February 2020 Jewish News

“The Notorious RBG in Song”
by Arlene Stolnitz

 A December program at the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) in Philadelphia featured a unique musical performance by well-known University of Chicago faculty soprano-composer Patrice Michaels, daughter-in-law of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The program was part of a larger initiative honoring Justice Ginsburg. Other events honoring RBG included the “Only in America” award and RBG’s induction into the “Only in America Gallery/Hall of Fame, part of NMAJH’s tribute to Jews who have achieved extraordinary accomplishments that possibly have changed the world. If I lived closer, I would not have missed this event!

Ms. Michaels, married to James Ginsburg, son of Justice Ginsburg, has been composing, in secret, songs based on letters in RBG’s possession written to and from family members and friends over a long period of years. The cycle of nine songs is sung by Michaels, and the album was produced by RBG’s son, Jim Ginsburg, who realized what a treasure the songs were. The result is a collection of music, in operatic style (an RBG preference), saluting the life and achievements of Justice Ginsburg as legal pioneer in celebration of her 25 years on the United States Supreme Court.

The forty minute classical album contains moments from her law school days, her early working life and even a letter she received early on from Justice Douglas asking for qualified women who might apply for a position on the Supreme Court. Interesting family anecdotes contain material about RBG and her pot roast; after which she was banned from the kitchen forever.

One selection, “Anita’s Story”, is based on letters written by Justice Ginsburg’s husband, Martin, which he had compiled for a book commemorating her 50th birthday.

The song tells the experience of a typist, Anita, in Ginsburg’s office, who was influenced by legal briefs she was typing. At first, she was puzzled over the content of the briefs, not understanding what she was typing. Later, when she did understand, she became a staunch feminist.

Another entitled, “Celia: An Imagined Letter from 1949”, written by Michaels, recounts RBG’s memory of her mother who died of cancer the day before the future Justice’s graduation as valedictorian of her high school. According to Michaels, Justice Ginsburg once said, “My mother told me to be a lady, and for her, that meant be your own person, be independent.”

“The Elevator Thief”, one of the most amusing songs in the album, is about the shenanigans of RBG’s son, Jim, at school.  In an NPR interview, Ginsburg recounted her conversation with the principal. “This child has two parents. Please alternate calls”. The headmaster did so, and Marty Ginsburg went to school to find out what his son’s offense was. When told “he had stolen the elevator”, Marty responded, “Well how far could he have taken it?”  According to Jim, (dubbed The Elevator Thief), his behavior did not improve, but the calls home did become less frequent when they had to consider bothering a “man” for his son’s mischievous pranks.

The text of the most poignant song is from the last communication written by Martin Ginsburg to his wife during the time of his terminal illness. Remarkably, according to Ms. Michaels, Justice Ginsburg was willing to share it for the album. “My dearest Ruth, you are the only person I have loved in my life…’. It is the first and only time Ruth Bader Ginsburg was seen to cry.

All songs are sung by Ms. Michaels with some collaboration by other composers. The album has been released recently and is entitled “Notorious RBG in Song”, available on James Ginsburg’s label, Cedille Records.