Pogrebin, Abigail (2007-12-18). Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish (pp. 18-19). Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG HAS A RUN in her stocking, which, I must admit, puts me at ease. It’s my first time in a U.S. Supreme Court Justice’s chambers—even that word, “chambers,” conveys hushed, erudite activity—and it’s strangely comforting to see that this tiny woman with the giant intellect gets runs in her hose like the rest of us. “Why don’t we just sit here.” She gestures to a couch in her sitting area. Ginsburg, often described as small and soft-spoken, appears almost miniaturized in her sizable office space, formerly occupied by the late Thurgood Marshall. Dressed all in black—slacks, blouse, stockings, sandals, a shawl draped around her shoulders—she looks like a frail Spanish widow rather than one of the nine most powerful jurists in the land. But it’s clear that despite her petite frame, small voice, and a recent battle with colon cancer, Ginsburg—age seventy when we meet, the second woman on the bench in the court’s history and its first Jewish member since Abe Fortas—is formidable.
She tells one story that illustrates her intrepid style: “My first year here, the court clerk, who is just a very fine fellow, came to me and said, ‘Every year we get letters from Orthodox Jews who would like to have a Supreme Court membership certificate that doesn’t say In the year of our Lord. [She’s referring to the certificate lawyers receive when they become members of the Supreme Court bar.] So I said, ‘I agree; if they don’t want that, they shouldn’t have it.’ “So I checked to see what the federal courts and circuit courts were doing and discovered, to my horror, that in my thirteen years on the D.C. circuit, the membership certificate has always said In the year of our Lord. So I spoke to the chief judges of all the circuits, and some of them had already made the change, others were glad to make the change. Then I came to my Chief and said, ‘All the other circuits give people a choice.’ ” Her “Chief,” William Rehnquist, recommended she raise the issue “in conference” with her fellow justices, which she did. “I won’t tell you the name of this particular colleague,” she says, “but when I brought this up and thought it would be a no-brainer, one of my colleagues said, ‘The year of our Lord was good enough for Brandeis, it was good enough for Cardozo, it was good enough—’ and I said, ‘Stop. It’s not good enough for Ginsburg.’ ” Significant laws have been changed over the last few decades because the status quo wasn’t “good enough for Ginsburg.”
She is known as a pioneer in the field of antidiscrimination law, a founder of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, the first female tenured professor at Columbia University Law School, and the lawyer who argued six women’s rights cases before the Supreme Court and won five of them. She abandoned Judaism because it wasn’t “good enough for Ginsburg” either. Its exclusion of women from meaningful rituals was painfully brought home to her at age seventeen, when her mother, Celia Bader, succumbed to cancer a day before Ruth’s high school graduation. “When my mother died, the house was filled with women; but only men could participate in the minyan [the quorum required for public prayers of mourning].” It didn’t matter that the young Ruth had worked hard to be confirmed at Brooklyn’s East Midwood Jewish Center—“I was one of the few people who took it seriously,” she remarks, or that at thirteen, she’d been the “camp rabbi” at a Jewish summer program. Having a Jewish education counted for nothing at one of the most important moments in her life. “That time was not a good one for me in terms of organized religion,” she says with typical understatement. I ask her to expand on how Judaism made her feel secondary. “It had something to do with being a girl. I wasn’t trained to be a yeshiva bucher.” (She uses the Yiddish word for “boy.”) Later, she was also turned off by the class system in her family synagogue. “This is something I’ll tell you and you know it exists: In many temples, where you sit depends on how much money you give to the shul. And my parents went to the synagogue, Temple Beth El in Belle Harbor, Long Island—it’s right next to Rockaway. When my mother died and my father’s [furrier] business went down the drain, he was no longer able to contribute to the temple. And so their tickets for the High Holy Days were now in the annex, not in the main temple, although they had been members since the year they married. And I just—that whole episode was not pleasing to me at all.” Neither was the time when she tried to enroll her son, James, in Sunday school at Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue in New York City. “The rabbi told me to fill out the application for membership ‘as though I were my husband,’ ” she recalls with indignation. “I said, ‘Well I haven’t consulted him; I don’t know if he wants to be a member of Temple Emanu-El.’ “The idea was, as a woman, if you were not single, widowed, or divorced, you could not be a member. If you were married, then your husband was the member.
I was still teaching at Rutgers—it was 1972. And I remember how annoyed I was. Still, I wanted James to have something of a Jewish education. So I said, ‘I will make a contribution to the temple that is equivalent to the membership, if you will allow my child to attend Sunday school.’ ”
I ask her if these bouts with sexism were what kept her from embracing Jewish observance. Again she’s not expansive. “Yes,” she answers softly. “Yes.” Despite giving up synagogue attendance, Sabbath candle-lighting, and fasting on Yom Kippur, Ginsburg did go to her husband’s parents’ home for Passovers. “That was always a great time for the children,” she says. “I think even more for my children than it was for me.” Her husband, Martin Ginsburg, a respected tax lawyer and an accomplished cook, occasionally dabbled in Jewish ethnic cuisine. “In his very early days he made his mother’s chopped liver,” she says with a smile. Her children were bored with Sunday school, and she didn’t urge them to stick it out. “James was not bar mitzvahed,” she says of her younger son, “and that was his choice. He didn’t want to do the studying. We were living in California at that time—we were at Stanford [where she was a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences]. James did not like the Sunday school there, and I didn’t want to have one more issue in his life.”
Her daughter, Jane, ducked Sunday school more cannily. “She made a deal with us.” Ginsburg smiles. “We were then going to a much nicer Sunday school at Shaaray Tefilah on East Seventy-ninth Street in New York City, but Jane didn’t like it very much. She is ten and a half years older than her brother. One Sunday morning, when he was an infant, I overslept; she took care of him and didn’t go to Sunday school. And I was so glad that she did such a good job. So she said that she would make a deal with us: If she didn’t have to go to Sunday school anymore, she would take care of James every Sunday morning. That was an offer I could hardly refuse. So that’s when she stopped.
“But Jane became very Jewish again when she married a Catholic boy,” Ginsburg continues. “First, she wanted to have a rabbi reassure her that even if her children were baptized—which they were because it was important to my son-in-law’s Italian-Catholic mother—that it could still be a Jewish baby. And I thought that would be easy.” Ginsburg shakes her neatly chignoned head. “But it was very, very hard to find a rabbi who would say that. Ab [Abner] Mikva was my chief judge on the D.C. Circuit Court. His daughter is a rabbi and she said, ‘No, I won’t tell her that.’ ” I remark that this must have been very upsetting. “Yes,” Ginsburg says with a nod, “but I said to Jane, ‘This woman [the Italian-Catholic mother-in-law] is thinking that if her grandchild isn’t baptized, this child’s soul will never go to heaven. So it’s just to put her at ease.’ ” Did it matter to Justice Ginsburg that her children marry Jews? “No. Jane is married to a very fine man who is perfect for her.
And she had anticipated all kinds of difficulties that didn’t arise. There was a question of Sunday school and I said, ‘Wait till George—my son-in-law—finds the church that he is going to enroll Paul and Clara in.’ And he never did—to this day he hasn’t. My granddaughter, who will be thirteen in October, is this summer—for the second time—going to a Hadassah-run camp on the French side of Lake Geneva. So now she knows more about Judaism than I have forgotten.” Ginsburg seems comforted by a sense that her grandchildren know what’s at the heart of their birthright. “I think they have enough of an understanding that, when you are a Jew, the world will look at you that way; and this is a heritage that you can be very proud of.
That this small band of people have survived such perils over the centuries. And that the Jews love learning, they’re the people of the book. So it’s a heritage to be proud of. And then, too, it’s something that you can’t escape because the world won’t let you; so it’s a good thing that you can be proud of it.” So what does it mean to be Jewish without rituals? “Think of how many prominent people in different fields identify themselves proudly as Jews but don’t take part in the rituals,” Ginsburg replies. She adds that even without observance, being Jewish still matters greatly to her.
“I’ll show you one symbol of that which is here”—she gets up—“if you come.” We walk across her office, which is surprisingly ordinary—no dark paneled walls, inlaid desks, or library lamps. It looks more like a civil service office with gray carpeting, tan puffy leather chairs, and a round glass table (with a stuffed Jiminy Cricket doll sitting on top). The only clue to Ginsburg’s personality is the profusion of family photos propped on her bookshelves—pictures of son, James, who produces classical music recordings from Chicago; daughter, Jane, who teaches literary and artistic property law at Columbia; the two grandchildren; and of course, the requisite Ginsburg-with-Presidents Series—Carter, Clinton, Bush Sr., George W. She guides me to her main office door, where a gold mezuzah is nailed prominently to its frame. “At Christmas around here, every door has a wreath,” she explains. “I received this mezuzah from the Shulamith School for Girls in Brooklyn, and it’s a way of saying, ‘This is my space, and please don’t put a wreath on this door.’ ” Her barometer for religious insensitivity rises not just around Christmastime, but at the beginning of each court term. “Before every session, there’s a Red Mass [in a Catholic Church],” she says. “And the justices get invitations from the cardinal to attend that. And not all—but a good number—of the justices show up every year. I went one year and I will never go again, because this sermon was outrageously anti-abortion. Even the Scalias—although they’re very much of that persuasion—were embarrassed for me.” (She and Justice Antonin Scalia are close friends who have celebrated many New Year’s Eves together, despite their profound ideological differences.)
Clearly, Ginsburg takes symbolism seriously. Though others might view it as nitpicking, she’s always deemed it worth her effort and prestige to challenge small inequities, in addition to working toward large-scale reform. Thus, the changed language in the lawyer’s certificate, the jettisoned wreaths, the boycotted Red Mass, and most recently the blacked-out First Monday in October: “We are not sitting on the first Monday in October this year and we will not sit on any first Monday that coincides with Yom Kippur,” she says proudly. “Now, this is the first year that is happening. The first time Yom Kippur came up, it was an ad hoc decision—we were not going to sit that Monday. But now, this is the way it’s going to be from now on.” Having her comrade Jew on the court, Stephen Breyer, lobbying alongside her was crucial, she says. “In this great Yom Kippur controversy, it helped very much that there were two of us.” Her final show-and-tell items are framed, calligraphic renderings of the Hebrew command from Deuteronomy: “Zedek, Zedek, tirdorf ”—“Justice, Justice shalt thou pursue.”
Ginsburg says it was her mother who put Jewish tradition in the context more of doing justice than of observance. “My mother had mixed memories of her Judaism because her father was ultra-Orthodox; she remembers her eldest brother worked very hard to ride a bicycle and then his father caught him riding on the Sabbath and broke it to pieces. So that type of fanatic observance my mother did not appreciate. On the other hand, she has very pleasant memories of the Sabbath and the smell of the bread; and it was the one day that her mother wasn’t working—wasn’t cooking all the time.” Ginsburg’s mother, Celia Bader, pushed her daughter hard to succeed. “My mother told me to be independent. She thought that meant I’d be a high school history teacher.”
Does Ginsburg consider that emphasis on achievement to be Jewish? “Yes,” she answers definitively. “I loved my mother dearly and she was constantly supporting my reading, sometimes pushing me to do things that I didn’t really care about, like math. And she cared in a way that other mothers didn’t. Our neighborhood was divided three ways—it was Italian, Irish, and Jewish in equal parts. And the Jewish parents were much more concerned about how their children were doing in school.” When Ginsburg stood at President Clinton’s side during her nomination ceremony in 1993, she discussed the hurdles she faced at the start of her law career. “I had three strikes against me,” she recalled. “I was Jewish, I was a woman, and I was a mother. So if a door would have been open a crack in either of the first two cases, the third one was too much.” One of her first jobs—between college and law school—was in a Social Security office working for a man who’d never met a Jew before. “He wasn’t entirely sure I wasn’t hiding horns somewhere in my head,” she says with a half smile. In her first year at Cornell, she says, the anti-Semitism was visible but unspoken. “In the dormitory, all of the girls on both sides were Jewish,” she recalls. “That didn’t happen by chance. The houses were arranged so that we would not contaminate all the others. We were contained.” She adds that this made for lasting bonds. “We are friends to this day—it was a wonderful group of people.” I ask if the “outsiderness” she felt over the years proved to be a motivating force. “Oh, it certainly is,” she replies without her usual hesitation. “You’ve got to be sure you were better than anyone else.”
So I ask the obvious question, “Does being Jewish affect the way you approach cases on the Court?”—expecting her to wave it off with some boilerplate version of Justices can’t let personal experience color their judgment. Instead, her answer is more nuanced. “I don’t think that I approach cases in a particular way because I am Jewish any more than I do because I’m a woman. I have certain sensitivities for both. You know the old expression, ‘Is it good for the Jews?’ For example, a lot of people want to have crosses in front of their town hall or whatever. They say, ‘It doesn’t hurt anybody.’ We had one case where I was in dissent—it was about a cross in front of the Statehouse in Ohio. And to me, the photograph of that statehouse told the whole story of the case: Here is the Capitol in Columbus, and here is this giant cross. And what is the perception of a Jewish child who is passing by the Capitol? It’s certainly that this is a Christian country. A person’s reaction could be: ‘There’s something wrong with me.’ It’s not a symbol that includes you.” The theme of exclusion runs through so many of her stories: the sting of being sidelined, legal cases about people who are made to feel unwelcome. A sad irony occurs to me, as she talks: As other institutions marginalized her for being a Jew, her religion made her feel left out because she was a woman and thus lost her early on. When I ask if she misses Judaism, there’s a long pause. “I wish that I could have the feeling for it that I once did. I don’t think I ever will.”
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