The tote bag Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg carried on stage Thursday night had the words “I dissent” on the outside. Inside, there was a diary entry by German Holocaust victim Anne Frank pondering why women are thought inferior to men. The tiny 84-year-old jurist said America still needs to make equality explicit.
“The genius of our Constitution is that this concept of ‘We the people’ has become ever more embracive,” she told a reverential crowd of 1,400 that greeted and sent off Ginsburg with standing ovations. “Think about what it was in the beginning. … I’d like to see in the Constitution a statement that men and women are people of equal citizenship stature. I’d like to see an equal rights amendment in our Constitution.”
Ginsburg — with her personal trainer (he wrote a book about their weighted-ball-throwing workouts), rapper nickname (Notorious R. B. G) and penchant for speaking out (including her #MeToo moment and her view that President Trump is a “faker”) — is one of the few rock-star Supreme Court justices in history. (Those same attributes draw her critics, too, of course.)
But Ginsburg gets a personal kind of love from Jewish crowds, which was largely the case Thursday night, when she filled the huge sanctuary of Adas Israel, a synagogue of the Conservative movement in Northwest D.C.
Introduced Thursday by a female rabbi who painted Ginsburg as a hero of the marginalized in a “dark moment” — ostensibly a Trump moment — the justice also was the subject of a prayer published this week by the feminist Jewish blog Lilith. “A Prayer for RBG’s Long Life” was read on stage:
“You have helped us remain clear — not just on the foundational principles of a nation, but on our Jewish mandate: to welcome the stranger and never to stand idly by. The Hebrew words on your office wall in calligraphy read, ‘Tzedek Tzedek, tirdof: Justice, Justice shalt thou pursue.’ You have. And we’ll keep trying.”
Ginsburg’s interpretation of Judaism as primarily about social justice — not text study and worship — jibes with the faith of many American Jews, particularly at more liberal congregations like Adas. The event was an interview of Ginsburg by Jane Eisner, editor in chief of The Forward, a major progressive Jewish news source. Eisner said nearly 120 “watch parties” had registered with The Forward for the event, and Ginsburg is seen by many Jews as embodying a kind of devotion to ethics.
“To quote my bubbe,” she said, using the Yiddish word for grandma, “ ‘A Jew is what a Jew does.’ It’s not what you believe.”
While Ginsburg is known for speaking out more than other justices — or perhaps just garnering more attention and celebrity — she veered in a different direction when Eisner asked whether justices should respond more clearly “when so many democratic norms seem to be under assault.”
“The judiciary is a reactive branch of government. It doesn’t generate the controversies that come before it. It has no agenda,” Ginsburg said. An independent judiciary “is our nation’s hallmark and pride.”
While she talked about her experience of growing up Jewish and female — second-class citizens in the America to which her parents immigrated (her mother was conceived in Europe and born in the United States) — Ginsburg said the overall impact was to make her more sympathetic.
“Growing up in the shadow of World War II … there was the sense of being an outsider, of being one of the people who suffered oppression for no sensible reason. The sense of being part of a minority makes you more empathetic to those who aren’t insiders, who are outsiders.”
The justice had bitter challenges in her life. Her only sibling died when Ginsburg was a baby, and her mother became ill with cancer and died when she had just finished high school.
She was extremely fond of her mother, who emphasized two things:
“One was to be a lady. And by that, she didn’t mean fancy dress. She meant be in control of your emotions” and don’t give in to remorse and envy. “Those emotions sap your strength and keep women from moving forward. Her other message was: Be independent. She emphasized the importance of being able to fend for yourself.”
Asked by Eisner about life on the court for Jews, Ginsburg said she had to work to change a rule that attorneys who became certified to try cases before the Supreme Court were given certificates that referred to “the year of our Lord” — or Jesus Christ. Orthodox Jewish lawyers who longed to frame their certifications would not — until Ginsburg argued.
“I spoke to the chief. He said: ‘If ‘In the year of our Lord’ was good enough for [Louis] Brandeis, [Felix] Frankfurter, even for [Arthur] Goldberg’ — but before he even got to [1960s-era Justice Abe] Fortas, I said: ‘It’s not good enough for Ginsburg,’ ” she said of hearing the list of Jewish justices from the past. She got the paperwork changed so there was more flexibility, she said.
Ginsburg talked about not legal discrimination against women at this point, but more of a quiet bias. Sometimes gender bias takes the form of a “compliment” to women, she said, like saying society should make efforts to keep women at home so as to protect that role.
“This pedestal women are supposed to stand on more often than not turns out to be a cage.”
In soft, subtle colors and in a quiet voice, Ginsburg talked about various important men, from her late husband, who praised her continually, to a fellow Brooklyn native from whom her nickname is derived (the rapper Notorious B.I.G.) to the late Antonin Scalia, a gregarious, Italian Catholic Supreme Court justice who was often her foil. Political polar opposites, they loved opera, family and making each other “crack up,” she said.
“Sometimes I’d speak to him in private” about opinions he wrote — with which she would usually disagree sharply. “I’d say: ‘This is so over the top; tone it down, and it will be more persuasive.’ He never took that advice.”
An earlier version of this story misquoted a word by Justice Ginsburg.
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