How Ruth Bader Ginsburg Became 'Notorious'

What do a deceased East Coast rapper and a petite Jewish Supreme Court justice have in common?

They’re both Notorious.

Over the past few years, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been enjoying an unlikely pop culture moment. “Notorious RBG,” the Tumblr account created by NYU law student Shana Knizhnik comparing Ginsburg to rapper Biggie Smalls (aka the Notorious B.I.G.), who died in 1997, has made the eldest of the three women on the Supreme Court a household name and a viral meme.

T-shirts, mugs, fingernails and Halloween costumes — even tattoos — all boasting RBG’s profile with catchy slogans (my favorite: “Fear the Frill”) have flooded the Internet. There have been blog posts, think pieces and love letters (full disclosure, I wrote one). But nothing proves how iconic Ginsburg has become so much as “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” out on Tuesday.

“RBG, the woman once disdainfully referred to as ‘schoolmarmish,’ the wrong kind of feminist, ‘a dinosaur,’ insufficiently radical, a dull writer, is now a fond hashtag,” Knizhnik’s co-author and MSNBC journalist Irin Carmon writes in the introduction.

“Her every utterance is clickbait, and according to the headlines she no longer says anything but rather ‘eviscerates.’ At least two different Notorious R.B.G. signature cocktails can be drunk in two different cities. Turn on the Cartoon Network and you might glimpse a cartoon action figure named Wrath Hover Ginsbot (‘appointed for life to kick your butt).”

Like the Tumblr, the book pays tribute to its namesake. But while some sections could be likened to a whimsical RBG Pinterest board (colorful memes, vintage photographs, and even doodles of kites and sailboats scrawled from the bench by the lady herself), Carmon’s deft writing and Knizhnik’s attention to the facts and visuals, combined with, as Jennifer Senior put it in her New York Times review, a dash of Talmud, make for an entertaining and instructive read.

Among the many, many wonderful RBG anecdotes in the book (including her longtime friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia — their relationship is now the subject of an opera — and a breakdown of her extensive workout routine) a couple of Jewish ones stand out:

  • At 15, she became camp rabbi of Camp Cheh-Na-wah in the Adirondacks.

  • At Cornell, she formed a clique with six other Jewish girls who lived along a corridor in Clara Dickson Hall. They called themselves KLAVHIJ, after each of their initials. K stood for Kiki, Ginsburg’s childhood nickname.

  • Ginsburg’s mother, Celia Bader, died one day before her daughter’s high school graduation. As a woman, Ginsburg was excluded from the mourning minyan. After that, “it took a long time to see herself in her faith.” Nonetheless, Carmon writes, “Jewish law taught Kiki about a commitment to justice.”

  • Ginsburg was turned down for every law firm position she applied to after graduating at the top of her class at Columbia. “As RBG saw it, she had three strikes against her: She was a woman, the mother of a four-year-old, and a Jew.”

  • Esteemed Jewish law professor Alan Dershowitz once said that to compare her to Thurgood Marshall was “denigrating the memory of a hero,” because she had only “argued a handful of appeals at a time when women’s rights were vogueish and certainly not career-threatening.”

  • R.B.G. famously stopped cooking in 1980, at which time her husband, late tax attorney Martin Ginsburg, took over the kitchen. Her favorite recipe of his was pork loin braised in milk, possibly the least kosher meal in existence (though the ingredients do call for kosher salt).

The book obviously pays tribute to Ginsburg’s long career — she’s never missed a day. Some of her most famous arguments are annotated — including her dissent in Shelby Country v. Holder, which inspired Knizhnik to launch her Tumblr — making the concise legalese a little more reader-friendly. Much is made of Ginsburg’s relatively recent career-turn as a fierce dissenter, a path, Carmon notes, she “never especially wanted.” (Fascinating tidbit: RBG owns a special dissent jabot, or collar, and another for majority opinions.)

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But just as the book holds a shared byline, so does Ginsburg’s life story. Occupying almost as much space as her professional achievements is her truly sweet relationship with her husband Marty. “The most important career choice you’ll make is who you marry,” RBG has said.

In Marty, she found the perfect “life partner,” as the two always referred to themselves. He made professional sacrifices for her, supported her, and most importantly, made her laugh. They met during Ginsburg’s first year at Cornell and were married until Marty’s death from metastatic cancer in 2010. In his last note to her, sent 10 days before he died, he wrote: You are the only person I have loved in my life, setting aside a bit, parents and kids and their kids, and I have admired you since the day we first met at Cornell some 56 years ago. What a treat it has been to watch you progress to the very top of the legal world!!!”

Marty passed away on June 27. The next day, RBG went to work. That’s what she does.

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
By Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik
Dey Street Books, 227 pages, $19.99

Author

Anne Cohen

Anne Cohen

Anne Cohen is the Forward’s deputy digital media editor. When she’s not looking for the secret Jewish history of Voodoo in New Orleans, or making lists about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she writes for The Assimilator. She graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism with an M.S. magazine concentration in 2012.

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How Ruth Bader Ginsburg Became 'Notorious'

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