles Seymour, across the hall from his own in the Louisville Trust building, hunting for his overcoat.

“I have looked everywhere for that coat,” he announced, “and can’t find a trace of it. I have been in every office in the courthouse and almost every office in this building. I thought perhaps I might have left it in here.”

Judge Seymour joined in the search…and finally went with Mr. Dembitz to the latter’s own office. At the first glance, Judge Seymour saw the overcoat–it was lying on the floor where it had dropped from the hook upon which Mr. Dembitz had hung it. [To be fair, many of these occasions may not have been Dembitz’s fault. The December 31, 1897 Courier-Journal obituary of lawyer Isaac R. Greene states that one of Greene’s favorite pastimes was to hide Dembitz’s hat and then watch in glee as he tried to find it.]

On another occasion Mr. Dembitz returned home from his afternoon swim in the river, shivering and complaining of being dreadfully cold. He finally suffered a chill and members of the family hastened to put him to bed. When they undressed him, lo and behold, he was still wearing a wet bathing suit next to his skin–he had forgotten to take it off…

Mr. Dembitz was always fond of young children and would stop nearly every young boy he met on the street to talk with them. He often kidnapped boys, so to speak, and took them home with him in order to teach them something of which they never had heard. Often he could be found on the floor of his dining room, illustrating to a young visitor the movements of the celestial bodies by using salt shakers, napkin rings, cups and saucers to show the respective orbits of the bodies.

After the young visitor left for home, Mr. Dembitz probably would pace up and down the dining room, awaiting the call to supper. Om many occasions bread for the evening meal would be on the table long before the real supper would be served. Mr. Dembitz would take one piece of bread after another and nibble it as he paced, buried deeply in thought. When time for supper really came, all the bread would be gone and Mr. Dembitz would find himself without an appetite.

Mr. Dembitz was thoroughly appreciated in the Conversation Club, of which he was a charter member, and it was in these meetings that his scholarly ability and myriad talents were displayed to best advantage.

Three months before his death, March 11, 1907, Mr. Dembitz was seriously hurt when hurled to the street and dragged several yards beneath the front fender of a street car. He was on his way home at the time and walked directly in the path of the trolley after alighting from another car. Funeral services were held at the residence by the Rev. Dr. Ignatius Miller. Burial was in a vault in Brith Sholom cemetery…

Update (June 23, 2013): Peter Smith from the Courier-Journal tipped me off to the memoirs of former Courier-Journal and New York Times journalist Arthur Krock’s memoirs, which has a slightly different version of the George Davie anecdote:

Dembitz was deeply respected, unafraid of anything or anybody, unconventional in act and manner, a lawyer’s lawyer. Once, consulted on a difficult case by the prominent attorney George M. Davie, Dembitz listened to Davie’s outline of how he would handle the matter and, peering at Davie through his thick spectacles, quietly remarked: “I think you’re a damned fool.” “Watch your language or I’ll throw you out of the window,” said Davie. “You’d still be a damned fool,” replied Dembitz. (From Myself When Young by Arthur Krock, p. 201.)

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One Response to “A Look At Lewis Dembitz, Part One”


  1. 1 Great-Granddaughter of Lewis Dembitz Weds | Brandeis and Harlan Watch

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