Other People: Jacob Kaufman

by maxmosher


Jacob was my first friend in high school. He began talking to me one day, an odd occurence to anyone who remembers grade 9, and we haven’t stopped talking since. Our occasional arguments honed my debating skills and crystallized what I believe, but I’m mostly thankful for Jacob’s loyalty and interested nature. He has just finished law school, where he was named valedictorian, and there’s no limit to what he’ll achieve.

MM: What interested you in going into law? Are you going to use it for good or evil?

JK: Well, I graduated with a degree in history and it turned out the big history companies weren’t hiring. Given my skill set I had to choose between a Master’s program, teacher’s college or law school. I’ve always been interested in reading and arguing, so I decided on law. I intend to use my degree for good, though I realize not everyone may concur with my definition of “good”. I strongly believe that lawyers have an ethical obligation to represent their clients to the fullest. Some people see the role of lawyers as social crusaders who will identify what is wrong with society and then advocate through the legal system to fix it.

I see myself more as a butler. Like butlers, lawyers wear dark suits, have a duty of discretion and help rich people with their problems. There is a place for crusading in the legal world, but there’s also a place for working for businesses. Businesses create the jobs that keep our economy strong and I’m proud to be helping do my small part to keep the wheels turning. I’ll be starting work at my law firm in a few weeks and we get to rotate through several different practice areas, so it’ll be interesting to see what I end up liking.

MM: What would you like to be doing in ten years?

JK: I would like to be a partner at the firm I will be working for. It’s a full of great people and interesting work. It’s a little awkward saying that because it’s kind of presumptuous: I don’t even know if I’ll be hired back to be a lawyer there. Still, you work hard and hope for the best. Ultimately, I want to love what I’m doing. You work fairly long hours as a lawyer and if you don’t like what you’re doing, you’re going to be miserable for most of your life. I’d also like to have a garden and own several bottles of nice scotch.

MM: Describe who your parents are and what it was like growing up in the Benson-Kaufman household.

JK: I have two mothers: Miriam Kaufman and Roberta Benson. Miriam is a purple-haired pediatrician; Roberta is a former lawyer who left the field to raise me and my sister. My house was full of books and laughter. The ‘rents tried to limit our tv and candy consumption by restricting us to TVO and PBS and candy to once a week (Saturday! We could get a chocolate bar!). As we got older the rules eased, but to this day I don’t consume a lot of tv or candy.

I suppose people would want to know how it was different having lesbian moms instead of a “normal” family. Well to me, that was normal. I didn’t really get culture shock that most people had a mom and a dad. The thing about my family that did give me culture shock is that my moms are both smart and kind people and so I assumed all adults were smart and kind. It was disappointing to learn otherwise.

I am sometimes asked which is my “real” mom. Well, they both are. Though Miriam is my biological mother, in 1995 my parents and three other lesbian couples launched a Charter challenge so both could be my legal mother . That would probably have been a better answer to the “why do you want to be a lawyer” question than “I want to be a butler.”

The community has been very good to be, so I’m volunteering with Out On Bay Street, an organization that, inter alia, runs a conference that links queer and allied business, law and consulting students with businesses and law firms. We’re trying to branch out and provide networking and mentorship opportunities throughout the entire year. I’m the corporate secretary, which means I get business cards and everything!

MM: What book should everyone start reading tomorrow?

JK:  There’s a lot of candidates, but I think I’d assign How To Lie With Statistics. This cute and short 1950’s book is more retro than a Queen St. hipster, but it conveys an important message. The book analyzes all the Procrustean tricks used to contort the data to make it say what the contorter wants. As a society we’ve largely beat illiteracy, but we still have a problem with innumeracy. This book is a good first step to helping solve that problem. Certainly, it would be great in high school media literacy classes.

MM:  We argued sometimes in high school, but you are significantly less neo-con than you were then. Any opinions that you regret?

JK: While I could nitpick individual opinions that I was wrong on – the Iraq War springs to mind – I think I regret my overarching thought process of certainty. I knew the right answer to everything. I was intoxicated with books like Freedom To Chose by Milton Friedman or Parliament of Whores by P.J. O’Rourke. Well, as it turns out, life is complex. Hopefully, I’ve learned a little humility in not just seeing the world in black and white terms. Now, I still believe firmly in some moral absolutes and have strong opinions. But I always try to challenge my own opinions and learn more about those I disagree with. Understanding, after all, is not agreeing.

MM: Why did you become a vegetarian? What’s the most difficult thing about it?

JK: I have been a vegetarian for about 21 years and a full vegetarian (i.e. no fish) for 16 years. I know exactly why I became a full vegetarian: it was to win a childhood argument. I was somewhat of a self-righteous vegetarian back then and one of my friends decided to challenge me on it. “Oh yeah,” he said, “Well you eat fish and that’s the same.” “No it isn’t,“ I shot back. “How is it different?” “Fine! I won’t eat fish.” I haven’t eaten seafood since, which I guess also shows the lengths I’ll go to win an argument.

In terms of why I first became a vegetarian I guess it was a confluence of many factors. My parents are vegetarian, but there were also ethical and environmental considerations. Ghandi once said “Be the change you want to see in the world.” While individual consumption choices can’t make a difference, I do try to follow this maxim. I don’t think that everyone needs to be a vegetarian, but I do think we’d all be better off if everyone ate less meat and animal products. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a matter of having “meatless” days, why not have, say, tofu sautéed in beef stock? Or mushroom and chicken pasta instead of just chicken?

Being a vegetarian is actually pretty easy, especially in a cosmopolitan city like Toronto. The main difficulty involves eating in restaurants. Most restaurants usually have a vegetarian selection, but many do not… or have the dreaded grilled vegetarian plate. I always hate asking for a meat dish without the meat because in a non-trivial number of cases someone in the kitchen slips up and sends it out with meat anyway.

MM: Why do you own so many Miss Manners books?

I am a big fan of Judith Martin, a.k.a. Miss Manners. For the uninitiated, Miss Manners is a etiquette advice columnist. She has a rapier wit and is very self-aware. Her advice ranges from one part sarcastic / one part snobby / one part genuinely useful. For example:

“Dear Miss Manners:

I have been invited to a baby shower for a friend’s second child. The first one is just turning 2 years old. I always thought baby showers were for your first child and you used the baby items again for your second child. To me it seems they are begging for gifts. My daughter claims this is the norm these days. What is your opinion?

That your daughter is right: Begging for gifts is normal these days. It is also vulgar, of course.”

This is from her online column, of course. In her books, those that seek her aid are addressed as “Gentle Reader”.

MM: Predictions for the a) Toronto Mayoral election, b) next Canadian federal election and c) American presidential election.

JK: My predictions are pretty milquetoast, I’m afraid:
a) Smitherman, but you never know. There is a lot of populist anger in the city right now and Ford might be able to ride that to victory.
b) Another Conservative minority government.
c) Obama/Biden narrowly beats Palin/Pawlenty.

MM: What was the most embarrassing thing that happened during your time at Queens?

JK: I’m not going to give any drinking stories, because – by definition – if you’re drunk enough to do something that be “the most embarrassing thing”, you’re drunk enough not to be embarrassed. I guess then, the most embarrassing thing happened in my dorm in the first few weeks of my first year. I had gotten into the shower and it was perfect. Too often, to shower is to exist in a state of unpleasant dichotomies: too hot or too cold; too forceful or too low pressure. On that day, however, everything was in a state of perfect harmony.

And so, I stayed in the shower for probably half an hour. Singing. Now, I don’t have a great voice but I was just so exuberated regarding the wonderfulness of the water. I sung my way through a not insignificant portion of the works of Gilbert and Sullivan before I, regretfully, put on my towel and opened the door. To see about half my floor standing around the entrance in a semi-circle. Don’t panic, I thought, there could be any number of reasons why they would be here.

And then the slow clap started.