In the Jewish tradition, a person who dies during the two-day New Year holiday known as Rosh Hashanah is considered a tzaddik, “a person of great righteousness.” Across the United States and at the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., this past weekend, many people—especially women—echoed that sentiment as they reflected on the life of 87-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Ginsburg, who dedicated her life to futhering gender equality and women’s rights and served 27 years on the Supreme Court, died on Friday, September 18—the first night of Rosh Hashanah—of metastatic pancreatic cancer, a disease she had publicly battled for years.
Amy Weaver was one of Ginsburg’s legion of admirers who gathered in front of the Supreme Court for a Saturday evening vigil honoring Ginsburg. She had just finished marking the start of Rosh Hashanah the night before at the Chattahoochee River in Georgia when she learned that Ginsburg had died. Weaver drove 10 hours with her children Mia and Sebastian, and was organizing a similar event back home in Atlanta for when they returned.
“When I wanted to go to law school, I was told I couldn’t work and study at the same time,” Weaver said. “I was divorced with two young children, and I was told I couldn’t do it all. Women like RBG were showing me I could.”
Appointed to the court in 1993 by then-President Bill Clinton, Ginsburg’s tenure followed a storied career in which she served as a senior counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union and successfully argued six landmark gender discrimination cases before the Court on which she would later serve. Her strategy of earmarking discriminatory practices which occurred “on the basis of sex” was at the heart of her victories and would become the central theme of a 2018 biopic of her life by the same name.
Known for her tireless work ethic, Ginsburg earned her law degree while caring for her husband, who was battling cancer, and their young daughter. In recent years, Ginsburg stunned observers by conducting her jurist duties from hospital beds when she as ill. But she also became a pop culture icon who despite her bird-like frame, famously lifted weights and planked in her 80s. In books, t-shirts, dolls, and more, she was celebrated as “The Notorious RBG,” one law student’s admiring play on the moniker of slain rapper Christopher Wallace, known as the Notorious B.I.G.
At the zenith of her life Ginsburg seemed to embody the perfect blend of gravitas and swagger. In law school, when she learned that some classmates had unflatteringly nicknamed her “bitch,” Ginsburg replied, “Better ‘bitch’ than ‘mouse.’”
Weaver’s pilgrimage to honor the life of the second American woman Supreme Court justice was mirrored in impromptu memorials, virtual worship services, and observances within hours of Ginsburg’s death. On Facebook, the private group #Take2TheStreet4RBG had gained more than 46,000 followers by Sunday afternoon. Thousands paid their respects at the Supreme Court. Many of them, including Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris and her husband Douglas Emhoff, left flowers, messages, candles, and other memorabilia in front of the Supreme Court building thanking Ginsburg for her decades of service.
Less than 24 hours after the news of Ginsburg’s death broke, Sarah Silberman, a 29-year-old graduate of William and Mary Law School in Williamsburg, Virginia, stood in front of a portrait of the four women Supreme Court Justices—Sandra Day O’Connor, Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor. Fighting tears, Silberman said she had registered for a ticket to see the inspiring painting at the National Portrait Gallery after hearing the museum would be re-opening, following months of closure due to COVID-19.
“I started coming to see this portrait when I was applying to law school, back in 2015,” Silberman said. “Then I just made a point of visiting once a year. Any time I struggled in law school, any time I felt like I wasn’t going to make it, I thought of her caring for her husband with cancer and for her child, while still taking classes. She made me believe I could make it through.”
Silberman said she had already dropped off flowers near the steps of the Supreme Court, where hundreds of people flooded the street hours later on a chilly night, with the glowing U. S. Capitol as a backdrop. Throughout the event, which occurred on the second night of Rosh Hashanah, songs, prayers and speeches were punctuated by the bleating sounds of a shofar, a musical instrument fashioned from a ram’s horn for Jewish rituals.
Paula Hughes, a former public defender, drove more than six hours from Columbus, Ohio, to attend the vigil with her 10-year-old daughter Lilly. “I’ve been an RBG groupie for years, and I always told my children that the women lawyers and women judges that came before me were the only reason I was allowed to practice,” she said. “My older kids knew I would fall apart when I heard the news, so they told my sister first, and she broke it to me.”
Hughes said she needed to “grieve with others” and share the experience with her youngest child. “I bring her to many protests and rallies, she’s been to several Black Lives Matter protests,” Hughes says. “She needs to understand that the power is in the people, and that she should be part of a force for change, and that silence is not an option.”
As many in the public mourn, forces on both sides of the political aisle are squaring off in the battle to name a replacement for Ginsburg. Her last wish was that her successor be named after the November election. But Republicans have vowed to appoint a woman to fill Ginsburg’s seat before then.
Elsewhere in Washington D.C., other tributes and memorials popped up. In a busy neighborhood a few miles from the Supreme Court, the brick wall below a mural of Ginsburg was covered with Post-it notes, all bearing messages of gratitude to RBG. Mural artist Rose Jaffe said it feels like Ginsburg’s death is part of a larger cosmic shift occurring, after COVID-19 and all of the upheavals of 2020. “If anybody is on the fence about the need to be engaged, her death is a spark for them to be galvanized.”
On Sunday morning, Bridget Clark, who was out on a coffee run, noticed Ginsburg's towering image. Clark stopped, knelt down, and wrote the words “Thank you for all you did for us ladies” on a yellow Post-It and affixed it to the wall.
“She embodies what women have been told not to do for their entire lives,” Clark said. “She fought every inch of the way for us to see the equality in human beings.”
Clark draws a direct line between Ginsburg’s activism and her career as only the second woman to work as a museum specialist at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Restoration Unit.
“My mother taught me to be a strong, independent, and resourceful woman, like RBG,” Clark said. “We need to be able to remind ourselves of the things she stood for, and not take anything for granted.”