“Let me be something every minute of every hour of my life…And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.” – Betty Smith, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”
On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish New Year 5781, we lost an irreplaceable woman, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg aka the Notorious RBG. As the Jerusalem Post reported, there is significance to dying on the cusp of the new year – that honor is saved for the truly righteous. They are held back from passing because they are needed here on earth to continue to do good. It is hard to imagine someone more deserving of that distinction.
Countless have paid tribute to this indomitable spirit, petite and elegant, yet with more toughness and determination than many of far greater physical stature. We all know about her commitment to her late husband, her unwillingness to give up when law firm after law firm snubbed this Harvard and Columbia Law School educated scholar, and her relentless advocacy on behalf of the underdog. She never gave up because she was “Small, But Mighty,” the mantra of our women-owned law firm of diverse professionals. Her diminutive size, with which I relate as barely 5 feet tall myself, belied a heart of gold and a mind of steel. But there is much more about Justice Ginsburg that I have been reflecting on during this important period in the Jewish calendar as we move from celebrating the New Year to atoning for our sins next week on Yom Kippur.
I had the good fortune to encounter Justice Ginsburg twice during her distinguished career on the Supreme Court. The first time in 2003, Justice Ginsburg, the second woman to be appointed to the Court, presented remarks at the Philadelphia Bar Association Award ceremony named in honor of her good friend and the first woman on the Court, Sandra Day O’Connor. I remember Justice Ginsburg vividly moving swiftly, dwarfed by a coterie of secret service agents. But even amidst this human barricade, her energy and life force reverberated as she captivated the audience with her fervent and candid remarks. That resoluteness and candor did not soften with age; indeed over time she seemed even more outspoken about condemning inequity and advocating vigorously for equality. I next had the opportunity to hear Justice Ginsburg’s live interview at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia in 2016. She appeared physically smaller than she had over a decade earlier after battling health issues, but she still commanded the room despite her soft spoken manner. Everyone sat with rapt attention as she spoke without hesitation about the impenetrable obstacles women faced early in her career and how disappointed she was that too many of those obstacles still persisted.
Beyond having the rare chance to experience her wisdom and humor in person, I have always been drawn to RBG – the Jewish woman from Brooklyn, daughter of an immigrant father and a first generation mother who, nearly 25 years before I entered law school at Penn, managed to navigate from Flatbush to the vaunted law school in Cambridge. Growing up in an immigrant Jewish home in Brooklyn myself, I knew firsthand just how far she had to travel to get there. Like her I also often had my nose in a book and an oversized pair of glasses balanced on my nose. That image also reminded me of a beloved novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, about a young woman who, like a tree struggling to grow in a barren urban setting, studies relentlessly to get ahead despite the odds against her. As the country mourns the loss of a hero, Justice Ginsburg, and women mourn the loss of a feminist icon, the Notorious RGB, I also mourn for that invincible young woman from Brooklyn, born Ruth Bader in 1933. May she rest in peace.