In the last month, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was treated for cancer for the fourth time, addressed a crowd of 16,000 in Arkansas, and met her “Saturday Night Live” impersonator, Kate McKinnon. And on Wednesday night, she found time to address her very own tribe.
Well-heeled shul-goers, shaking and panting with the near-religious fervor of teens flagging down a boy band, snapped iPhone pictures as the 86-year-old Supreme Court justice took the podium to accept Moment Magazine’s inaugural Human Rights Award.
Ginsburg chose to speak about female Jewish luminaries. Specifically, she highlighted two audacious Jewish women who both strongly identified as Zionists: Emma Lazarus and Henrietta Szold.
“I am sometimes asked ‘Who were your role models?’” Ginsburg said. “The term role model was not yet in vogue in my childhood,” she added, with a Hermione Granger-ish glint. “But thinking back, I recall two Jewish women both raised in the USA whose humanity and bravery inspired me in my growing up years.”
“Emma Lazarus was a Zionist before that word came into vogue,” Ginsburg said, praising the 20th century Sephardic writer. “Her poem ‘The New Colossus,’ etched on the base of the Statue of Liberty, has welcomed legions of immigrants including my father and grandparents — people seeking in the U.S.A. shelter from fear, and longing to find freedom from intolerance.”
Letting this swipe at anti-immigration politics — or, depending how you look at it, accurate representation of US history — hang in the air, the Justice went on. “My next inspirer: Hadassah-founder Henrietta Szold.” Szlold, who was apparently gifted with the same bottomless energy as Ginsburg, was a university lecturer, a prolific writer and editor, and an organizer who helped save thousands of Jewish children during the Holocaust. She also started night schools to educate Jewish immigrants who arrived in America in the late 19th century, the same kind, the Justice added, that educated Ginsburg’s father when he first arrived in America.
Additionally, as Ginsburg proudly added, “She was a Zionist even before Theodore Herzl came on the scene.” It’s worth noting that Ginsburg has given this speech before, in nearly identical language, when she accepted the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Genesis Prize group in the summer of 2018. But Ginsburg’s enthusiastic Zionism is worth noting — given how clearly she states her views, it’s interesting to note how rarely we hear of them from Ginsburg’s extremely loud fanbase.
“Szold particularly impressed me because she knew how to say no better than any other person whose words I have read,” Ginsburg went on. Szold, she explained, had a formative teenage experience identical to one Ginsburg had and has described on many occasions — when Szold’s mother died, she and her sisters were not allowed, to make up the minyan of mourners, a privilege that halakha affords only to men. When a family friend offered to recite Kaddish in Szold’s place, she turned him down in a gracious letter, which Ginsburg quoted from extensively. Ginsburg, too, was unable as a teen to join the group saying kaddish for her mother, an event she often refers to as a turning point in her life and practice of Judaism.
“You understand me, don’t you?” Szold’s letter concludes. Ginsburg looked out at her audience at these words so abruptly that people lowered their iPhones, as if they had been caught looking at them in services.
“Szold’s plea for celebration of our common heritage while tolerating, indeed appreciating, the differences among us concerning religious practice, is disarming,” Ginsburg said, staring down her trembling audience. “Don’t you agree?”
And we do.
Jenny Singer is the deputy life/features editor for the Forward. You can reach her at Singer@forward.com or on Twitter @jeanvaljenny