Remembering Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
By Samantha Cyrulnik-Dercher
“What’s the difference between a bookkeeper in New York’s garment district, which my mother was, and a Supreme Court justice? The difference is one generation.” – Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
When I think about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the anniversary of her passing, these are the words that come to mind. It’s not her most famous quote — at least, it’s not emblazoned on any of the RBG coffee mugs I own — and it’s not from an opinion she authored or a fiery dissent she penned. But these words have stuck with me, because I’ve always seen myself in them.
For me, the difference was not one generation, but two: between a bricklayer in Brooklyn, born in a Polish ghetto in 1913, who survived the Holocaust. And me, his granddaughter, a lawyer and civil rights advocate in Washington, D.C.
It is nothing short of a miracle that I exist at all, with not one, but three grandparents who survived the same genocide. But their survival — a defiance of the white supremacists who murdered their families, destroyed their communities, tortured them, and stole from them everything they had ever known — is what made me want to help shape the world into something better and brighter than it is.
Justice Ginsburg understood the privilege, pain, and responsibility of being in every role she filled, the living embodiment of her ancestors’ dreams. Her father was an immigrant; her mother, the garment district bookkeeper, was the child of immigrants. In different ways, and in different times, we both grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust — she as a young Jewish girl in 1930s and 1940s America, and me, learning about Judaism from my grandmother, who had a number branded upon her arm at Auschwitz. Like me, what Justice Ginsburg loved about being Jewish was not necessarily the religious practices — many of which she was denied her rightful role in because she was a woman — but the ideals of social justice that our faith commands us to uphold.
Tzedek tzedek tirdof, we are told: justice, justice you shall pursue. The word “justice” is repeated with purpose: For me, it’s a reminder that the work of justice is never over. That, as Coretta Scott King told us, “Freedom is never really won — you earn it and win it in every generation.” And as our federal courts snatch back the rights that prior generations fought for and won — our right to vote, our reproductive freedoms — it only becomes more urgent that we continue this pursuit of justice, especially for those we know who have been most marginalized. And that we inspire others to fight alongside us and continue our work after we are gone, just as Justice Ginsburg did.
Justice Ginsburg’s influence has always loomed large in my life. Since I was a child, she has enabled me to see myself reflected and represented on the U.S. Supreme Court — something that millions of people in America, including Black women, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, and so many other communities still do not have. As a lawyer, a judge, and a justice, she fought for and successfully had the rights I take for granted today recognized, from having a credit card to participating in jury duty. She did not fight injustice single-handedly. She didn’t always win, and even when she did, she wasn’t always right. But justice, justice, she pursued.
A year ago, I stood outside the Supreme Court, surrounded by thousands of mourners, coming together to honor the revolution that is Justice Ginsburg’s memory. A little girl sat down next to me to write out her farewell. I often look at the blurry photo I took of her and her sign — a wild mass of curly hair, a green marker cap on her thumb like a thimble, the kindergartener scrawl, the misspelled words. I caught her mid-thought: “RBG was very important. We should…”
I don’t know how her thought ends. But that little girl does; she will be the one to write it. A new generation, whose torch is lit from the torch that Justice Ginsburg’s mother passed to her — the torch that my grandparents lit for me — and carry on the eternal fight for justice.
Samantha Cyrulnik-Dercher is the fair courts manager at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.