Sunday, September 27, 2020

Scalia And Ginsburg: Italians And Jews

 In her comments yesterday at the White House upon her nomination to the United States Supreme court, Judge Amy Coney Barrett spoke of the special friendship between Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Judge Barrett witnessed this much admired relationship close up when she served as law clerk to Scalia who was one of her mentors. She noted that the two justices "disagreed fiercely in print without rancor in person. . . . These two great Americans demonstrated that arguments even about matters of great consequence need not destroy affection."

Certainly, Justices Scalia and Ginsberg had a lot in common. They shared many interests and passions including opera, the law, literature, travel, teaching and food. With their spouses, they travelled together  and shared annual New Year's Eve celebrations. Justice Ginsburg was said to be captivated with Scalia who was garrulous, opinionated and highly expressive. For his part, Scalia apparently found Ginsberg to be attentive, thoughtful and unfailingly kind even through some of the Court's most protracted legal battles. "What's not to like?" Scalia said of Ginsburg. "Except her views on the law."

But it was Justice Scalia's son, Eugene who put his finger on a link between the two that has not often been mentioned: "They had a bond, I think, in that they both grew up as outsiders – to different degrees – to the elites who had ruled the country: she as a Jew and woman, he as a Catholic and Italian American."

Indeed, these two American icons benefitted from the enduring bond between Italians and Jews -- two groups that made their way to the top under similar circumstances, often growing up in nearby neighborhoods and frequently helping one another. Along the way, they drew on the love of close-knit families, the anchor of deep faith and a will to always doggedly pursue the next rung on the ladder to success, no matter what. And it wasn't always easy. Still, this mutuality, reflected in the background and journey of Scalia and Gisnburg, most certainly drew them (and others like them) together and solidified their bond. 

Antonin Gregory Scalia, the only child of an Italian immigrant father and first generation Italian-American mother grew up in New York City where his father taught Romance languages at Brooklyn College and his mother worked as an elementary school teacher. He was imbued with a love of learning from an early age and routinely excelled as a student, eventually gaining entry into Harvard Law School where he graduated magna cum laude. "I was never cool," Scalia once said.

Born in Brooklyn, Joan Ruth Bader was the second daughter of a Jewish immigrant father and a mother who was the grandchild of Jewish immigrants from Poland. Her sister died of meningitis when Ruth was only 14 months old so, like Scalia, she grew up as an only child. Like Scalia, Bader was an outstanding student and also attended Harvard Law School, later earning her law degree from Columbia where she tied for first in her class. And somewhat quiet and relatively shy, it's a fairly safe bet that growing up, Ruth Bader "was never cool."

Scalia's son Chris has said that Scalia and Ginsburg "were kind of familiar types to each other." And the same can be said of many of those of us of Italian heritage and our Jewish friends. We are wonderfully recognizable to one another and we not only take comfort in that but we often delight in it. We swap stories, soak up all aspects of the popular culture, argue about the topic of the day, share great food and drink, commiserate about families and relatives, affectionately rib one another and do it all with a sense of daily drama that often borders on the operatic. 

So now you know what drew these two great Americans together. It's a unique sort of bond that often defies description. In Yiddish, it's called bashert -- meant to be. In Italian, we would simply say it's simpatico!

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