In Dissenter on the Bench, Victoria Ortiz uses her perspective as an attorney and an educator to weave Ginsburg’s life and work together into one seamless narrative. Each chapter focuses on one legal case in which Ginsburg was involved — as a judge or a Supreme Court justice — clearly explaining both the facts and the significance of the issues presented. Then, Ortiz takes the reader back to key events and touchpoints in her Ginsburg’s life, establishing how her personal relationships, evolving intellectual and judicial interests, and ethnic and religious background all contributed to her consistent and courageous pursuit of social justice.
Ginsburg was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Brooklyn in 1933. In Ortiz’s portrait, she comes to life as a studious and intellectually curious child, intent on pleasing her parents, but also possessed of an incredible level of self-motivation. Ginsburg intently examines each of her own beliefs and choices, and Ortiz’s method of carefully stating facts and interpreting their cumulative importance reflects this process as she builds her narrative. The book begins with a description of the 2009 Supreme Court case Safford Unified School District v. Redding. The author discusses in convincing detail how Ginsburg’s childhood experiences created her compassion for young Savana Redding, who had been subjected to an invasive search due to unreasonable suspicion that she was hiding drugs on her person. Ortiz juxtaposes a young Ginsburg who immersed herself in reading about strong female characters in literature and history with the older Justice Ginsburg who stood up to the insensitivity of her male colleagues and argued with their trivialization of Savana’s ordeal.
Ortiz is particularly sensitive in outlining the defining character of Ginsburg’s Judaism. Growing up during an era of intense antisemitism in the United States and in the shadow of the Holocaust, Ginsburg developed an intense identification with the social justice tradition of her people. She is remarkably balanced in her claim that Judaism’s insistence on human dignity and freedom, as well as its problematic denial of authority to women, impacted Ginsburg’s sense of strength and conviction as a Jewish woman. Rather than dismissing the seemingly contradictory aspects of her tradition, Ginsburg integrated her rationalism and her emotions, balancing her responses to achieve a workable personal vision.
The Passover Seder’s saga of freedom and the prophetic voices of the Hebrew Bible were indelibly meaningful to Ginsburg but the exclusion of women from the minyan of worshippers, while mourning her mother’s death, offended her deeply. Instead of internalizing bitterness, Ginsburg, who had been known as the “rabbi” when leading prayers at her all-girls’ summer camp became a modern Deborah, using her wisdom as a judge in the tradition of her Biblical role model. Young readers may be surprised to learn of the assumption that married and pregnant women had no right to expect equal employment opportunities. Ginsburg persistently refused to accept this restriction; her profoundly equal partnership with her husband, the late Martin Ginsburg, is a moving example of how the ability to balance family and career remains a crucial issue for women today.
Dissenter on the Bench: Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Life and Work includes appendices with the Bill of Rights and additional explanatory material, as well as a bibliography. Numerous photographs enhance this biography, which is highly recommended for teen readers and for adults interested in learning more about this Jewish American icon.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.