Ruth’s Song

In early 2016, I heard my colleague Cantor Sheera Ben-David sing a song. The song was about an unexpected, yet real fact regarding the life of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, z”l. “As If I Weren’t There,” with lyrics written by Abigail Pogrebin, tells the story of Ruth as a young girl mourning the passing of her mother in a time when women were not allowed to be counted for minyan. The refrain sings:

“Count me in the minyan,

Yes I know the law, ten men ten men,

Please don’t explain this to me again,

She’s been my closest friend since I was born,

And, daddy I just need to mourn,

Please, let me stand next to you,

Let me say the prayer.”

When I heard this song, I knew I wanted to sing it during Yizkor of Yom Kippur that year. I had lost my own mother to ovarian cancer in January of 2016, and this song connected me with both the pain of her absence and a sense of comfort in the recognition of my own privilege: the ability to pray alongside men and be counted in my mother’s shiva minyan.

On Friday, September 18th, I cried myself to sleep after learning of Justice Ginsburg’s passing. I was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, moved to the United States in July of 2007, and became an American citizen on October 2, 2017. I admit I knew very little about who she was when I heard that song back in early 2016. I’m deeply saddened by her death, I’m amazed by the work she did to advance gender equality for women, and I’m proud that she was a Jew and a woman. And while I cried over the loss of such a forceful, exemplary person, her death invariably triggered memories of my own mother, whom I adored and who was my best friend. Lying in bed last Friday night, I felt an overwhelming sense of connection: I was reminded of my colleague who graciously agreed to share the score of the song with me, and of my clergy partner at the time Rabbi Richard Rheins who, with genuine generosity, allowed me to deliver the sermon for Yizkor during Yom Kippur that year. People, experiences, music, life and death, seemed to come together in a raw, revealing instant. Happiness and sadness, what is and what is no more synced in a perfectly harmonious way. I cried tears of sadness, and I cried tears of happiness for the blessing of connectivity, for the hidden ways in which so much, and so many, can be connected in one single tapestry, even without knowing.

I write these words as my personal tribute to her. I’m not a lawyer, a politics expert, nor a social rights activist; neither do I represent an institution. But I do want to say thank you, Ruth, for this lesson you have unveiled for me: act as if your actions have an everlasting impact, because they do. Within your family, in your workspace, with your friends, in your community and your country, what you do connects you to an unbreakable chain, an often invisible yet ever present threat of people and events. You won’t be able to stop people from falling apart or lying in bed crying. Life happens to all of us. But you can live so that your actions remind others they are connected to something bigger: the dead and the living, the past, the present, and the future. After all, we might just be, for someone else, a song: the warm, kind and loving embrace that gives them comfort and strength to keep going.

About the Author
Sheila Nesis is a cantor and mother of two. She served as Cantor at Temple Sinai in Denver, CO from 2014 to 2019. Prior to that, she served progressive congregations in Phoenix and Scottsdale, Arizona. She grew up in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and moved to New York City in 2007 to join the clergy at Temple Israel of New York City in Manhattan. She has written for a number of jewish publications. She currently resides in Portland, Maine.
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