Ruth Bader Ginsburg—a fitting culmination for Jewish American Heritage Month
As you know if you read the Jewish Women’s Archive blog, May is Jewish American Heritage Month (JAHM). At JWA, we work all year to highlight the struggles and successes of American Jewish women; it’s the legacy we pass on to future generations.
Among JWA’s contributions to JAHM this year, we added video interviews with nine Jewish women who live and work in the Washington, DC area to our website. Ranging from a rabbi to a food writer, a visual artist to a physician, these women represent the variety of Jewish practice, personal history, and professional identity that one finds in most contemporary American Jewish communities.
Undoubtedly the most famous Jewish woman in Washington is Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. For her contribution to JWA’s online exhibit, “Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution,” Ginsburg sent a personal statement about her Jewish identity. "I take pride in and draw strength from my Jewish heritage," she wrote in 2004.
Justice Ginsburg declared that “Jewish women have helped to shape what it means to be an American. Their courage and their wisdom have much to teach us.” She cited two Jewish women “whose humanity and bravery sustain [her] when [her] spirits need lifting.”
The first is Emma Lazarus, whose poem “The New Colossus” gives the Statue of Liberty its soul. Ginsburg admires Lazarus because “her love for humankind is evident in all her writings.”
The second is Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold. Quoting from Szold’s letter explaining why she felt compelled to depart from Jewish custom and say Kaddish or the mourner’s prayer for her mother, Ginsburg describes herself as “captivated [by Szold’s] plea for celebration of our common heritage while tolerating, indeed appreciating, the differences among us concerning religious practice.”
Ginsburg draws a direct line from her Jewish identity to her professional self-definition. “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.”
Whose humanity and bravery sustain me when my spirits need lifting? Ruth Bader Ginsburg. To understand why, all one has to do is watch the short video profile of her that is being made public today on the recently launched website, MAKERS: Women Who Make America.
One of nine women in a class of 500 at Harvard Law School, she was turned down by 14 law firms in spite of graduating first in her class. In 1972, she founded the Woman’s Rights Center to take on cases of gender discrimination. Her goal was simple but profound: “to go after stereotypes written into law.” In 1973, she argued and won her first case before the Supreme Court.
It is impossible not to be moved watching the video of Ginsburg describing her early career and listening as, overcoming her initial nervousness, she tells the all-male court in a firm voice that “sex like race has been made the basis for unjustified or at least unproved assumptions concerning an individual’s potential to perform or contribute. These distinctions have a common effect. They help keep women in her place—a place inferior to that occupied by men in our society.”
For almost 40 years, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s own “courage and wisdom” have set the highest standard not only for American Jewish women but for anyone who believes that the law can be a powerful weapon in the fight for equality.
// This post originally appeared on Jewish Women's Archive (JWA.org)