On the night of Sept. 18 the world lost a shining light and a bulwark of our democracy with the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54.
A beloved wife, mother, grandmother, a champion of women’s rights and human rights, Justice Ginsburg carried the burdens of the world on her shoulders. At just 5’ 1” tall, oftentimes soft-spoken but always fearless, she towered over us all and will be remembered as one of the greatest women who have ever lived. I have never cried this hard over someone I never knew. But as I know my peers also feel, the loss of Justice Ginsburg feels intensely personal. And it feels as if we have to split our time mourning her with fearing for the repercussions that are soon to follow.
I learned about her passing minutes before my housemates and I were to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and one of the holiest days of the year. I had spent the previous days trying to recreate the holiday balagan I had grown up with: Cooking everything from fresh bread to my mom’s sweet potatoes, sending evites and printing out prayer packets, collecting Hillel’s thoughtful goodie bags for my guests, running back and forth to Wegmans. I wanted to share my celebrations and myself with my housemates, and begin my own traditions as an addendum to the ones I had grown up with.
On a day that is meant to be celebratory, humanity faced a monumental loss. In the Jewish faith, we believe that someone who passes during the High Holy Days — which include both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — is a “tzaddik,” a person of utmost righteousness. A person who passes around the Jewish New Year is someone who G-d held back from death until the very last moment of the year because they were needed most. And surely, this can be applied in a non-religious context as well. With all of her might, Justice Ginsburg held on until the very end of Trump’s disastrous term as president, passing only 46 days before the presidential election.
Justice Ginsburg often reflected on her Jewish heritage as a source of her passion for justice. “My heritage as a Jew and my occupation as a judge fit together symmetrically,” she said in a speech at the U.S. Holocuast Memorial Museum in 2004. But she also, notably, reflected on her time at Cornell, too, as a formative influence on her later achievements. Cornell allowed her to pursue her ambitions, realize the dreams her mother did not live to see fulfilled and learn the weight of words from wizards like Nabokov.
Most significantly, her time at Cornell was the first chapter of her magical love story with her husband, Martin Ginsburg. They met during her first semester freshman year, when he was a sophomore, and went on to nurture a 56 year marriage. He encouraged her genius. When Marty was diagnosed with cancer as the two were studying at Harvard Law School, RBG took all of his class notes in addition to completing her own schoolwork and raising their newborn. An exceptional tax lawyer himself, later, Marty would stop by the Supreme Court to bring her fellow justices cakes for their birthdays. In a letter he gave to her during his final days, he wrote, “I have admired and loved you almost since the day we first met at Cornell.” She was a woman who had it all, including love. In her documentary she said “Meeting Marty was the most fortunate thing that ever happened to me.”
As I’m sure is true for many others, RBG is the reason I came to Cornell. I wanted to be one step closer to becoming even a fraction of all that she was, and I would attempt to soak in the very same elements that contributed to her greatness. One of my friends from our freshman dorm would often joke, “What if we were living in the same room RBG lived in?” Just the thought could send us into a frenzy.
Gloria Steinem said that “When you come right down to it, she is the closest thing to a superhero I know.” I completely agree. The New York Times once called Justice Ginsburg a “ninja supreme court justice.” Like Dean Eduardo M. Peñalver said in the Sun, “No one else on the Court is known by their initials. No one else has a Saturday Night Live persona. Children don’t dress up for Halloween as Stephen Breyer.” Through her close friendship with the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, Ginsburg was a model for how to respect and befriend people you disagree with. She was a night owl and the owner of a sweatshirt that read, “Super Diva!” She appeared on numerous best-dressed lists and she was an opera enthusiast. She was a fierce feminist and she was The Notorious R.B.G.. And she lives on as the symbol that all Cornellians can strive to become.
On Rosh Hashanah, as I sat around the kitchen table with the people I loved, honoring a holiday I loved in the place I have endless love for, I reflected on the woman we all loved. As I try to create my own traditions here at Cornell — the key to transforming our collegetown palaces into homes, and ourselves into adults — I think about all of the traditions and precedents that RBG set for the world. The right to hold a job and not be discriminated against due to your gender, the right to open a bank account without a male co-signer, the right for women to have a job and have a family … The list is endless. Steinem had also noted, “Ruth was so far ahead of her time that she was alone for decades.”
It’s hard to find the right words to express the deep loss I know we all feel for Justice Ginsburg. In the Jewish tradition, when someone passes away it is customary to say, “May their memory be a blessing.” May Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s memory be a blessing, and may it be a revolution.
Odeya Rosenband is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected] Passionfruit runs every other Tuesday this semester.