Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg official SCOTUS portrait 2016. Public Domain.

Notorious Jewish Grandmothers

RBG was legendary, and also familiar

My grandmother had a story that she always told. She had just been admitted to West Chester University, the first in her family to get a college degree. That’s when she overheard a conversation between her uncle and her father.

“It’s bad enough that she’s tall and wears glasses,” her uncle said, “…and now you’re going to send her to college?! She’ll never find a husband!”

Well, Barbara Gadon did indeed find a husband. She also was a teacher up until her grandchildren were born, and she was the smartest, most elegant woman I’ve ever known. She passed away in April of 2019. Looking back, I wish I’d asked her how she felt about Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

My grandmother had a lot in common with RBG. They were Jewish women of the same generation, born and died within only a few years of each other. Both were the products and passers-on of two important legacies: education and justice.

This morning, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was laid to rest in Arlington Cemetery. Her private family burial happened after she broke yet another barrier posthumously, becoming the first woman and the first Jewish American to have the honor of lying in state. She inspired so many of us, but she wasn’t just a justice, or a hero, or a trailblazer. She was a Jewish grandmother—and before that, a Jewish mother.

Jewish mothers pass on lots of things to their daughters: loyalty, recipes, high expectations. But Jewish mothers are not just the butt of jokes on TV. Jewish mothers are strong, dedicated, inspiring figures—too often caricatured, not often enough celebrated. After all, without Jewish mothers, we would have no Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Ginsburg’s mother taught her selflessness, and the importance of education, hoping that it would help her become a teacher, because that was just about the best job a woman could get to support herself in the fifties. Of course, Ginsburg became a more unexpected kind of teacher: the kind of teacher that teaches by example, proving what she believed in and fighting against barriers that held the disenfranchised in place for years.

She taught millions of girls, Jewish girls, that they did not exist just for marriage or child-rearing. She taught the United States that women deserve equal rights and would be more than willing to fight for them. She taught those who sought to hold her back that they could try, but she was smarter, and more relentless, and anyone trying to repress her simply would not succeed.

I’ve known many Jewish grandmothers like RBG. They were not all on the Supreme Court, but they were just and patient and brilliant. They taught their daughters and granddaughters hard lessons, lessons about the world as it is—and our duty to make the world better for our own children.

Jewish teachings say to make the world a better place for the good of humanity, but Jewish grandmothers have long also kept in mind a more personal goal, fighting and striving hard so the world is a fairer place for their granddaughters. Jewish grandmothers know that Jewish granddaughters will become Jewish grandmothers, and that they have to know the lessons well, because someday, they will have to teach them well.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg did more to this point than many of us could hope to do. I mourn her for the work she has done, as we all do. I mourn her as an icon and role model, and I mourn her as a Jewish grandmother to many. But in the year 5781, she was not written into the Book of Life, for it was time for her rest and to return to her husband’s side. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a painful loss in a time rife with fighting for injustice, but she did her work.

Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Ancestors, teaches that it is not on us to complete the work, nor are we free to abandon it. We cannot be upset that she is no longer here to fight the fight for equality for us, hanging on by her lace jabots. She taught us as much as she had to teach, and now the teachings are ours to live by and pass on. May her memory be for a blessing, and let us do the work she needed to leave behind, in honor not only of RBG but also in honor of all of our Jewish grandmothers.

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