Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the Privilege of Reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish


I write this essay for the incomparable Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg during a week of aninut—the time between death and burial. It is the disorienting time between shock and grief. The week of aninut for Justice Ginsburg was exceptional, taking place in the hallowed halls of the Supreme Court and the Capitol. The sorrowful words of El Maleh Rahamim—words that are chanted at Jewish funerals—rang out in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court. Two days later, her casket was brought to the Capitol building, where she was the first woman and the first Jew to lie in state.

Amid those honors, Ginsburg—or “The Notorious RBG” as she is affectionately known the world over—is uniquely mourned as a feminist icon and a bridge-builder among the generations. She was the woman who won legal cases that accorded women and men so many of the rights they have today. In the 1970s, Ginsburg argued some of the most important women’s rights cases of her generation before the Supreme Court. She put her gentle manner and inherent shyness on pause to win the majority of those cases. As Ginsburg’s rabbi, Lauren Holtzblatt, eulogized, “Justice did not arrive like a lightning bolt, but rather through dogged persistence all the days of her life.”

Among the many incidental RBG facts that I love is the one about the unique jabots she wore. Shortly before her death, Ginsburg donated a white lace collar to the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv with a signed copy of her autobiography, “My Own Words.” Ginsburg’s various lace collars, artful and feminine, often signaled her position on a case before she uttered a word. The collars also reflected her status as a role model. In 2009, she told NBC News: “You know, the standard robe is made for a man because it has a place for the shirt to show and the tie. So, Sandra Day O’Connor and I thought it would be appropriate if we included [a lace collar] as part of our robe, something typical of a woman. So, I have many, many collars.”

The lace jabot distinctly announced Ginsburg’s presence in the Court’s historically male environment, but the first male bastion from which she was barred was her synagogue minyan. Her mother, Celia Bader, died of cancer the day before Ginsburg’s high school graduation, and a devastated Ruth was not allowed to say Kaddish for her. Celia profoundly influenced her daughter—famously imparting wisdom such as keeping one’s temper in check while diligently forging ahead. Celia worked as a bookkeeper, and Ginsburg liked to say the difference between a Brooklyn bookkeeper and a Supreme Court Justice was just one generation.

Much to Ginsburg’s amusement, a cottage industry sprung up over the years around her RBG moniker. In addition to being known as “The Notorious RBG,” she was also called “Super Diva,” the nickname famously proclaimed on one of the sweatshirts she wore to her workouts. Ginsburg will also forever be associated with the words, “I dissent.” When she broke the record for dissents from the bench, another million memes were born. Memes aside, Ginsburg had a brilliant legal mind and was a proud Jew who lived by the Hebrew words framed and hanging in her chambers: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. Justice, justice shall you pursue.

In her essay for the Jewish Women’s Archive 2005 online exhibit, “Feminist Revolution,” Ginsburg wrote:

“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. I hope that 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.”

In that same essay, Ginsburg cited two Jewish women as her inspiration: Emma Lazarus, whose poem “The New Colossus” is etched at the base of the Statue of Liberty, and Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah. Ginsburg lauded both women for their “humanity and bravery.” Lazarus’s work moved Ginsburg, and Szold’s determination to say the Kaddish for her mother in 1916 drew Ginsburg’s admiration. I have also turned to Szold’s words, grateful for the privilege of saying the Kaddish as a Jewish woman as an equal in various minyans around the world.

As Ginsburg observed, Szold was one of eight sisters and refused a male riend’s offer to say the Kaddish on her behalf. She quoted from a letter Szold wrote to her friend about his generous offer:

“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 a substitute]; and Jewish custom is very dear and sacred to me. And yet 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.”

Ginsburg went on to comment: “Szold’s plea for celebration of our common heritage while tolerating, indeed appreciating, the differences among us concerning religious practice is captivating. I recall her words even to this day when a colleague’s position betrays a certain lack of understanding.”

The loss of Justice Ginsburg brings out a very personal kind of grief in me and in women across the country. I worry about who will be her replacement, as if she can ever be replaced. With her gone, I am more upset than ever about our teetering democracy, the looming election, the undoing of my rights and my children’s rights—rights which Ginsburg so assiduously won for us.

I think back to Ginsburg as the 17-year-old girl who wanted nothing more than to assuage her grief by publicly saying the Kaddish for her mother. I thank God I am counted in a minyan to say the Kaddish for my father. I don’t think it’s a stretch to acknowledge Ruth Bader Ginsburg for that privilege. She delivered much of the agency American women now have over their lives.

Rest in peace and power and revolution, Justice Ginsburg. And in the parting words of the Kaddish, to which I’ve added pronouns to honor her legacy:

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

He/She/They who creates peace in His/Her/Their celestial heights, may He/She/They create peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

This essay was originally published on JewishBoston.com https://www.jewishboston.com/and-then-justice-ruth-bader-ginsburg-and-the-privilege-of-reciting-the-mourners-kaddish/

Bygone Days at Lord & Taylor

Lord & Taylor, once the grand doyenne of American department stores, is shuttering its remaining locations after nearly 200 years in business. My mercurial Cuban mother and I bonded when we shopped at Lord & Taylor, and its closing breaks my heart. Looking for the right dress for a special occasion, we were game to make the pilgrimage from Hartford, Connecticut, to Lord & Taylor’s flagship store in Manhattan on Fifth Avenue, between 38th and 39th streets, whether or not we had the money.

Other times, we took the Asylum Avenue bus that stopped across the street from our house, riding the two miles west to a Lord & Taylor satellite in suburban Hartford. That store was a chunk of white-brick elegance in an otherwise drab shopping center. Lord & Taylor stood out on that concrete strip as a mansion, a Mecca, a refuge. The lightly perfumed, gently lit spaces were all the more alluring for my mother after my parents fought over finances.

After many of those fights, my mother jumped on the bus with me in tow to empty my father’s coffers at Lord & Taylor. For my mother, it was revenge shopping at its most exquisite. Our first stop in the store was always the Bird Cage restaurant. We ate amid small wire cages dangling from the ceiling — intriguing mobiles in which pastel birds, against all reason, were real. The waitresses pushed carts offering tea sandwiches and precious desserts. Nothing was steaming; nothing was sliding down mounds of grease under those silver lids. Lord & Taylor was the epicenter of a well-mannered society.

After lunch, my mother and I headed to scout out the fancy clothes and shoes. There she wielded her hunter green Lord & Taylor credit card like a scythe with its white swirl of script that was the store’s distinctive signature. In raised letters, the card read: Mrs. K. Harold Bolton. My mother was the first in her Latinx family to marry an American. To her, Lord & Taylor was not about pretense; it was about aspiring to the best life.

I remember when my mother found a suit in classic gray wool in that hushed fancy-dress section, with the sleeves, collar and skirt hem outlined in black gross-grain ribbon. The large stamped silver buttons commanded attention and respect. She bought the suit in a quick, blinding flash, and whenever she wore it, she felt rich. She initially hid it from my father in her closet, an island of eternal twilight and forbidden possibilities. Her closet was a place of mostly pretty clothes where I played dress-up — a place where I buried my face in the neatly folded hand-me-down cashmere sweaters from her sister-in-law.

Lord & Taylor eventually moved further west to the area’s first indoor mall, a place harder to get to for my non-driving mother. The store’s previous location on the bus line — the place that I had loved so much — evolved into the cluttered, fluorescent chaos of a discount store. Over the years, my parents continued to struggle financially and my mother grudgingly downgraded to other stores — perfectly nice stores that had neither the history nor what my mother called “the refinement” of Lord & Taylor.

I’m the one who now buys my mother her clothes at regular mall stores. When I bring the clothes to her nursing home, I stage a “fashion show” in her small, shared room. In her dotage, my mother has left behind her enigmatic and chic blacks and grays and embraced a red and green and blue palette. Her 100-year-old roommate, a fashion plate in her own right, wears a white denim jacket as she sits on her bed in anticipation of seeing the skirts and blouses I’ve put together — my mother has never, ever worn pants.

I may be my mother’s shopper, but I’ll never quite have her discerning eye. I try to create the excitement of those bygone big department store days in her 9-by-11 room as I hang up the new clothes. My over-the-top-cheer almost never works. My mother cries a lot. She misses her mobility. She misses her freedom to jump on a bus and shop to her heart’s content. She misses Lord & Taylor. With my father gone now, she misses being Mrs. K. Harold Bolton.

I will never tell her Lord & Taylor has closed forever.

This post originally appeared on Cognoscenti https://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2020/09/01/lord-and-taylor-closing-mother-shopping-judy-bolton-fasman#_=_