The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was “on a Jewish journey” as she and Moment editor-in-chief Nadine Epstein worked together on the newly released book, RBG’s Brave and Brilliant Women: 33 Jewish Women to Inspire Everyone, Epstein said in an online conversation Tuesday with Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, who knew the justice and officiated at her funeral.
Moment Magazine co-sponsored the MomentLive! conversation with the Association of Jewish Libraries.
RBG’s Jewish identity was important to her, both women recalled, and her chambers prominently featured a print of the Hebrew words “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” or “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” a quotation from Deuteronomy. When Holtzblatt, whose husband clerked for the justice, first visited her chambers, “there were two things she showed me right away”: the mezuzah on the door and the “Tzedek, tzedek” print, the rabbi recalled. (When she died, Ginsburg left Holtzblatt the mezuzah; the rabbi plans to loan it to the Capitol Jewish Museum in Washington, DC.)
“She talked to me about how part of the Jewish identity is being a people forced to be on the margins of society, and how, having earned this power that she had, she felt it was her Jewish imperative to make a path for others’ voices to be in the world,” Holtzblatt said, adding that the book about often forgotten Jewish women builds on that sense of mission.
The book, aimed at an intergenerational audience and featuring an introduction by the justice, grew out of a conversation Epstein had with Ginsburg in her chambers at the Supreme Court after Moment Magazine gave the justice its Human Rights Award in 2019. The two women were swapping childhood memories of searching in vain in their respective libraries for books about Jewish women. “We started talking about all the women who meant so much to her, the Jewish women who were her heroes,” Epstein recalled. “She said, ‘The stories of Jewish women are so important, and I want everyone to know about them.’ And I said, as I so often say, ‘What a great book idea, we should write a book.’ And she said, ‘Yes.’”
They worked together on the list of women to include, coming up with more than 150 names, then whittling them down. Ginsburg lived long enough to edit Epstein’s first draft. Both Epstein and Holtzblatt recalled Ginsburg’s passion for mentoring younger women and her generosity in sharing opportunities. When Holtzblatt helped her with research for a piece for the American Jewish World Service about women in the Passover story, Ginsburg insisted on giving her a joint byline. “The lesson I come back to again and again that she taught me was just how magnanimous she was with her role and helping other women to grow,” Holtzblatt said. “She cared desperately about that.”
Likewise, Ginsburg was a strong supporter of Epstein’s work with Moment over the years, publicly applauding her for making Moment into the lively and informative platform it is today. As the two women worked together on the book, “I didn’t realize it at the time, but she was [also] mentoring me,” Epstein said. When Ginsburg covered a first draft of the book with highly detailed, critical edits and notes, Epstein remembered, at first she was shattered, but “I learned from every single comment that she made. I learned from her, I learned about her.” In the late summer of 2020, while battling the return of her cancer and preparing for the new Supreme Court term, the justice still blazed ahead, peppering Epstein with suggestions via email.
Her death during Rosh Hashanah in 2020 came as all the more of a shock, Epstein said, because the two had been exchanging emails just a few weeks before about plans for the book and the start of the term. Holtzblatt said she received news of Ginsburg’s passing while she was leading Rosh Hashanah services at Washington’s Adas Israel Congregation, where she is co-senior rabbi. It was not until the next morning that she learned Ginsburg had designated her to conduct her funeral and deliver the eulogy.
The justice also imparted other wisdom, the two women recalled. Epstein described a conversation in Ginsburg’s chambers during which she told the justice she disliked speaking up in public. “She looked at me very sharply and said, ‘Get over it. If you do not speak your mind, no one will speak it for you.’” The justice told Epstein that she herself had been shy and reticent about speaking up when she was at Harvard Law School—not only was she one of only nine women in the class, but the group included Anthony Lewis, already a prominent and articulate journalist—but she forced herself to speak up.
Epstein said Moment is creating the Role Model Project in memory of Ginsburg, which will be focused on helping children, particularly those from marginalized groups, to identify the qualities they are looking for in a role model and to find and select role models who embody those qualities to inspire them.
RBG’s Brave and Brilliant Women: 33 Jewish Women to Inspire Everyone is published by Random House and available at booksellers everywhere. Signed copies can be purchased at momentmag.com/rbg. Watch Epstein and Holtzblatt’s conversation here.