By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
It is a story told in many versions, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg says near the beginning of the new PBS series "The Jewish Americans," "but mine is: What is the difference between a bookkeeper in New York's garment district and a U.S. Supreme Court justice? One generation."
Ginsburg, 74, repeated the story last week at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in Washington for an audience that watched clips of the series and then listened to Ginsburg speak of her heritage with filmmaker David Grubin.
"I am the beneficiary of being a Jewish American," she told Grubin, the child of a father who immigrated at age 13 and a mother "conceived in the Old World and born in the New World."
Ginsburg, who was raised in Brooklyn, said her first glimpse of anti-Semitism came during a drive with her parents down a country road, where she saw an "unsettling" sign outside an inn that instructed, "No dogs or Jews allowed."
She said Jewish children of her generation knew that they had to be among the brightest, "because the best schools had quotas" for the number of Jews they would admit. When she arrived for her first year at Cornell University, she said, she found the Jewish women had all been assigned to rooms in one section of the dormitory.
Ginsburg is one of several justices this term who have spoken frankly about religion and their personal lives. Justice Clarence Thomas has received the most attention, the result of numerous references to his faith in a best-selling autobiography that provided a moving account of his rise from poverty and an often-angry reprisal of his tumultuous confirmation process.
Less noticed was Justice Antonin Scalia's participation last fall in a symposium at Villanova University that addressed "the role of Catholic faith in the work of a judge."
One of five Roman Catholics on the court, including Thomas, Scalia said that "there is no such thing as a 'Catholic judge,' " according to coverage by the Philadelphia Inquirer.
"I am hard pressed to tell you of a single opinion of mine that would have come out differently if I were not Catholic," Scalia said, adding that his view that the right to abortion is not based in the Constitution is consistent with his view that the document also does not prohibit or criminalize the procedure.
But Scalia said his faith does oblige him to live by two instructions, both as a person and as a judge: " 'Be thou perfect as thy heavenly Father is perfect.' And 'Thou shalt not lie.' " Ginsburg said that while being a Jew does not affect her view of the law, "being part of a minority, I know what it is like to be an outsider, what it's like to be the victim of prejudice."
Unlike Scalia and Thomas, Ginsburg said she is not an observant Jew, though she was raised in such a household. She somewhat reluctantly told the audience that her decision can be traced to her mother's death when Ginsburg was 17. Although there was "a house full of women," Jewish law required 10 men to convene a minyan, or communal prayer.
Ginsburg said she might feel differently if she were young now; she recently attended a Washington bat mitzvah where both the rabbi and cantor were women.
As for her career, Ginsburg said, being a woman provided more obstacles than being a Jew. She graduated tied for first in her 1959 Columbia Law School class, she said, but did not receive a job offer from any New York law firm. That she was a woman hurt, she said, but that she was the mother of a young child was "the real killer."
Ginsburg spoke of the anti-Semitism that faced the first Jewish justice, Louis Brandeis, even from within the court. But when President Bill Clinton named Ginsburg to the court in 1993, and Stephen G. Breyer the next year, "our religion had nothing to do with our appointment. . . . It didn't come up at all."
If the five Jews who preceded her on the court were known collectively as the "Jewish justices," she said, she and Breyer "are justices who happen to be Jews.''