(JTA) — It was a blunt question in the midst of a cordial conversation: “I’m wondering why you’re here.”
That was Nina Totenberg, the NPR legal affairs correspondent, to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Moment Magazine awards dinner, where the justice had walked out to a standing ovation.
Ginsburg, 86, is aware that she has been very out and about just after completing radiation therapy during her latest bout with cancer, and she answered the question gracefully.
“This latest has been my fourth cancer bout,” she said. “And I found each time that when I’m active, I’m much better than if I’m just lying about and feeling sorry for myself. It’s necessary — a necessity — to get up and go. It’s stimulating. And somehow, in all of these appearances I’ve had since the end of August, whatever my temporary disability is, it stops, and I’m okay for the time of the event.”
She held up throughout the entire evening, where she was the inaugural recipient of the Jewish magazine’s Human Rights Award. But she didn’t shy away from talking about her retirement with Totenberg, her “favorite interviewer.”
When Totenberg asked if Ginsburg had any regrets about not stepping down during the Obama administration, shocked whispers rippled throughout the crowd.
“It has been suggested by more than one commentator, including some law professors, that I should’ve stepped down during President Obama’s second term. When that suggestion is made I ask the question: Who do you think the president could nominate that could get through the Republican Senate that you would prefer to have on the court than me?” Ginsburg replied to loud applause.
The justice also spoke candidly about her Jewish heritage.
Ginsburg went on to speak about sitting shiva for her mother, Celia, who passed away when she was in high school.
“The house was filled with women, but only men could recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. I thought that was wrong,” she said.
The duo then went on to discuss how the Supreme Court used to be in session during the Jewish high holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Ginsburg, of course, changed that tradition.
Her speech also addressed the question of role models. She pointed to two Jewish women who were both raised in the U.S., “whose humanity and bravery inspired me.”
The first: Jewish writer Emma Lazarus.
The other she discussed was Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold.
Ginsburg wrapped up her remarks by referring back to an older statement she gave on her own heritage as a Jew and her occupation as a judge.
“I am a judge, born, raised, and proud of being a Jew. The demand for justice, for peace, for enlightenment, runs through the entirety of the Jewish history and Jewish tradition. I hope that in all the years I have the good fortune to continue serving on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States, I will have the strength and courage to remain steadfast in service of that demand,” she said.