Photo: Ari Roth
Despite having had a long, busy day at the US Supreme Court this past Monday, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made a point of attending a special performance of “Stars of David: Story to Song” in Washington that evening. The performance of the musical review celebrating the lives of Jewish public figures — including Ginsburg herself — was a benefit for Theater J, a program of the Washington DC Jewish Community Center.
To the delight of the cast, the 81-year-old Justice visited them backstage after the performance to express her appreciation. “She was very expressive,” actor and singer Aaron Serotsky, who was in the original “Stars of David” off-Broadway run in New York last fall, shared with the Forward the next day. Ginsburg reportedly told him and the others that she was moved to laughter and tears as she watched the show, which is based on the best-selling book by Abigail Pogrebin and features original music by Broadway’s finest composers and lyricists.
According to Serotsky, the cast was made aware just an hour before curtain time that the Justice, who had been invited to the benefit performance by Theater J artistic director Ari Roth, was actually going to show up. “We knew she was there when a female security guard showed up backstage,” Serotsky recalled.
During the performance, the actor was able to observe Ginsburg sitting close to the stage, one seat in from the aisle. “I could watch her and gauge her reaction, especially when her song was performed by Emily Levey, one of the female members of our four-person cast,” he said.
The song based on Pogrebin’s interview with Ginsburg, “As If I Weren’t There,” recounts her experience as a 17-year-old young woman of being excluded from the mourner’s minyan for her mother:
We gathered in the living room
Relatives and neighbors
I expected to stand up
To chant the prayer
But the women were forbidden
Which felt so unfair
Daryl Roth, the revue’s producer, finds Ginsburg’s story particularly moving. “[It] is meaningful on many levels,” she told the Forward. “Certainly, her impressive career is an inspiration to women, but her song is about her as a young woman feeling that she was not able to be part of the minyan, that she didn’t count, so to speak. I believe this might have been important in her choice to enter the field of law, to find and defend what is fair and what is right.”
In speaking with the Washington cast, Ginsburg was careful to make sure that her father, who had forbidden her from reciting Kaddish, was not misunderstood. “She said, ‘I don’t want my father to appear as a cruel man, because he wasn’t,’” Serotsky shared.
Pogrebin, who wrote the lyrics to the song, recalled Ginsburg taking the time to give her feedback on the piece long before she saw it performed on Monday evening. “She wrote little corrections in the script’s margins,” the writer said. “For example, she noted that she would never have called her father Papa. She called him Daddy.”
Backstage, Ginsburg reflected with the cast not only on her own story, but also on her fellow Justice Elena Kagan’s experiences as a young Jewish woman. “She told us about how Kagan convinced her rabbi to let her have a bat mitzvah and that she read from the book of Ruth,” Serotsky said.
Ginsburg spent about 10 minutes talking with the cast before heading home. “This was a perfect ending to this day,” she reportedly said as she took her leave.