Episode 47: RBG in Her Own Words (Transcript)

Episode 47: RBG in Her Own Words

[Theme music]

Nahanni Rous: Hi, it’s Nahanni Rous.

Judith Rosenbaum: And Judith Rosenbaum.

Nahanni: And this is Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history, and Jewish culture meet.

Judith: In this episode, we are honoring, and mourning the loss of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The first Jewish woman to sit on the nation’s highest court, Justice Ginsburg died on the eve of Rosh Hashanah after a long battle with pancreatic cancer.

[Shofar and crowd sounds]

Nahanni: In the days and nights following her death, the steps of the Supreme Court have become an impromptu memorial. Thousands of people have gathered to express both grief and gratitude—leaving flowers, writing messages in chalk, lighting yahrzeit candles. Some have even blown the shofar in her honor.

[Shofar sounds end]

Judith: Ruth Bader Ginsburg was not only unapologetically Jewish, but Judaism and her experience as a Jewish American really guided her work. The biblical dictum “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof”—“justice, justice, you shall pursue”—adorned the walls of her chamber, and The word “tzedek”—justice—was embroidered into one of the lace collar she famously wore with her robes.

Nahanni: Though tiny in person, Justice Ginsburg was larger than life, a Jewish hero and an American and feminist icon.  She stood for gender equality and racial justice, and modeled fighting steadily for what you believe in.  Her famous friendship with conservative Justice Antonin Scalia showed that you can disagree and still get along. She was a role model for so many people, but it’s important to remember that she had role models too.

Judith: In 2004, Justice Ginsburg spoke at a Jewish Women’s Archive event marking 350 years of Jewish life in America. She talked about some of the Jewish women who inspired her.  One of them was Henrietta Szold. Szold was born in 1860 in Baltimore and, like Ginsburg, was both a visionary and a doer, who faced and overcame many obstacles as a woman. She founded Hadassah and helped build the social service infrastructure of what became the State of Israel.

Nahanni: So here is Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of our heroes, talking about one of her heroes, another inspiring Jewish woman from history.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, via archival tape: In my growing up years my mother spoke of her glowingly... Szold knew how to say “no” better than any other person whose words I have read. Szold had seven sisters and no brother. When her mother died a man well known for his community spirited endeavors, Haym Peretz, offered to say the Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer that ancient custom instructed to be recited only by men. Szold responded to that caring offer in a letter dated September 16, 1916...

Nahanni: And here, Ginsburg reads the key passage of the letter Henrietta Szold wrote in response.

RBG, via archival tape: “It is impossible for me to find words in which to tell you how deeply I was touched by your offer to act as Kaddish for my dear mother. What you have offered to do is beautiful beyond thanks. I shall never forget it. You will wonder then, that I cannot accept your offer... I know well, and appreciate what you say about Jewish custom; ("that only male children recite the prayer and if there are no male survivors a male stranger may act as a substitute") and Jewish custom is very dear and sacred to me, yet I cannot ask you to say Kaddish after my mother. The Kaddish means to me that the survivor publicly manifests his intention to assume the relationship to the Jewish community which his parent had so that the chain of tradition remains unbroken from generation to generation, each adding its own link. You can do that for the generations of your family. I must do that for the generations of my family. My mother had eight daughters and no sons; and yet never did I hear a word of regret pass the lips of either my mother or my father that one of us was not a son. When my father died, my mother would not permit others to take her daughters’ place in saying the Kaddish, and so I am sure I am acting in her spirit when I am moved to decline your offer. But beautiful your offer remains nevertheless, and, I repeat I know full well that it is much more in harmony with the generally accepted Jewish tradition than is my or my family’s conception. You understand me, don’t you?” Szold’s plea for celebration of our common heritage while tolerating, indeed appreciating, the differences among us concerning religious practice is captivating, don’t you agree? I recall her words even to this day when a colleague’s position betrays a certain lack of understanding.

Judith: I really love this last line, which has just the tiniest bit of snark.

Nahanni: And I love how she begins by saying that Szold knew how to say “no” better than anyone else.

Judith: Part of what she learns from Szold is how to work effectively with people, how to express disagreement while also being gracious and inclusive even when you disagree, and how to make someone feel heard and bring them along. Qualities that she is noting are lacking in many of her colleagues!  She famously said: “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” It seems like she learned this, at least in part, from Henrietta Szold.

Nahanni: I think this story is a window into how Justice Ginsburg got where she got—and what kept her motivated. She was inspired and strengthened by a lot of other people, and women in particular.  I also love that she began her story about Szold by saying that her mother used to speak of Szold glowingly, so it’s another link in the chain of women learning from each other.

Judith: Ginsburg’s mother died young—right before Ruth graduated from high school—and she was not allowed to say kaddish for her because she was a girl, so this story about Szold saying kaddish for her mother must have resonated deeply.

Nahanni: Like Szold, Justice Ginsburg also was raised in a traditional Jewish home and environment, moved away from traditional Judaism in part because of her experience being told she couldn’t say kaddish. But I find it moving that she still fully embraced the underlying values in Judaism as she saw it.  They really gave her strength and powered her work.

Judith: Her experience as a Jew in America sensitized her to discrimination—she talked about family car trips where she would see signs outside of some establishments saying “No Dogs or Jews allowed.” Her experiences as a Jew, and as a woman, helped her identify with outsiders and see the gap between American ideals and the realities that so many people—women, immigrants, LGBT people—live every day. 

Nahanni: The point isn’t to just remember her as a hero, but to follow her example and believe that we too can and must fight for what we believe in. A friend of mine told a story about being at some dinner function at the Supreme Court, and Justice Ginsburg had my friend sit in her chair just to see how it feels.  And my friend interpreted this as if the Justice was saying to her, “you too can do hard things.”

Judith: We won’t all have the opportunity to sit in her chair, but we can continue her work from whatever chair we’re sitting in.

Nahanni: To end, let’s give Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg the final word.

RBG, via archival tape: May I conclude with words I often use when asked to say who I am. I am a judge, born, raised and proud of being a Jew. The demand for justice runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition. I hope in all the years I have the good fortune to continue serving on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States I will have the strength and courage to remain steadfast in the service of that demand. Thank you.

[Applause]

Nahanni: May Justice Ginsburg’s memory be a blessing and an inspiration to fight for our highest ideals.

[Theme music]

Judith: Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive.

Nahanni: To read more tributes to Ruth Bader Ginsburg go to the We Remember collection at jwa.org. To learn more about Justice Ginsburg’s legacy, her foremothers and the rich history of Jewish women’s activism, check out JWA’s newest online history course, beginning October 1. For more information and to register, go to jwa.org/events. I’m Nahanni Rous.

Judith: And I’m Judith Rosenbaum. Until next time.

[Theme music fades]

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 47: RBG in Her Own Words (Transcript)." (Viewed on January 19, 2021) <https://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-47-rbg-her-own-words/transcript>.

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