Remarks by Justice Ginsburg on Accepting Moment Magazine Human Rights Award

September, 23 2019

For tonight’s festivities, please join me in applauding Moment Magazine, a journal Nadine Epstein has made both informative and lively. Moment is filled with well-written articles on issues of constant and current importance to Jews, and to all concerned about the well being of the State of Israel.

Applause, too, to my favorite interviewer, Nina Totenberg. As her listeners and readers know, she routinely turns the Court’s sometimes dense prose into words one can readily grasp. It is a rare talent.

And a rousing Brava to the most marvelous mezzo, Denyce Graves, whose glorious voice garners standing ovations worldwide.

I cherish my friendship with Nina and Denyce.

For the kind words just said about me, huge appreciation. Yet I know that good fortune – mazel – accounts for my part in the effort to achieve equal citizenship stature for women, also for the office I have held now for more than 26 years, and, most recently, for the Notorious RBG.

I am sometimes asked, who were your role models? The term “role model” was not yet in vogue in my childhood, but thinking back, I recall two Jewish women, both raised in the USA, whose humanity and bravery inspired me in my growing up years.

First, Emma Lazarus, elder cousin to the great jurist Benjamin Nathan Cardozo.  Emma Lazarus was a Zionist before that word came into vogue.  Her love for humankind, and especially for her People, is evident in all her writings.  She wrote constantly, from her first volume of poetry published in 1866 at age 17, until her death from cancer far too soon, at age 38.  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 USA shelter from fear and longed-for freedom from intolerance.

My next inspirer, Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold.  Born in 1860, eleven years after Emma Lazarus, Szold lived until 1945.  My mother spoke of her glowingly. Szold, too, was a Zionist even before Theodore Herzl came on the scene. Among her many undertakings, she started night schools to teach English and trades to the waves of Jewish immigrants coming from Russia and other East European countries in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century. My father, born near Odessa, arrived in New York in 1909 at age 13. He was the beneficiary of a night school education of the kind sparked by Henrietta Szold.

Szold knew how to say “No” better than any other person whose words I have read.  She had seven sisters, but no brother.  When her mother died, a man well known for his community-spirited endeavors, Haym Peretz, offered to say the Kaddish — the mourner’s prayer that, ancient custom instructed, could be recited only by men.  Szold responded to that caring offer in a letter dated September 16, 1916.  You can read it in full in Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality, in the Jewish Women’s Archive curriculum, Making Our Wilderness Bloom, and, most recently, in a soon to be published English translation of a biography of Szold written by Israeli author, Dvora Hacohen.  The key passages:

It is impossible for me to find words in which to tell you how deeply I was touched by your offer to act as “Kaddish” for my dear mother. . . . What you have offered to do [is beautiful beyond thanks] – I shall never forget it.

You will wonder, then, that I cannot accept your offer. . . . I know well, and appreciate what you say about, the Jewish custom [that only male children recite the prayer, and if there are no male survivors, a male stranger may act as substitute]; and Jewish custom is very dear and sacred to me.  [Y]et I cannot ask you to say Kaddish after my mother. The Kaddish means to me that the survivor publicly . . . manifests his . . . intention to assume the relation to the Jewish community which his parent had, [so that] the chain of tradition remains unbroken from generation to generation, each adding its own link.  You can do that for the generations of your family, I must do that for the generations of my family.

My mother had eight daughters and no son; yet never did I hear a word of regret pass the lips of either my mother or my father that one of us was not a son.  When my father died, my mother would not permit others to take her daughters’ place in saying the Kaddish, [and so I am sure] I am acting in her spirit when I am moved to decline your offer.  But beautiful your offer remains nevertheless, and, I repeat, I know full well that it is much more in [harmony] with the generally accepted Jewish tradition than is my or my family’s conception.  You understand me, don’t you?

Szold’s plea for celebration of our common heritage while tolerating – indeed, appreciating – the differences among us concerning religious practice, is disarming, don’t you agree?

I was asked some years ago by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) to supply a statement on how my heritage as a Jew and my occupation as a judge fit together. I responded this way:

I am a judge, born, raised, and proud of being a Jew. The demand for justice, for peace, and for enlightenment runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition. I hope, in all the years I have the good fortune to continue serving on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States, I will have the strength and courage to remain steadfast in the service of that demand.

Again, a thousand thanks for tonight’s honor, and every best wish to all involved in making Moment Magazine a journal nonpareil.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Moment Awards Dinner, September 18, 2019

Read more about the awards dinner.

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