Many years ago, my 5-year-old daughter penned a letter to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Naomi wanted to know if the justice had ever made a mistake. Ginsburg’s warm reply was heartfelt and deeply touching, and when she achieved rock star status as the “Notorious RBG,” I often thought about that letter and all that followed.
To begin at the beginning, this was not the first letter Naomi ever wrote. Once she had mastered her ABC’s and begun to write words, it occurred to me that she could string those words together into sentences and even write letters to get answers to her many questions. Her first letter was to the Coca-Cola Co., headquartered in Atlanta not far from where we live. Naomi had already spent three formative years in a Jewish preschool environment and wanted to know, “Why do you put Santa Claus on the Coca-Cola cans? Why don’t you put Jewish things on the cans?” The prompt reply came with a handful of stickers and a somewhat unsatisfying explanation that the company’s holiday packaging was meant to remind consumers of “social and family associations rather than religious ones.” Nevertheless, the fact that she heard back at all lit a fire.
More than 50 letters followed, letters written at a snail’s pace at our kitchen table in a child’s painstaking scrawl. I tried not to put thoughts in Naomi’s head, but I did help her find people to correspond with, so letters were dispatched posthaste to Princess Diana, John Glenn, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (“How did you find out you were Jewish?”), Jimmy Carter, Coretta Scott King, folk artist Howard Finster (he drew her a tadpole) and countless others. They were published in 1998 when Naomi was 7, in a book called “Naomi Wants to Know.”
But Naomi’s letter to Ginsburg began with a question lobbed from the back seat of the car when she was 5 years old.
“What’s jail like?” she asked me.
I explained in simple terms how people wound up behind bars and the role of judges in helping juries determine guilt or innocence. I told her that one of the country’s most important judges was Jewish (do you sense a theme here?) and that she bore the same name as her beloved Grandmother Ruth. Naomi and Ruth are connected in the Old Testament, and the Bible was on Naomi’s mind as she sat down to write her letter.
In it, she included a drawing of a woman looking up at Justice Ginsburg and a drawing of two women standing before King Solomon, seeking his counsel.
Ginsburg’s tender reply, dated May 8, 1997, is a lesson in kindheartedness and humility. It also makes note of my persistence in sending the letter twice.
Here’s what she wrote:
Thank you for your wonderful letter. Thinking about you, your words, and your drawing, I have been smiling all day.
I have two grandchildren. My grandson is named Paul, and my granddaughter is Clara. Paul is 10 and Clara is 6. They call me “Bubbie.”
In answer to your questions, I am not in charge of all the people in the United States, but I work hard to do my judging job well. And yes, I have made many mistakes, but I try to learn from them so that I will not make the same mistake twice.
Please tell your father I am glad he wrote to me, because I did not receive your letter the first time it was mailed to me.
Keep up the good work you are doing in school.
Every good wish to you, your parents, and your grandmother, Ruru,
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Ginsburg thoughtfully included a cartoon depiction of the court across which she had written: “And we order for Naomi Shavin a very bright day.”
Over the next few years, Naomi got to meet Ginsburg when she paid a visit to the Georgia State University College of Law and again when she spoke at a lecture series hosted by our local synagogue. It was at that second meeting that Ginsburg invited our family to visit her in her chambers if we were ever in Washington. We made a point of visiting Washington in June 2003.
By then, Naomi was going on 12 and could appreciate the surreal majesty of the moment. Her younger brother, Adam, was almost 9, and their younger sister, Sarah, was about to turn 6. We took in the exhibits on public display, and then an employee gave us a personal, behind-the-scenes tour of the building. We learned that the highest court in the land has a basketball court on the top floor. We saw a sign for an exercise class founded by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. We also learned that each of the justices could decorate their offices with paintings that were off display at the National Gallery of Art.
When we were ushered into Ginsburg’s chambers, it was like entering a library, quiet and still. The justice was diminutive but towering in her reputation. I grasped for words to express our gratitude. She remembered Naomi as the little girl who wrote letters. She told us how our fellow Georgian, Jimmy Carter, first elevated her to the federal bench before President Bill Clinton tapped her for the Supreme Court. She spoke to Naomi and Adam and Sarah in a tender, solicitous voice. She told them that schoolchildren from all over visited her and often brought her pins. She had them displayed on a ribbon of cloth and generously invited each of the children to take one. When Naomi tried to give her a second copy of her book of letters (she’d sent the justice a copy years earlier), Ginsburg signed it and handed it back to her.
I don’t recall much more about that meeting, but Naomi, now 29 and a Washington-based journalist at Axios, recently recalled Ginsburg’s “piercing blue eyes,” her kindness in trying to relate to a little girl from Georgia, and the example this champion of equal rights set for girls everywhere, but particularly “young Jewish girls.”
As Ginsburg’s many law clerks bore witness this week on the steps of the Supreme Court, her flag-draped casket was carried into that hallowed building to lie on the same catafalque that bore Lincoln’s body. And when the female rabbi began to intone our Hebrew prayers, I wept. If you are Jewish, there is something about hearing your ancient prayers, woven into the fabric of the American experience, that is almost inexpressible. It can only be felt. I wept at the loss of this remarkable woman, who fought so hard for others, who fought so hard for her own life and who touched our family in such a profound and personal way. That she lost her struggle just as Rosh Hashanah was beginning and we were wishing one another “Shana Tova,” a good year, only amplified our sense of despair. Now begins the task of replacing her, but, of course, she is irreplaceable.
In what seems like a lifetime ago, a letter from the Supreme Court of the United States arrived in our mailbox. It connected us to one of the most powerful women in the world. And it taught a little girl from Georgia that her voice mattered, that she mattered and that she might one day be able to achieve great things because her pen pal blazed a trail for her. That letter was then, and is now, a blessing.
Mark Shavin is a veteran journalist, a part-time lecturer at Georgia State University and is writing a book on memory loss.
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