Cliff Fishman: Crime fighter turned poet

Cliff Fishman
“I didn’t exactly clean up the narcotics problem in New York City,” says Cliff Fishman, “but we made some inroads, and we got some pretty bad people off the street.” (Photo by Eric Schucht)

Cliff Fishman is a man of many words. Some may know his writing from his law textbooks. His “A Student’s Guide to Hearsay” is 308 pages long. Others may have read his occasional Torah commentaries in Washington Jewish Week. But at Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville, the writing Fishman is best known for is his poetry.

Fishman, 75, is in charge of emailing reminders to the congregation about Friday morning minyan. Self-dubbed “Tikvat Israel’s poet lariat,” he sometimes includes his own poetry or song parodies in the emails to rope people into attending services.

“It’s just one of the silly ideas that a person gets,” said Fishman, a Rockville resident. “And hey, people like it, so you keep doing it.”

But long before he began writing poetry, Fishman fought crime. Fishman grew up in New York City. After finishing law school in 1969, he went to work for the New York County District Attorney’s Office. He started out as an assistant district attorney and eventually worked his way up to chief investigating assistant D.A. in the city’s Special Narcotics Prosecutor’s Office. He tried cases, wrote search warrants and worked through the legal process necessary for wiretapping and eavesdropping on the mob.

“From the time I was a kid playing cops and robbers, I was interested in what happened after the arrest,” Fishman said. “The law fascinated me growing up, and in college the commitment to a legal career just became stronger and stronger. So it’s just like I was destined to do it. I’ve always had that sense that this is what I was meant to do. And I’ve never lost that sense.”

There wasn’t always a payoff. One search warrant Fishman wrote was for a sting operation involving a 200-pound bag of high-grade marijuana bought from one of the biggest importers in Queens. But inspection revealed it to be peat moss. Then there was the time when undercover officers paid $16,000 to a dealer for a kilogram of high-quality cocaine, which turned out to be pancake mix.

“We had some very serious cases. But those were the funny ones that are fun to remember as well,” Fishman said. “I didn’t exactly clean up the narcotics problem in New York City, but we made some inroads, and we got some pretty bad people off the street.”

Over time, the late hours and long commutes took their toll, leaving Fishman little time to spend with family. (He and his wife Betty have two children.) So he retired from law enforcement and in 1977 got a job teaching criminal law at The Catholic University of America in Washington. As a Jewish person, Fishman said the law school was accommodating to him — the school displays a menorah during Chanukah and for a time set up a sukkah.

Fishman said the dean once lent his conference room to Fishman and other Jews to pray in. The dean even removed the crucifix from the wall until they had finished their prayers.

“The really nice thing about teaching a Catholic is that you can take religion seriously without being looked down upon as somewhat primitive by your colleagues on the faculty,” Fishman said. “At most secular law schools, being seriously religious or taking a religion seriously is counted among many faculty members as an indication of a lack of intellectual validity. A Catholic [school], where they take their own religion seriously, they also take every other religion seriously and do everything they can to accommodate.”

After 42 years of teaching, Fishman decided the time had come to retire. And he believes the timing couldn’t have been better — he retired in December and the pandemic hit a few months later. Many of his former colleagues have had to adapt to the changing circumstances.

“They were scrambling to try to figure out what to do and how to teach in the middle of the semester. And I was sitting back and saying, ‘Wow, that could have been me,” Fishman said.

Fishman spends his free time “building up my warehouse full of unpublished fiction.” He has written a number of silly stories for his grandchildren over the years. While he doubts he’ll ever publish them, they’re something his grandkids look forward to.

“You can’t finish one without them demanding the next one,” Fishman said.

As for his poetry, the poet lariat has plenty of verses for his fellow congregants. Tikvat Israel’s rabbi, Marc Israel, described Fishman’s writing as “sharp and playful,” going on to describe the man himself as a “one-of-a-kind person” who is  “both learned and always learning.”

“You can’t slip anything by him,” Israel said. “He’s the kind of guy who would ask, ‘Well what do you really mean by that?’”

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