• Susan Ellenberg

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Died and I Broke

2020 has been rough. How’s that for a clever hook? I urge you to read on, anyway. 2020 has birthed a new “frequently used words” list, topped by the word “unprecedented” and the cowardly, sanitized phrase, “social unrest.” Old and new challenges have collided as we battle a pandemic, cope with the resulting economic crash (for some, but not others - which is a story in itself), see the mainstream media and liberal white people (including myself) waking up to the fact that yes, racism is rampant and, yes, it is functioning exactly as it was designed to do. When we couldn’t bear to be sheltered in our homes for one more moment, we were told we couldn’t go outside for nearly a month because the air quality was “unhealthy”. And the climate is changing for the worse faster than old TV show casts are reuniting on zoom. Oh, right - and there’s an election where candidate Joe Biden (who wasn’t my first or even second choice) is dead right when he declares that “we are in a battle for the soul of this nation”. And then Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died and I broke.

I’m not anywhere I want to be right now. I’ve been working at home since March, trying to be a public servant while sheltering from the public. I’ve been listening to constituents for six months who are afraid of catching the virus or are disgusted by what they believe to be a “hoax”, who are desperate to get back to work or are terrified of being forced to go back to work. Who want more and more data and who just want me to fix this. I’ve been proposing initiatives, standing up emergency programs, directing funding and doing what I can to limit the impacts of this virus on our residents. And I’m one of the very fortunate ones. I am comfortable in my home where I have a room of my own in which to work. I continue to receive a paycheck every two weeks. I have no underlying conditions that put me at elevated risk when I go to the market or dine outdoors at a restaurant. I don’t have school aged children at home so I’m not trying to balance work and distance learning. I was basically doing OK. But then Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died and I broke.

I didn’t know the Notorious RBG personally. I never had the honor to meet her or watch her argue a case or preside over one in person. I admired her deeply and was quite cognizant of the outsized impact she had on the lives of millions of Americans, mostly those who before had had no voice or whose voices were ignored or dismissed. She expanded the rights of women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community and, by extension, made life more just for all of us. She was as powerful in her wins as she was in her dissents, making clear in every case that she would stand up for justice, whether or not she had enough votes to see her opinion become the law of the land. I watched the Hollywood movie and the documentary that captured slices of her extraordinary life and was ever more enchanted and inspired by her. And I fully believed she was wrapped in some form of immortality, or maybe was even one of the Lamed Vavniks (36 righteous people who walk the earth at any one time - look it up). So when she died, I broke.

I broke because I felt like she was the last thread holding our country to some kind of ethical standard. I broke because John Lewis had already died this year and that seemed like punishment enough - a great social justice icon lost in a year when we still desperately needed his voice, his passion, his truth. We didn’t need to lose both remaining towering figures of social justice in our era just months apart. The black man and the white, Jewish woman, bound up in their fight for justice, equity and dignity, felled by the same wretched disease. In this, of all years - it's just too much.

I broke because I felt like we were, by her death, irrevocably untethered from the truth. I broke because I believed in that moment that nothing good could possibly be salvaged this year and it's not even in November.

Erev Rosh Hashana was rough. This joyous evening is typically marked in my family by a large gathering, lots of photos, local honey over which everyone swoons, and my Aunt’s famous honey cake. This year our gathering was small - and I’m grateful we had any - and the mood was somber. We learned that a death on the very last evening of the year - the very last moment in which the previous year’s decree of “who will die” can be carried out - is reserved for tzadikim (righteous ones), the ones whom God knows are still sorely needed in this life. That knowledge actually offered some scant comfort from a spiritual 5780 perspective, but none at all from a secular 2020 perspective. So I broke. I felt despair and defeat. She was one woman but she symbolized a universe of justice.

As I write this, we are midway through the Yamim Nora’im (the Days of Awe) and I am putting myself back together, imperfectly and with seams showing. Being broken is a luxury I can’t afford. It is a self-indulgence that is not appropriate for one in my position. I have a responsibility to my family and my community. And I find many rays of hope when I lift my eyes from the ground.

COVID cases are holding and even declining.

Our County is prepared to manage future outbreaks and stem transmission.

Many businesses are re-opening and people are returning to work.

Racial justice has at long last become a mainstream concept and there is real commitment in our community to lay aside defensiveness to make far overdue changes in our institutional structures.

Millennials and Gen Xers are leading NOW - on climate change, gun access, support for trans kids, sexual assault, criminal justice reform and more.

Vice President Joe Biden has a real shot at winning the presidency (pooh, pooh, pooh) and we can begin to heal and to take care of the millions of Americans who are deeply struggling.

Justice Ginsburg inspired multiple generations of activists who are determined to protect her legacy.

The sun is shining today and the air quality is moderate.

As Yom Kippur approaches, we will move through a symbolic death and renewal. We will atone for our wrongs of the past year and seek forgiveness in advance for all the new promises we will inevitably break in the year to come. We break, we cobble back together, and repeat this pattern for the entirety of our lives.

If we are going to say of the late Justice Ginsburg, “may her memory be for a blessing”, we must earn that blessing . . . by harnessing her energy, her fortitude and her relentlessness (whether we are on the “winning” or “losing” side at any given moment), by speaking truth, pursuing justice and coming back to do it all again tomorrow.

May you be written and bound up in the book of life and may we all see a new year of less brokenness, renewed energy, more justice and good health.

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