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Not Just a Justice, but Also a Mensch

What I learned about Ruth Bader Ginsburg in writing two children’s books about her

Debbie Levy
September 22, 2020
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Legal pioneer. Feminist “waypaver.” Brilliant jurist. And with it all, such a mensch.

Scholars can place Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legal writings in the context of American jurisprudence, and there are certainly examples of her menschlichkeit there. For me, a lawyer who years ago turned from law to writing children’s books, her qualities as a mensch offered stellar material with which to work. But what I cherish as much as the rewards of bringing Ginsburg’s story to children in the two books I wrote about her is how her menschlichkeit made the process of creating those books a rare and delightful experience.

I had no relationship with Ginsburg when I set out to write about her. I wrote her a letter, told her what I was doing, and she was encouraging. For the first book, a picture book for young children, she couldn’t find time for an interview, but she did review the manuscript. She sent a nice little typed note, and penciled in some handwritten notes in the margins of my typescript.

The most interesting change she asked for concerned her parents. I had referred to them as “Mr. Bader” and “Mrs. Bader.” She went through the manuscript and methodically struck out “Mr.” and “Mrs.” and replaced them with their names—Nathan Bader and Celia Amster Bader.

She didn’t explain why she did this. But as soon as I saw her strikeouts and additions I thought, of course. When I write something about my own parents for publication I use their full names. I want to see them on the page, and I want readers to as well. Look, I’m thinking, I can’t introduce you to them anymore, but I can do better than Mr. and Mrs.

Maybe Ginsburg had an additional reason. She used “Ms.” rather than “Mrs.” ever since “Ms.” was formulated. But I think you never get too old to want to honor your parents and shine light on them. That is what a mensch does.

For my second book about her, I asked Ginsburg to review page proofs before we went to press. This was a much bigger ask than the picture book; this one was 200 pages long and in graphic novel form (“comics!” as I later heard she explained it to others). She said yes.

I’d hoped to have the proofs six to eight months before our November 2019 publication date. That is typical, but wasn’t what happened.

Finally, I received the proofs. “Dear Justice Ginsburg,” I wrote to her on July 22, 2019, “I have in hand the close-to-final pages, with art. ... Would you like to take a look?”

“Yes, Debbie,” she wrote back on July 23. “I ... will have some time in August to read it.”

Great! I told my editor. And then the editor dropped this piece of news: She needed everything from me—and Ginsburg—in a week.

I reminded the editor that we were dealing with a Supreme Court justice, who had a few things to do. That we should have had these pages back in the spring. To no avail; the printer had us scheduled.

“Dear Justice Ginsburg,” I emailed again, and told her if she wanted to comment on 200 pages of comics, she had until Aug. 6. It was July 29.

“Dear Debbie,” she wrote back, the next day. “Will try to get comments to you by August 6.”

My next communication from her came the following day, July 31:

“Dear Debbie, You did a fine job on this book. So did the illustrator. ... RBG”

She enclosed her markup. There were more than a few comments. She did not skim.

Three weeks later, I learned that Ginsburg had spent the month of August in radiation treatments at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center for a cancerous tumor on her pancreas. And that she had a stent inserted in her bile duct.

So Ginsburg sat down with the page proofs before heading to New York for three weeks of cancer treatments. I don’t know if I was more amazed at that, or at her initial plan, which apparently was to review them while in the midst of her treatments.

She knew I had a deadline. She exerted herself to help me, not a stranger to her by then, but still, a peripheral person in her world. What a mensch.

And what were her changes like?

There’s a section in the book in which I tell the story of her first oral argument at the Supreme Court, when she was a lawyer for the ACLU in the 1970s. The case was called Frontiero v. Richardson. I had the caption on one of the panels (remember, comics) read as follows:

“Ruth would be presenting the oral argument before the Supreme Court. It would be her first time.”

Ginsburg’s suggested change: Take out “the” before “oral argument.” Don’t say I presented “the oral argument,” say that I presented “oral argument.” Why? Because “the” oral argument made it sound like she was the only one, when in fact she split the oral argument with another lawyer. So it wasn’t fair, it was self-aggrandizing, to say that she presented “the” oral argument.

I knew she had split the argument. But I hadn’t thought about how my formulation enlarged her role a little too much. Talk about not claiming one tiny bit of another person’s accomplishment! So mensch-like.

By now, others have pointed out that Ginsburg died on Erev Rosh Hashanah, the evening when the Jewish New Year begins. Nina Totenberg tweeted, “A Jewish teaching says those who died just before the Jewish new year are the ones God has held back until the last moment bc they were needed most & were the most righteous.”

If you believe that and it comforts you, excellent. I can’t say that it helps me. Several years ago my mother, Jutta Salzberg Levy, also died on Erev Rosh Hashanah. We were very close. She was the same age as Ginsburg. I am not a fan of Erev Rosh Hashanah.

Still, menschlichkeit is a great sweetener. And wait, there’s more.

For the graphic novel-style biography, Ginsburg and I did have an extended interview. We were talking about her home life as a child. I asked what radio shows the family listened to. Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg. The Shadow. Inner Sanctum.

Then Ginsburg dug a little deeper. She used to listen to soap operas, she said, when she came home from school for lunch.

I was sitting on the sofa in her chambers and she was in a chair. And Ginsburg broke out in the lead-in voice-over from a show she followed, which she knew by heart:

“Helen Trent,” she began—and imagine Justice Ginsburg striking a dramatic pose as she continued: “Even when life knocks her against the rocks of despair, fights back bravely to prove what every woman wants to prove in her own life—that a woman can find love at 35 and even beyond!

Not only a mensch. Also utterly charming.

Debbie Levy is the author of I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark and Becoming RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Journey to Justice.