In a world obsessed with youth and feelings, Judge Judith Sheindlin may be the biggest enigma in contemporary culture. A longtime civil servant who became a celebrated TV star, the sharp-tongued jurist has riveted daytime viewers, racked up awards, and sold numerous books to people hungry for tough love. Judge Judy is more than a TV show; it is a battle hymn for common sense. Sheindlin has infiltrated popular culture as the unabashedly stern Jewish mother of a nation of misguided people who desperately need her. Sheindlin stands barely more than five feet tall, but her authoritative and assured presence commands respect from any room she enters. She also knows many Yiddish words, and she is not afraid to use them on TV.
A civil servant who worked as a prosecutor and judge in the New York family courts for more than 30 years before becoming a TV star with one of the most successful, long-running shows in history, Judge Judith Sheindlin is a force of nature in a robe and doily. Since 1996, when Judge Judy premiered, her no-nonsense style and tart tongue have kept the ratings of her nationally syndicated program sky high. Sheindlin has infiltrated popular culture as the unabashedly strong Jewish mother to a nation of misguided people who desperately need her. She stands barely more than five feet tall, but her authoritative and assured presence towers over her TV set courtroom and the real family court where she spent so many years adjudicating cases. She also knows a lot of Yiddish words, and she is not afraid to use them.
Family and Education: Blazing a Trail Early
When Sheindlin began serving as an assistant prosecutor in the family courts in 1972, she appeared before Judge Jane Bolin, whom she counts as an important influence on her career. “She was a terrific judge and knew how to control a courtroom,” Sheindlin said. “She was the first black judge appointed to the bench in the United States in 1939. I learned so much from her; what to do and what not to do if I ever had the opportunity to be a judge myself” (Email interview, 2020).
That chance came for Sheindlin in 1982, when New York Mayor Ed Koch appointed her to the bench, where she would sit for the next 24 years. She spent four years in the Bronx family court before she became a supervising judge in Manhattan in 1986. During her career, she presided over more than 20,000 cases.
Long before the Internet and social media could make anyone a viral sensation, Judge Sheindlin’s reputation as strong, surly, and effective reached beyond her New York courtroom. In 1993, journalist Josh Getlin profiled her in a feature story for the Los Angeles Times. Soon after, Morley Safer interviewed her on 60 Minutes. After the segment aired, an agent connected with Sheindlin and pitched the idea for a TV courtroom show starring her Honor. Big Ticket Television produced Judge Judy, which premiered in national syndication on September 16, 1996.
The courtroom that viewers see at home is really a decorated set at Sunset Bronson Studios in Hollywood. Technically, Sheindlin served an arbitrator on the show, and participants, who are real people with small-claims case disputes, sign a binding arbitration agreement.
By 1998, Judge Judy dominated daytime ratings, besting its fiercest competitors of the time, including The Oprah Winfrey Show. The show built a huge following that has remained solid throughout its long run. Since 2009, Judge Judy has averaged approximately 10 million daily viewers on a consistent basis. In 2020, Sheindlin announced that her show would conclude at the end of the 2020-2021 season, capping off an unprecedented 25-year run. Even with the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the way the show is taped in its final season—without a courtroom audience and other modifications to ensure social distancing—Sheindlin’s show remained at the top of the syndicated daytime ratings, and according to the Hollywood Reporter, averaged over 8 million viewers during the first five weeks of its final season. With about 5,000 episodes taped, there will be enough shows in syndicated reruns for years to come.
Judy-ism the Brand
Sheindlin received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on February 14, 2006. Judge Judy has won Emmy Awards for Outstanding Legal/Courtroom Program in 2013, 2016, and 2017.
Sheindlin’s first book, Don’t Pee on My Leg and Tell Me It’s Raining, was published in 1995, a year before Judge Judy premiered. She is also the author of several other tomes, including: Beauty Fades, Dumb is Forever (1999); Keep it Simple Stupid, You’re Smarter Than You Look (2000); You're Smarter Than You Look: Uncomplicating Relationships in Complicated Times (2001); What Would Judy Say? A Grownup Guide to Living Together With Benefits (2013); and What Would Judy Say? Be the Hero of Your Own Story (2014). She also authored two children’s books with illustrator Bob Tore: Win or Lose By How You Choose (2000) and You Can't Judge a Book By Its Cover (2001).
Sheindlin has also used her fame for altruistic pursuits. In 2006, in collaboration with her stepdaughter Nicole Sheindlin, she created the HerHonor mentoring program to help guide young women in high school and show them the possibilities of various career paths. While Sheindlin came of age in a very different time, in which societal expectations were so different for women, some things remain the same. Judge Sheindlin explained that the challenge for women in any era is to be valued in the workplace. “Women want to be liked,” she said. “You can be respected and liked. That’s the trick!” (Email interview, 2020).
Judge Sheindlin created another legal TV show, Hot Bench, which premiered in 2014. This show features three judges presiding over small claims matters. The program also shows the judges deliberating each case before rendering a verdict. It is taped in the same studio as Judge Judy on an alternating schedule.
Yiddish Courtroom Theater
The influence of Judge Sheindlin’s Jewish upbringing is evident on her wildly popular television program. In fact, long before Judge Judy premiered, cultural references found their way into her Honor’s Manhattan courtroom. The Los Angeles Times profile described her yelling at one attorney who appeared before her, “Yutznik! I’m not stupid, and your questioning is foolish! We’re not poring over the Talmud here” (Getlin, 1993).
Sheindlin often infuses Yiddish words and expressions in her program. On multiple occasions she has said nudnik (irritating person), kvetch (complain), and schmutz (dirt), to name a few. Judge Sheindlin said that her favorite Yiddish word is schmuck. Formally, this word translates as a part of the male anatomy, but it is used more informally to denote a fool. “It describes so many people who ruin their own lives and those around them by acting selfishly and without responsibility,” she explained (Email interview, 2020).
During one episode, she told a plaintiff seeking to have his whole gravel driveway replaced, “You’re making what we call a geshikhte [long story] out of nothing” (Email interview, 2020). She has said geshikhte on multiple occasions. Her patience frequently runs thin when participants launch into over-bloated geshikhtes.
Although Judge Judy is taped in Los Angeles, Sheindlin spends most of the year at her home in Florida, which she has said, both on her program and to The New York Times, was the “migratory path for Jews” (Hughes, 2019).
In October 2020, the Hollywood Reporter announced that after “Judge Judy” finishes its run in 2021, Sheindlin will star in an untitled new court show for IMDb TV, which is part of Amazon's free, ad-supported streaming platform. Clearly, America’s strict Jewish mother still has more wisdom to dispense.
Biography.com, entry on Judge Judy, updated March 3, 2020. https://www.biography.com/personality/judge-judy
Email interview with author (Auerbach), May 22, 2020.
Getlin, Josh. "Law and Disorder: Tart, tough, talking Judge Judith Sheindlin presides over the grim pageant of dysfunction known as Manhattan's family court. ‘I can’t stand stupid and I can’t stand slow,’ she snaps." Los Angeles Times, February 14, 1993. Accessed May 2020. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1993-02-14-vw-307-story.html.
Hughes, Jazmine. “Judge Judy Is Still Judging You.” The New York Times, June 20, 2019. Accessed May 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/20/magazine/judge-judy-tv.html.
IMDB (Internet Movie Database), https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0115227/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1
“Law and Disorder,” interview by Morley Safer, produced by Gail Eisen. 60 Minutes, 1993 and 2003.
JudgeJudy.com, official biography on show’s website. http://www.judgejudy.com/bios
“‘Judge Judy’ Sheindlin Speaks at Dean’s Council Dinner” New York Law School alumni website, 2006. https://alumni.nyls.edu/page.aspx?pid=323.
“OBJECTified: Judge Judy,” Fox News, September 20, 2017. https://video.foxnews.com/v/5582257339001#sp=show-clips.
Porter, Rick. “Judge Judy Sheindlin Lands New Court Show on Amazon's IMDb TV.” The Hollywood Reporter, October 29, 2020. Accessed November 2020. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/judge-judy-sheindlin-lands-new-court-show-on-amazons-imdb-tv