The Notorious ‘RBG’ And Judah P. Benjamin

Photo courtesy of the National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History. The Confederacy's two dollar bill, which features a picture of Judah P. Benjamin on the right side

BS”D

I know what you are all thinking; that here is another lecture about someone who said and did something – sorry, there are many far more important subjects to discuss. This is a Blog which puts emphasis on two prominent Jews in US Government. One served during the 19th Century and one is serving now on the US Supreme Court.

RBG., are the initials of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who appeared this past week at the University of Buffalo to accept an honorary degree on campus and talk about her dedication to equal rights and the “Notorious RBG” nickname.

The court’s oldest justice, Ginsburg — is fondly known as “The Notorious RBG,” a riff on slain rapper The Notorious B.I.G. — is a liberal stalwart who has said she will not retire as long as she feels she can do the work.

The 86-year-old justice recently completed radiation therapy for a cancerous tumor on her pancreas, but said she did not want her health problems to stop her from fulfilling a commitment she made to a fellow Cornell University alumnus and lawyer, Wayne Wisbaum, who has since died.

Before a capacity crowd of about 1,700 at UB’s Center for the Arts, the court’s oldest member mused over her celebrity status. “It was beyond my wildest expectation that I would one day become the notorious RBG,” the justice said to applause and cheers while accepting an honorary law degree.

“The progress I have seen in my lifetime makes me optimistic for the future,” Ginsburg told the audience of mostly students and faculty. “Our communities, nation and world will be increasingly improved as women achieve their rightful place in all fields.”

Ginsburg was appointed to the court by President Bill Clinton in 1993.

Toward the end of 2018, the US Supreme Court said that Justice Ginsburg had surgery to remove two malignant growths from her left lung. The growths were found during tests Ginsburg had after she fractured ribs in a fall on Nov. 7.

Dr. John Lazar, director of thoracic robotic surgery at MedStar Washington Hospital Center said at that time that it’s not uncommon to see slow-growing lung cancers in women in their 80s.

“This is just luck” that the growths were found through those rib X-rays because accidentally discovered lung tumors tend to be early-stage when surgery works best, said Dr. Giuseppe Giaccone, an oncologist at Georgetown University’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Was It Luck Or Was It Something More Powerful That Took Place At That Time?

Before attempting to try to look for an answer to this question, perhaps a summary of the tests Ginsburg faced early in her career gives a better appreciation of the challenges she encountered as a woman lawyer. She graduated at the top of her class at Columbia, yet still, New York law firms snubbed her.

“I had three strikes against me. One, I was Jewish. Two, I was a woman. But the killer was I was a mother of a four-year-old child,” she said in an interview with CBS.

Partly due to the barriers she faced, she became a stubborn advocate for women’s equal rights.

Between 1972 and 1978, Ginsburg argued six gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court, winning five times, while raising two children.

Almost 40 years later, when people asked her when she’ll be satisfied with the number of women on the Supreme Court, she said: “When there are nine.”

She was the second woman ever to serve on the court, after Sandra Day O’Connor. Only three members of the 100-member Senate opposed her in a confirmation vote.

Now to address the question raised above about “Luck”.

In an article appearing in the August 7 edition of Ami Magazine, written by Rabbi Moshe Taub, Justice Ginsburg is quoted as saying, “I do not think Jewish names would be hidden from view in briefs filed in today’s Court. The security I feel is displayed in my chambers … by the large Mezuzah on my door post, a gift from the Shulamith School in Brooklyn. Thanks to the efforts of the organizations of the kind represented here, Jews in the United States are no longer afraid to let the world know who they are”.

I wanted to know more about that Mezuzah hanging on Justice Ginsburg’s doorpost so I did a bit more research and came up with a story from the site named Lilith magazine www.Lilith.org written by Joan Roth in the Fall of 2010-

When she was nominated, Ginsburg made no overt statement about her ethnic or religious identity. But Ginsburg clearly identifies as a Jew. When the Supreme Court later changed the venue of our photo shoot to the justice’s chambers, she asked to be photographed alongside the mezuzah given to her by students who’d visited her from the Orthodox Shulamith School for Girls in Brooklyn. “They asked good questions and they really wanted the answers,” she told me.

Ginsburg has said she carries a copy of the Constitution with her. I blurted out, “It’s my favorite document, that and the Torah.” “Only the Torah?” Ginsburg shot right back. “What about the Talmud? What about the Mishnah?” Her quick comeback naming the texts codifying Jewish law certainly indicate the staying power of Ginsburg’s early Jewish education (at the East Midwood Jewish Center in Brooklyn). “I have the good fortune of coming from a culture that prides learning, that thrives on arguing,” Ginsburg told a sell-out audience at New York’s 92St Y in 2008. “I am tremendously fortunate to be part of that heritage.”

So if Ginsburg is proudly doing that Mitzvah of hanging a Mezuzah on her justice’s chambers doorpost then perhaps the word “luck” that the Dr. used when describing finding those growths on her lungs was not luck at all, but perhaps her reward for doing the mitzvah of proudly displaying that Mezuzah on her doorpost.

The Ami article explains Ginsburg’s remarks partly came from a presentation she gave at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs in appreciation for the Albert D. Chernin Award on February 18, 2002. Here are some more interesting facts Ginsburg spoke about at that presentation.

Preparing some years ago for a lecture on the Jewish Justices who preceded Justice Breyer and me, I learned that Louis D. Brandeis was not the first Jewish nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court. I have since read more about the man who might have been first, and thought perhaps you would find his life as intriguing as I did. The person who might have preceded Brandeis hailed from Louisiana. His name was Judah Benjamin.

In 1853, Benjamin declined the nomination of President Millard Fillmore to become an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Just elected U.S. Senator from Louisiana, Benjamin preferred to retain his First Branch post. His choice suggests that the U.S. Supreme Court had not yet become the co-equal Branch it is today.

Judah, the third of seven children, was given the same name as an older brother who died in infancy. Following a tradition adhered to by some Sephardi, he was named for his paternal grandfather, who performed the brit milah, or circumcision ceremony. The Benjamins encountered hard times in the Danish West Indies, as normal trade was blocked by the British occupation. In 1813 the Benjamin family moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina, where they had relatives. Philip Benjamin was not financially successful there, and around 1821 moved with his family to Charleston, South Carolina. That city had the largest Jewish community in the United States and a reputation for religious tolerance. Benjamin was learned in his faith but not a successful businessman; Rebecca earned money for the family by operating a fruit stand near the harbor.[3] Phillip Benjamin was a first cousin and business partner of Moses Elias Levy from the West Indies. Levy also immigrated to the United States, in the early 1820s.[4]

Judah and two siblings were boarded with relatives in Fayetteville for about 18 months after the rest of the family moved to Charleston. He attended the Fayetteville Academy, a well-regarded school where his intelligence was recognized.[5] In Charleston, his father was among the founders of the first Reform congregation in the United States. It developed practices that included shorter services conducted in English rather than in Hebrew. Benjamin was ultimately expelled from that community, as he did not keep the Sabbath. The extent of Judah’s religious education is uncertain.

Rabbi Myron Berman, in his history of Jews in Richmond, describes the attitude of antebellum white Southerners toward Jews:

Hidden beneath the free and easy relationships between Jew and Gentile in the antebellum South was a layer of prejudice that derived from historic anti-Semitism. The obverse of the picture of the Jew as the Biblical patriarch and apostle of freedom was the image of the Judas-traitor and the Shylock-materialist who preyed on the misfortunes of the country. But the high incidence of Jewish assimilation, the availability of the black as a scapegoat for social ills, and the relative absence of crises—economic and otherwise—were factors which repressed, at least temporarily, the latent anti-Jewish feeling in the South.[21]

 

Benjamin Was Not Afraid To Identify With The Jewish Faith

 

Benjamin was the first U.S. senator to profess the Jewish faith. In 1845, David Yulee, born David Levy, had been sworn in for Florida, but he renounced Judaism and eventually formally converted to Christianity.[167] As an adult, Benjamin was a nonobservant Jew, who was not a member of a synagogue and took no part in communal affairs. He rarely spoke of his religion publicly, but was not ashamed of it. Some of the stories told of Benjamin that touch on his faith come from Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise,[168] who related that Benjamin delivered an address in a San Francisco synagogue on Yom Kippur in 1860, though whether this occurred is open to question as Wise was not there and it was not reported in the city’s Jewish newspaper.[169]One quote from Senate debate that remains “part of the Benjamin legend”, according to Evans, followed an allusion to Moses as a freer of slaves by a Northern senator, hinting that Benjamin was an “Israelite in Egyptian clothing”.[170] Benjamin is supposed to have replied, “It is true that I am a Jew, and when my ancestors were receiving their Ten Commandments from the immediate hand of deity, amidst the thunderings and lightnings of Mount Sinai, the ancestors of my opponent were herding swine in the forests of Great Britain.”[e][170]

Benjamin Held A Number Of Positions

Judah Philip Benjamin served as the Attorney General, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State for the Confederacy. The first Jewish-American to serve on an executive cabinet in American history, he has received the title “brains of the Confederacy” by scholars for his apparent position as Jefferson Davis’ right hand.

Jefferson Davis  was an American politician who served as the only President of the Confederate States of America from 1861 to 1865. As a member of the Democratic Party, he represented Mississippi in the United States Senate and the House of Representatives prior to switching allegiance to the Confederacy

Confederate States Dollar

 

The Confederate States dollar was first issued just before the outbreak of the American Civil War by the newly formed Confederacy. It was not backed by hard assets, but simply by a promise to pay the bearer after the war, on the prospect of Southern victory and independence.

The first series of Confederate paper money, issued in March of 1861, bore interest and had a total circulation of $1,000,000.[1] As the war began to tilt against the Confederates, confidence in the currency diminished, and the government inflated the currency by continuing to print the unbacked banknotes. By the end of 1863, the Confederate dollar (or “Greyback”, to distinguish it from the then-new “Greenback” paper US dollar, which was likewise put into circulation during the war) was quoted at just six cents in gold, and fell further still.

The Greyback is now a prized collector’s item, in its many versions, including those issued by individual states and local banks.

Designs

 

The Confederacy, being limited in skilled engravers and printers as well as secure printing facilities, often had to make do with unrelated designs in early banknote issues. Some such were abstract depictions of mythological gods and goddesses, such as the Goddess of Liberty. Confederate themes did prevail with designs of black slaves, naval ships and historical figures, including George Washington. Images of slaves often had them depicted as carrying about their work.

Since most of the engravers and bank plates were in the Northern states, Confederate printers had to lift by offset or lithographic process scenes that had been used on whatever notes they had access to. Many variations in plates, printing and papers also appear in most of the issues, due in large part to the limits on commerce resulting from the Union embargo of Confederate ports.

Some of the people featured on banknotes include Andrew JacksonJohn C. CalhounChristopher MemmingerRobert M. T. HunterAlexander H. StephensJefferson DavisJudah P. BenjaminClement ClayGeorge W. Randolph, and Lucy Holcombe Pickens, the wife of the Governor of South Carolina.[5][6][7][8][9] There was also a bill featuring George Washington.[10]

Near the end of the war, the currency became practically worthless as a medium of exchange. This was because, for the most part, Confederate currency were bills of credit, as in the Revolutionary War, not secured or backed by any assets. The only two exceptions were in Mississippi, where in 1862 a series of notes were issued with the backing of cotton stored by the state’s planters and in Florida, where notes were backed, in theory, by public lands.[4] Just as the currency issued by the Continental Congress was deemed worthless (witness the phrase “not worth a Continental;” and see The Federalist Papers, which also addressed this issue in the run-up to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution) because they were not backed by any hard assets, so, too, this became the case with Confederate currency.[citation needed] Even though both gold and silver may have been scarce, some economic historians[who?] have suggested that the currency would have retained a relatively material degree of value, and for a longer period of time, had it been backed by hard goods the Confederacy did have, perhaps such as cotton, or tobacco. When the Confederacy ceased to exist as a political entity at the end of the war, the money lost all value as fiat currency.

According to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “repeating his Louisiana progress, Benjamin made his reputation among his new peers by publication”.[153] In an early representation, he wrote a complex governing document for an insurance firm that other counsel had declined despite the substantial fee, due to the early deadline. After brief study, Benjamin wrote out the document, never making a correction or erasure.[154] In 1868, Benjamin published A Treatise on the Law of Sale of Personal Property, With Reference to the American Decisions, to the French Code, and Civil Law. This work, known for short as Benjamin on Sales, became a classic in both Britain and America, and launched his career as a barrister.[156] It went through three editions prior to Benjamin’s death in 1884;[158] an eighth edition was published in 2010.[159] Today Benjamin’s Sale of Goods forms part of the “common law library” of key practitioner texts on English civil law.[160]

In 1867, Benjamin had been indicted in Richmond, along with Davis, Lee, and others, for waging war against the United States. The indictment was soon quashed. Davis visited London in 1868, free on bail, and Benjamin advised him not to take legal action against the author of a book that had angered Davis, as it would only give the book publicity.[161] Benjamin corresponded with Davis, and met with him on the former rebel president’s visits to Europe during Benjamin’s lifetime, though the two were never as close as they had been during the war.[162]

In his final years, Benjamin suffered from health issues. In 1880, he was badly injured in a fall from a tram in Paris. He also developed diabetes. He suffered a heart attack in Paris at the end of 1882, and his doctor ordered him to retire.[163] His health improved enough to allow him to travel to London in June 1883 for a dinner in his honor attended by the English bench and bar. He returned to Paris and suffered a relapse of his heart trouble in early 1884.[165] Natalie Benjamin had the last rites of the Catholic Church administered to her Jewish husband before his death in Paris on May 6, 1884, and funeral services were held in a church prior to Judah Benjamin’s interment at Père Lachaise Cemetery in the St. Martin family crypt. His grave did not bear his name until 1938, when a plaque was placed by the Paris chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.[166]

In an article appearing in the August 7 edition of Ami Magazine, written by Rabbi Moshe Taub  referred to above, he pointed out that Justice Ginsburg surely despised Benjamin’s politics, but she spoke glowingly of his acumen and his Jewishness, and how that gave confidence to other Jewish lawyers.

About the Author
Born and raised in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park. Married to a South African, we lived in Johannesburg from 1979 to 1996. Made Aliyah with our seven children on Parshat Lech Lecha. BSB Accounting Degree from the University of Minnesota. Investment Portfolio Manager and Analyst. Served in the US Army Reserves Semi Retired spending quality time with my wife, children, grandchildren and attend Kollel while analyzing current events as they relate to Torah and Mitzvahs.
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