Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

A Gem of a Read

On September 26, 1789, the United States Senate, by acclamation, approved the first five Justices of the Supreme Court.  Nearly 228 years later (on April 7, 2017 to be precise), the Senate, by a party-line vote of 54-45, approved the nation's newest (and 113th) Justice, Neil Gorsuch.  101 years ago, Louis D. Brandeis, known across the nation as "The People's Lawyer," became the Supreme Court's 67th Justice - and more historically, the nation's first Jewish Justice. In the intervening century, the Court has been served by an additional 7 Jewish Justices - Benjamin Cardozo, Felix Frankfurter, Arthur Goldberg, Abe Fortas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Bryer and Elena Kagan - two of whom (Brandeis and Frankfurter) historians generally rank as the 3rd and 4th greatest of all time, and Benjamin Cardozo, as the highest-ranked "near-great." At present, the Supreme Court is home to 3 Jewish and 6 Catholic Justices.  And had the United States Senate not dug in its heels and refuse to take up the appointment of President Obama's 3rd and final nominee - Federal Judge Merritt Garland - the Court may well have had a 4th Jewish Justice.

When Brandeis was first nominated by President Woodrow Wilson, there was a lot of talk - and much of it negative  - that he was a Jew. Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge privately complained that "If it were not that Brandeis is a Jew, and a German Jew, he would never have been appointed."  Fast forward 101 years: not only was there nary a word about Merritt Garland's religion to be heard; few people even knew he was Jewish.  How times have changed.

Up until a few months ago, no one had ever written a book about the 8 Jewish Supreme Court Justices.  To be certain, there have been individual biographies, hagiographies and articles about Brandeis, Cardozo, Frankfurter et al - but no single volume devoted exclusively to these remarkable 6 men and 2 women.  That gaping hole has been filled - and brilliantly so - by acclaimed historian David Dalin, who earned both his M.A. and PhD at - ironically - Brandeis University (the only university named after a Supreme Court Justice), as well as a second M.A. and rabbinic ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Dalin's towering work Jewish Justices of the Supreme Court [Brandeis, 2017], subtitled From Brandeis to Kagan, is meticulously researched, immensely learned, filled to overflowing with great anecdotes and -  best of all - a delightful read.  For a book to be both scholarly enough to satisfy professional academics and entertaining enough to enthrall amateur (from the Latin amator, meaning "lover") history/biography enthusiasts is really quite a difficult feat.  But Dalin, who has also written the definitive biography of perennial presidential candidate  Harold Stassen and The Myth of Hitler's Pope: Pope Pius XII And His Secret War Against Nazi Germany has that rare ability. 

In the current work, Dalin introduces the reader to the eight Jewish Justices not as paragons of perfection, but as real flesh-and-blood people who just happen to be brighter, more accomplished and focused than anyone we've ever known or met.  As far as their "Jewishness," they run the gamut:  from Brandeis " . . . who enjoyed eating ham and whose funeral did not even incorporate the Kaddish . . . " (but who was one of the most celebrated Zionist leaders in history) to Cardozo, a Sephardi who did keep kosher and was a lifelong member of the Orthodox Shearith Israel in New York; to Stephen Breyer, who's long been married to an Anglican Protestant and has a daughter who's an Episcopalian priest; to Elena Kagan, who somehow convinced her rabbi to permit her to become a bat mitzvah at her family's Orthodox shul. (And by the way, it is likely that the Portuguese-descended Benjamin Cardozo - and not Sonia Sotomayor -  should be considered the first Hispanic member of the Supreme Court.)

To my way of thinking, the place where Dalin's work shines brightest is in its handling of such landmark cases as Schenck v. United States,  Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, Brown v. Board of Education, Miranda v. Arizona and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission - in all of which the various Jewish Justices played leading roles.

David Dalin's knowledge is encyclopedic; his love of the subject obvious.  As I came ever closer to the end of this truly brief 284-page book, I found myself slowing down . . . not wishing for it to conclude.  I guess that's about the highest compliment one can give any book.  Jewish Justices of the Supreme Court left me with feelings of both awe and undeniable pride.

Do pick up a copy of Jewish Justices of the Supreme Court.  It is a gem of a read.

Copyright©2017 Kurt F. Stone