RBG’s Brave & Bril­liant Women: 33 Jew­ish Women to Inspire Everyone

  • Review
By – November 19, 2021

Nadine Epstein’s col­lec­tive biog­ra­phy of thir­ty-three accom­plished Jew­ish women has a prag­mat­ic focus. In its intro­duc­tion, the late Supreme Court Jus­tice Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg states that the book’s sub­jects were select­ed because each one was a pow­er­ful source of inspi­ra­tion in her career and her life. Bad­er Gins­burg repeat­ed­ly men­tions how foun­da­tion­al her Jew­ish iden­ti­ty was as she pur­sued the goal of equal jus­tice for all Amer­i­cans. From the prophet Miri­am, to labor activist Rose Schnei­der­man, to Con­gress­woman Bel­la Abzug, these women were also guid­ed, in some cas­es pro­found­ly, by their Jew­ish expe­ri­ences. She offers the hope that young read­ers will become informed and choose role mod­els who will set each of them on a ful­fill­ing course in life. 

Epstein’s premise is impor­tant and should not be over­looked. She frames the strug­gles, set­backs, and accom­plish­ments of RBG’s brave and bril­liant” icons with­in Jew­ish his­to­ry and cul­ture, yet she also aims her book at a broad­er audi­ence. Jew­ish women who broke the mold with­in their fields can inspire non-Jews as well. The book is divid­ed into sec­tions, begin­ning with Bib­li­cal Times” and pro­ceed­ing through the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. The bib­li­cal sec­tion takes a new look at women in the Exo­dus sto­ry, with Miri­am and Yocheved por­trayed as vision­ar­ies tak­ing risks to chal­lenge soci­etal norms. She also includes Deb­o­rah, the only female judge in the Hebrew Bible, because of her unique rel­e­vance in the field of the law. 

Any col­lec­tive biog­ra­phy pro­vokes ques­tions about why some sub­jects were select­ed and oth­ers exclud­ed. By using Ginsburg’s per­son­al choic­es as its cri­te­ria, the book avoids that issue. Although musi­cian Fan­ny Mendelssohn and poet Emma Lazarus are includ­ed, most of Ginsburg’s role mod­els reveal her deep com­mit­ment to social jus­tice and activism. Some of these women may be famil­iar: Hadas­sah founder Hen­ri­et­ta Szold, diarist Anne Frank, and Prime Min­is­ter Gol­da Meir. Many oth­ers will be new, even to some adult read­ers. Lil­lian Wald found­ed the Hen­ry Street Set­tle­ment and the Vis­it­ing Nurse Ser­vice in New York; she was also a co-founder of the NAACP Yet, this once wide­ly admired woman is now rel­a­tive­ly unknown. Bessie Mar­golin was an attor­ney ded­i­cat­ed to women’s rights and served in the Depart­ment of Labor dur­ing Franklin Roosevelt’s admin­is­tra­tion. Ital­ian biol­o­gist Rita Levi-Mon­tal­ci­ni pro­mot­ed women’s edu­ca­tion in the devel­op­ing world.

Each biog­ra­phy con­cludes with a text box titled Today,” most point­ing out that progress still needs to be made in the subject’s field. Every woman’s sto­ry is pre­ced­ed by Bee Johnson’s dra­mat­ic col­or por­traits. Anne Frank holds her diary, Bet­ty Friedan sits under the Nation­al Orga­ni­za­tion for Women insignia, and astro­naut Judith Resnick proud­ly wears her NASA uni­form. The book’s cov­er fea­tures Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg her­self, with one of her sig­na­ture lace col­lars. This one is embroi­dered with the Hebrew word for jus­tice,” a per­fect point of entry to Epstein’s collection.

This high­ly rec­om­mend­ed col­lec­tion includes a pro­logue and an after­word, A Call to Action,” explain­ing the book’s ori­gins and purpose.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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