Wissot: What RBG meant to me
As a Jewish boy growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, I was searching for male heroes that I could emulate. There were the popular cowboys on television, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, but since I didn’t envision growing up to be a cowboy none of them captured my fancy.
For me, a puny, fearful, shy kid, physical prowess in a definitively masculine way was of utmost importance. Jewish boys of my generation were raised to get good grades, go to college, and become doctors, lawyers and accountants. Parents emphasized the cerebral as the gateway to societal success. I was a lousy student who also sucked at sports.
But I hated school and loved sports, so only my ineptitude as an athlete mattered to me.
There were other stereotypes about being a Jewish male that I had to overcome. Jews weren’t supposed to be physically tough. We weren’t raised to fend for ourselves like the Irish kids on my block who were talented brawlers. My father told me about Benny Leonard, a Jewish fighter of the 1920s who rose to be the lightweight champion of the world. Encouraging as that was I would have benefitted more from boxing lessons.
I read about Jewish gangsters who ruled the underworld like Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky. But wanting to emulate them because they were tough Jews was like Italian boys hoping to be Al Capone and Lucky Luciano based solely on their Italian ancestry.
Then I became a teenager in the early 1960s and Sandy Koufax came into my life. Koufax was a pitcher for the Brooklyn, then Los Angeles Dodgers who, in a stellar career cut short by an arthritic left arm, wound up being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Sandy Koufax was not only Jewish but over a five-year period — 1961-1966 — he was the best pitcher in baseball. My view of what Jewish men were capable of doing received a drastic makeover.
A second event around the same time also altered my thinking about Jewish stereotypes: the 1967 Six Day War in which Israel defeated invading armies from Egypt, Jordan and Syria in less than a week. I remember watching the progress of the war on television alongside relatives who feared that the outcome would be a crushing defeat for Israel and the destruction of the Jewish nation founded less than 20 years before.
When Israel convincingly won the war in six days it was an uplifting moment of David and Goliath biblical proportions. Coming only two decades after the Holocaust in which six million Jews perished, the Israeli victory challenged the stereotype held by some that Jews were a weak tribe of timid cowards.
All of which brings me to RBG. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s elevation to the Supreme Court seemed every bit as remarkable as Sandy Koufax’s entry into the baseball Hall of Fame or the Israeli victory in the Six Day War.
She was a Jewish woman from Brooklyn who began her legal career at a time when women who graduated from law school were not hired as lawyers in then all-male law firms. In her own words: “I had three strikes against me. I was Jewish. I was a wife. I was a mother.”
Despite those obstacles, Ginsburg rose to prominence as a trial lawyer after she litigated several gender inequity cases chosen for the sole purpose of making discrimination on the basis of sex as legally indefensible as discrimination on the basis of race.
Between 1971 and 1979 she won five out of six sex discrimination cases she brought before the Supreme Court by convincing the all-male justices that discrimination on the basis of gender was as harmful to men as it was to women. It was a tour de force legal strategy, one that caused the work she did for women’s rights to be favorably compared with the landmark civil rights victories achieved by Thurgood Marshall before he became a Supreme Court justice.
By the time RBG joined the Supreme Court in 1993 my Jewish identity struggle had ended. I found myself agreeing with Mark Twain when he said, “It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.” The courage that RBG exemplified was of the moral rarity variety. It was the form of courage I now admired. It had nothing to do with masculine physical prowess. It was gender-neutral and inclusively human.
The only thing Ruth Bader Ginsburg had in common with Sandy Koufax was that they were both from Brooklyn. As far as I know, she never threw a baseball in her life. She also never fought on a battlefield like Moishe Dayan, the military hero of the Six Day War.
She didn’t have to. The Notorious RBG was a true trailblazer who had the moral courage and fortitude to challenge the gender norms of her time and in so doing made life better for millions of men and women.
She was also the first Supreme Court justice to be accorded cultish fame as a celebrity icon.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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