A journalist and a Supreme Court justice’s final passion project shines a light on Jewish role models.
In October 2019, Nadine Epstein C’78 G’78 visited Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s chambers, just as she had multiple times before. Inside the wood-paneled rooms, surrounded by art that Ginsburg had carefully selected, photos she’d taken with theater and opera luminaries, and awards that she’d won, the two women got to talking about role models.
As Ginsburg reflected on the women who had inspired and sustained her over the years—from Anne Frank to the poet Emma Lazarus to the scholar/activist Emma Szold—Epstein thought back to her own childhood. “I told her about how, when I was a kid, I read every single biography in our elementary school library,” Epstein remembers, “and out of those 350 books, maybe 10 were about women.
“Then I said something I probably say once every week: ‘We should write a book!’ Justice Ginsburg, who was a very serious person, just looked at me and said Yes.”
That’s how Epstein and Ginsburg, who had met several years earlier when Epstein interviewed the justice for a magazine article, came to create RBG’s Brave & Brilliant Women: 33 Jewish Women to Inspire Everyone (Delacorte Press, 2021). Their book now represents a final passion project that Ginsburg worked on shortly before her death in September 2020.
But neither Epstein nor Ginsburg knew that when they began volleying names back and forth in late 2019. “Sometimes she sent me emails with so many more women she wanted to add into the book that I couldn’t even keep up with them,” Epstein says. Eventually she wrote up a list of 150 that included both Ginsburg’s suggestions and her own.
“We ended up coming back to the women who most fascinated Justice Ginsburg,” Epstein says. “Some she’d heard about as a young girl. Some she’d read about or met as an adult. And then we also included a few of the women that I thought should really be in the book.”
As Epstein writes in the prologue to RBG’s Brave & Brilliant Women, what the duo’s final 33 selections have in common—in addition to their shared Judaism—is “that they transcended what was expected, allowed, or tolerated for a woman of their time.” Written with middle-grade readers in mind, the biographies range from biblical heroines to 20th-century trailblazers.
“These Jewish women were so important to Justice Ginsburg,” even more so as she approached the later years of her life, Epstein says, “and she really wanted to pass them on to future generations.”
When Ginsburg asked to read Epstein’s draft in July 2020, “my stomach dropped right to the floor,” Epstein says. They had mostly settled on the women they were including, but Epstein hadn’t actually written all of the bios yet. She shook out a “very rough first draft” in under two weeks and sent it off to Ginsburg.
“I don’t think she was thinking the end of her life was around the corner,” Epstein says, “but she was in a rush to read what I had put together. She made extensive notes on it. I was actually surprised by the extent of time she had spent reading it and how much she cared.”
“She was very accustomed to editing her law clerks, and I feel like she edited this the same way she would edit a legal document,” Epstein adds. “She changed language. She had preferred words. She would occasionally say, ‘This is wrong, I don’t think you thought it through well.’ It was very polite and gracious but also very blunt.”
Less than two months later, Ginsburg died from metastatic pancreatic cancer.
“She was incredibly dedicated to what she believed in and cared so much about the work we were doing,” Epstein says. Even as the justice’s health was declining, “she made time to persistently work on this project.”
Epstein was struck by that persistence from the time she first met Ginsburg in 2014. She arrived in the justice’s chambers to interview her for Moment magazine—the publication devoted to covering all facets of Jewish life that Epstein has helmed as editor in chief since 2004 [“Alumni Profiles,” Sep|Oct 2005]. “I communicated with her many times over the years after that, went to visit her, interviewed her about different topics,” Epstein says. “We became friends.”
It was during one of their wide-ranging conversations that Epstein confided how much she disliked being on stage, the focus of eyeballs and attention. “She looked at me and said, ‘Get over it,’” Epstein recalls. “She said, ‘If you don’t speak your mind, no one will speak it for you.’ That really struck me and inspired me to take steps that I hadn’t taken before in my life.” Soon she had enrolled in public speaking classes, followed by singing classes and even studies at the DC Improv comedy club.
As CEO of Moment, Epstein has also led the magazine through some of the industry’s most tumultuous years. “There’s no such thing as just a magazine anymore,” she says. “Really what we’ve created is this media community.” On top of its print publication, Moment also publishes books, maintains an online gallery for artists, runs a short fiction contest, hosts free Zoominars, and created a “Big Question Project” that counts Madeline Albright and Ginsburg herself as past participants.
Like Ginsburg, who reveled not only in the law but also opera and visual art and literature, “I have always had so many interests and been curious about so many things,” Epstein says. “I always felt confined by the thought of having to be part of one discipline.” In addition to promoting RBG’s Brave & Brilliant Women and continuing to run Moment, Epstein is preparing for a new exhibition of her drawings and iShadow Project photography [“Arts,” Jul|Aug 2017], slated for the Strongin Collection in Washington, DC, from March 9 to April 24.
Epstein is careful to note that none of these achievements has been easy. Much like RBG’s brave and brilliant women in the book, “I have faced a lot of gender discrimination,” Epstein says. “That’s why this book is very important to my personal and professional journey. It shows how women speak out and speak their minds—and now they’re being heard. That’s incredibly important.”
—Molly Petrilla C’06