Din­ners with Ruth: A Mem­oir on the Pow­er of Friendships

  • Review
By – October 24, 2022

Nina Toten­berg spent fifty years com­pil­ing this book. That is how long she and the late Supreme Court jus­tice Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg were in con­ver­sa­tion. Luck­i­ly, Toten­berg, a vet­er­an NPR jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing the Supreme Court, had dozens of con­ver­sa­tions, din­ner par­ties, and record­ed inter­views with her friend Jus­tice Ginsburg.

Din­ners with Ruth presents a fab­u­lous col­lec­tion of per­son­al anec­dotes about how the icon­ic jus­tice became a fierce pro­tec­tor of human rights and women’s lib­er­ties and how she rose in the field of law despite fac­ing end­less sex­ism. It speaks to her acute intel­li­gence and pre­science, her undy­ing com­mit­ment to jus­tice in both pub­lic and pri­vate, and her piquant per­son­al­i­ty. For exam­ple, when she once heard that one of her clerks was hav­ing trou­ble get­ting his child into day­care, she walked into the facil­i­ty and sim­ply intro­duced her­self. Prob­lem solved, she said, in her soft-spo­ken yet forth­right style.

The author’s own sto­ry fea­tures as well. Totenberg’s tales of report­ing on famous court cas­es, pres­i­dents, crime, and women’s rights offer a fas­ci­nat­ing glimpse into the evo­lu­tion of Amer­i­can law and polit­i­cal cul­ture, no less inter­est­ing than her rev­e­la­tions about Jus­tice Ginsburg’s life. Dri­ven by an impres­sive gutsi­ness to fol­low sto­ries to the end — even when she was the only woman in the room, even when J. Edgar Hoover called her a per­sis­tent bitch” — Toten­berg has led an elec­tri­fy­ing and enter­tain­ing life.

Both the chil­dren of Jew­ish immi­grant par­ents, Jus­tice Gins­berg and Toten­berg are women who broke glass ceil­ings for the rest of us, who had exhil­a­rat­ing front-row seats to some of the most impor­tant events and trends of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, and who used their pow­er­ful plat­forms and posi­tions to shape Amer­i­can soci­ety, polit­i­cal dis­course, and civ­il rights.

It is quite remark­able how long the women were such good friends. They met in 1971 at the Supreme Court when Toten­berg was cov­er­ing the famous Deer tri­al that estab­lished the uncon­sti­tu­tion­al­i­ty of dis­crim­i­na­tion based on sex. Jus­tice Gins­berg, mean­while, was argu­ing the cause on behalf of the ACLU. This was four years before Toten­berg start­ed work­ing for NPR and twen­ty years before Jus­tice Gins­burg was sworn into the Supreme Court. Their friend­ship tran­scend­ed job changes, mete­oric ris­es in fame, polit­i­cal ten­sions, and rad­i­cal shifts in Amer­i­can dis­course, as well as per­son­al tragedies and loss­es. It is a mem­o­rable tale of two female friends, each with unique career ambi­tions, who saw in each oth­er sources of sup­port, care, and love. It’s a beau­ti­ful, if in some ways priv­i­leged, story.

The book is as much a tes­ta­ment to the impor­tance of friend­ship — espe­cial­ly female friend­ship — as it is about Jus­tice Ginsburg’s or Totenberg’s lives. While not every­one has the oppor­tu­ni­ty to cre­ate the kinds of star­tling careers that they did, every­one has the chance to build last­ing, mean­ing­ful friend­ships. This book is a reminder that while our cul­ture often views one’s career as their life lega­cy, it is per­haps these kinds of rela­tion­ships that tell the truth about a person’s worth and con­tri­bu­tions to the world.

Dr. Elana Sztok­man is a Jew­ish fem­i­nist anthro­pol­o­gist, edu­ca­tor, activist, and author, and two-time win­ner of the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Coun­cil Award. Her most recent book is When Rab­bis Abuse: Pow­er, Gen­der, and Sta­tus in the Dynam­ics of Sex­u­al Abuse in Jew­ish Cul­ture (Lioness Books, 2022).

Discussion Questions