Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her own words: highlights from the Forward’s 2018 interview
In February 2018, Jane Eisner, then Editor-in-Chief of The Forward, interviewed Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at Adas Israel Synagogue in Washington D.C. Ginsburg died on Friday at 87 after repeated battles with cancer. Here are some highlights from her nearly 90-minute conversation with Eisner. You can watch the video of the interview here.
Jane Eisner: I’ve heard how you’ve enjoyed celebrating Passover with your family. You’ve remarked that the Four Questions was the best part of the Seder. I’m wondering why.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A child — the youngest child — is asking about this evening, this celebration: “Why is Passover night different from all other nights?” It’s a child asking a question and the rest of the Seder is devoted to answering it. The Child’s question.
I think it’s just one of many illustrations of how Jews honor learning and want children to be well-educated.
JE: Your mother had a very strict Orthodox upbringing. And I’m just wondering how that experience of being a girl at a time when girls and women had very little or no role in religious life … how did that affect you? Did it inspire you or was it something that you wanted to change?
RBG Of course I wanted to change it, I wanted to have a big party for a bat mitzvah and get all those presents!
I grew up with a cousin. we lived in the same household. Two sisters married, two brothers who were three months apart. We were like twins and he was bar mitzvah’d. And had this great party. And all the gifts. I was very jealous.
JE: I’ve read that you traced the Jewish presence on the Supreme Court beginning not with Justice Louis Brandeis, the first justice, but actually with Judah Benjamin, who was the first Jew to be offered a seat in the United States Supreme Court — but who declined. And, in fact, he became a leader of the Confederacy. I’m wondering, why do you start there in thinking about the Jewish presence on the court?
RBG: Jews come in all sizes and shapes and some are very good and some are not so good. Benjamin was a very interesting character — he did have an Orthodox Jewish upbringing. But he married out of the faith.
His story is intriguing. He rose to the top of the ranks in the Confederacy. In fact, the reason he turned down the Supreme Court appointment was he had just been chosen by the Louisiana legislature to be to Louisiana’s Senator. These were days before the 17th Amendment. So Senators were chosen by the state legislature, not by direct vote.
JE We have a question from Michael Rosenzweig, a reader in Georgia. He wondered how your Jewishness has affected your life’s work as a lawyer, a law professor, a feminist, and a Supreme Court justice.
RBG: Perhaps I should start by saying, I grew up in the shadow of World War II. And we came to know more and more what was happening to the Jews in Europe. The sense of being an outsider — of being one of the people who had suffered oppression for no … no sensible reason … it’s the sense of being part of a minority. It makes you more empathetic to other people who are not insiders, who are outsiders.
I would say that, and love of learning. The sense of being a member of a minority group that somehow has survived generations and generations of hatred and plundering.
My father came from Russia when he was 13. He never went to school in any country. He went to a [inaudible] in his shtetl outside Odessa. But — and my mother was the first person in her large family born in the U.S.A. She was born four months after her mother arrived here so she was conceived in the Old World, born in the New World. And both of them, more than anything else, wanted me to have a good education. That was number one on their list of what I should have.
‘It’s not good enough for Ginsburg’
JE: And you feel secure now as a Jew I sense. The beautiful poem that we heard referenced the artwork that’s on the walls of your chamber. And there’s a mezuzah on the door. I’m just wondering, in your time on the court, how has it accommodated Jewish tradition? Has that changed while you’ve been there?
RBG: There hadn’t been a Jewish justice for some years, from Abe Fortas until my appointment. The clerk of the Supreme Court, Clerk Souter, came to see me very early on in my tenure. And he said, I’m very glad you’re here because you can help me with a problem. The Supreme Court admits lawyers to membership in the Supreme Court bar. And every year they would get, oh, a half a dozen or more complaints from Orthodox Jews who said, “we’re so proud of our membership in the Supreme Court bar. But we can’t frame our certificate included in the wall because it said in the year of our lord so-and-so and he’s not our lord.” So, I spoke to the chief about this he said we’ll take it up at conference.
And one of my colleagues, and I will not disclose who, said, “in the year of our Lord was good enough for Brandeis, it was good enough for Cardozo, it was good enough for Frankfurter, it was good enough even for Goldberg.” And before he got to Fortas, I said “it’s not good enough for Ginsburg.”
It took a while for the cycle to complete. First, they said, all right, for the Orthodox Jews we’ll have just in the year so-and-so. And then there were some complaints — “we liked what it said on the certificate about the independence of the United States so please keep that on our certificate.” Now if you want a certificate showing your membership in the Supreme Court bar you have your choice. You can have just the year 2018. And the year of Our Lord so, or the independence of the United States. It’s the way it should be. It’s your choice, what you want it to be.
The next was the great Yom Kippur controversy. Usually the high holy days come out before the court starts up but sometimes they overlap. So Justice [Stephen] Breyer and I — Justice [Elena] Kagan was not on the court — asked the chief if the court could defer the sitting day. And the first response was, “we confer on Good Friday and nobody complains about that.” I said, “I’d be happy to come Thursday that week.” Then I think the argument that was utterly convincing for the chief was that inevitably in an argument session there will be Jewish lawyers and you want to put them — this is their day at the Supreme Court. Do you want to take away from them the opportunity to present their case and require them to have a substitute?
And that resonated and so now we don’t sit on High Holy Days.
‘We are different but we are one’
JE: So one of the justices that it seems you’ve had over the years the warmest and most unusual relationship [with] is the late Justice Antonin Scalia….and some of our readers asked about this. A teacher wrote in and said her public policy students say they can’t talk to their peers whose political views differ from their own. Another reader says it’s so hard to talk to family members these days and friends who don’t agree with them. So I’m wondering, how did you and Justice Scalia do it?
RBG: The first time I met Justice Scalia he was then a professor teaching at the University of Chicago. I attended a lecture he gave. I disagree with a lot of what he said but I was totally captivated by the way he said it.
He is a man — was a man — with a great sense of humor. When we became buddies on the D.C. Circuit, where the court sits in panels of three judges, and he would whisper something to me in the middle of an oral argument it would totally crack me up. All I can do to avoid bursting out in hilarious laughter.
We shared certain things. One is he was brought up in Queens. I was brought up in Brooklyn in roughly similar neighborhoods where people were either Irish or Italian or Jewish. We both really cared about families. We had an annual New Year’s party where the fare would be whatever, you know, hunted. So usually it was Bambi and my husband, who was a great chef, made venison. And whatever children were around came. And then we shared a love of opera. In fact there is an opera, it was a comic opera, called Scalia-Ginsburg.
And I think it does a wonderful job of explaining our friendship. It starts out with Scalia’s rage aria. And the rage is typical Handelian in style. It goes like this: The justices are blind/How can they possibly spout this/The Constitution says absolutely nothing. About this. And then I respond that he is searching for (bright line) solutions to problems that don’t have easy answers. But, the great thing about our Constitution is that like our society, it can evolve.
Well then Scalia gets locked up in a dark room. He’s being punished for excessive dissenting. And he has to go through certain tests to get out.
So I enter through a ceiling.
And then I tell the character of Don Giovanni who’s in this, Scalia Ginsburg, was called the Commendatore. And he is astonished: he said, “Why would you want to help him? He’s your enemy.” And then we do a wonderful duet.
I say, “he’s not my enemy, he’s my dear friend. Yes, we are different but we are one — different in the way we approach interpretation of legal texts. But one in our reverence for the Constitution and for the institution we serve.”
JE: Are there any decisions that you regret?
RBG: I can answer that question by telling you the advice I was given when I was a brand new judge on the D.C. Circuit by my senior colleague Ed Tam. He said “Ruthie, you’ve got to work hard on every case. Every opinion you write. But when it’s released, when it’s over, don’t look back. Don’t waste your time worrying about what’s done. Go on to the next case and give it your all.” And that is wonderful advice for judge.
‘Reading is tremendously important in the job now’
JE We are sadly almost out of time. There is one question that I must ask you. If I can take a personal privilege here it’s a question that I had the privilege of asking President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Susan Rice when she was national security adviser. What is your favorite flavor of bagel?
RBG: A New York poppy seed bagel.
JE: This is amazing! I did not know the answer to this and this may be the only thing that Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu and Ruth Bader Ginsburg agree on. They all pick poppy seed. Wow. I am amazed.
So of all the many questions and notes from readers that we received one stands out and I’d like to quote from this in our closing. It comes from Carly Rae Brown of Evansville, Indiana and Carly, I hope that you are watching. She is 9 years old, in the fourth grade, and she says that she is your biggest fan.
Her Girl Scout troop marched in a Christmas parade and they were asked to hold up signs about what they wanted to be when they grew up and her sign said Supreme Court Justice. And she wants to be a Justice, she says, to support women’s rights and other people who aren’t treated fairly. She also — are you ready — wants to be called C.R.B.
And here’s her question. She said, “What can I do now as a 9-year-old to make a change. How can I follow in your footsteps?”
RBG: May I say first that the idea of a young girl aspiring to be a judge, even more, even more Supreme Court justice is a wonderful thing. I have a granddaughter who is now a lawyer. When she was eight I was being filmed for some show. My granddaughter Clara was with me and she said she wanted to be in the film too. So the maker said, “Oh alright Clara, we’ll ask you a question. What would you like to be when you grow up?” And this then eight-year-old said “I would like to be president of the United States of the world.”
It’s the difference between the aspirations that young women can have today and what they had in the so-called good old days. I think she should take her schoolwork very seriously and become a good reader. Reading is tremendously important in the job now.
And then do things in your community — I’m sure you will find things. Whether it’s assisting in getting food to the homeless people or if you care about the environment, helping keep local parks clean. And anything that you can do to make things a little better in your community. So that is what I would advise her to do.