RBG Taught Us to Be the “Singing Lady” in the Room

I glanced down to where she was pointing on the page and answered, “That’s the rabbi at the family’s synagogue.”

With the absolute certainty of a toddler, my daughter shook her head. “No, Ima. A rabbi is a singing lady.”

This statement—while obviously very cute—shook me to my core.

For starters, there is such a clear difference between my children’s view of Jewish religious leadership and my own childhood experience. I grew up in an Orthodox synagogue with a mechitzah (divider between men and women) and very limited options for women’s participation during services. Though there are aspects of that upbringing that still resonate deeply with me, I am very glad to be raising my children in an egalitarian setting. All but one of the rabbis they have interacted with in Seattle are women. They are able to see me up on the bimah (raised platform) teaching the whole community. They know that their parents believe in everyone having equal opportunities to learn, teach, and be in sacred space.

The fact that my daughter has already internalized that rabbis don’t need to look like men in kippot is extraordinary in and of itself.

But beyond that, my daughter made her remark about the “singing lady” two days after the news broke about the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, z”l. Like many people, I entered Rosh Hashana—the holiday that celebrates the birth of the world—stunned and heartbroken at the death of someone I kind of hoped would live forever. I felt physically ill. In the days that followed, I consumed video clips and photos, read testimonial and think-pieces, trying all the while to bring as much joy as I could to my family’s holiday meals.

It was almost too much to bear.

Then I stopped and reminded myself of something Ginsburg had said many times, a retort that became a catchphrase that became a decorative slogan on all kinds of RBG merchandise: “when there are nine.” The saying’s context is explained in this clip from an appearance she made at Georgetown University in 2015: “People ask me sometimes… ‘When will there be enough women on the court?’ And my answer is, ‘When there are nine.’ People are shocked, but there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.” Ginsburg answered the question with the same unflappable logic and quiet confidence that accompanied her throughout her career.

Even a lawyer as brilliant and credentialed as RBG, who graduated with top honors from Columbia Law School in 1959, faced immense difficulties trying to get hired by a law firm, as she revealed in her 2016 book My Own Words. In some ways, her experience parallels that of Sally Jane Priesand, the first female rabbi to be ordained in America. The Jewish Women’s Archive reports that, when seeking pulpits as a rabbinical student, “synagogues refused to interview her—or interviewed her only for the novelty—claiming they could not possibly have a woman rabbi.”

So many doors shut in so many women’s faces for so long.

What gave Priesand, Ginsburg, and other mid-century trailblazers the courage of their convictions? Why did they persist and resist the institutional prejudices they faced? The personal tolls and pressures of their positions, being “the first” or “the second” woman to do something big in the world, must have been immense.

Maybe they pushed themselves because they knew that there would be women and girls around the world who would know their stories and resolve to follow their dreams no matter who or what got in their way. Paving the way for future generations was always on RBG’s mind. In a poignant tribute to Ginsburg published hours after her death was announced, Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick, a journalist and editor specializing in the fields of law and contemporary politics, recalled: “I never heard her give a public speech in which she didn’t thank, by name, the allies, champions, fighters, of whom she inevitably saw herself as a beneficiary; she cast herself as someone lucky enough to be in a long line of champions and fighters, and also as someone set and determined to pay it forward to the people who would someday stand on her shoulders. She was a link in a chain . . . .”

This happens to be a very Jewish perspective on one’s life and legacy. The Yiddish phrase di goldene keyt means “a golden chain” and refers to the whole tradition of Jewish and Yiddish culture that gets passed from generation to generation. Part of being Jewish, in other words, is to see oneself as part of a continuum, one voice in an eternal chorus of voices. Ruth Bader Ginsburg recognized that a hugely important part of her work was to show others not only that the work was worth doing, but also that she had as much a right as anyone else to do it. And did she ever do the work: a career of remaking gender equality law that we, in the 21st century, can hardly begin to fathom.

RBG taught us that we shouldn’t have to answer the question of when there will be “enough” women on the bench, because the question’s underlying assumption is that women should be satisfied with whatever they are allowed by men to do. Through her words and deeds, the late justice showed women that our default position should not be meek appreciation that we’ve been given special permission to function as agents of our lives; rather, our default position should be equal footing from the very beginning. That is why, as idiotic as the question was, RBG bothered to answer it. She understood that numbers matter. Optics matter. Representation matters. It all communicates a reality and visually limns the possibilities that our daughters can dream about. Seeing truly is believing.

RBG showed us why, and she showed us the way. As tiny as she was, she took up all the space that she deserved while fighting for other women to take their equal place on the bench, on the bimah, or anywhere else they wanted to be.

May we all as Americans strive to uphold her legacy; to view ourselves as working not just for ourselves, but also for future generations; and to not be afraid to be the “singing lady” in the room.

Hannah S. Pressman writes about modern Jewish culture, religion, and identity. She earned her Ph.D. in modern Hebrew literature from New York University and has published her work in a variety of academic and journalistic venues.