Chicagoan Jim Ginsburg is the producer of a CD, and an upcoming concert at Spertus, which tells the amazing life story of his mother, Ruth Bader Ginsburg
By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Despite a recommendation from Professor Albert Martin Sacks, the future dean of Harvard’s Law School, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter in 1960 turned down the application of 26-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the top law graduates in the country, for a clerkship.
Preceded by Benjamin Cardozo and succeeded by Arthur Goldberg, the Austrian-born Frankfurter occupied the Supreme Court’s “Jewish seat.” A succession of rabbis had been recorded in Frankfurter’s ancestry. He had appointed the first African-American SCOTUS clerk in 1948. But despite the logical impetus for barrier-breaking, Frankfurter simply would not take on the Brooklyn-born, brainy, hyper-disciplined mother of a 5-year-old daughter.
What if Ginsburg had attained that clerkship? History could have been radically changed.
“Maybe she’s a corporate lawyer somewhere,” speculated son Jim Ginsburg, now of Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood, born five years after his mother’s rejection by Frankfurter.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, popularly known as RBG, might not have ended up the famed crusader for gender equality and social justice. That background led to a 1980 appointment by President Jimmy Carter as a federal appeals judge in Washington, D.C., and in 1993 elevation to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton as only the second-ever female justice. RBG is now one of three women on the court, joined by the Jewish Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.
At 85, RBG and Clarence Thomas are the senior associate justices, their places locked in sitting next to Chief Justice John Roberts in high-court group photos.
Thus her status as perhaps the world’s most beloved Jew likely would never have occurred. Millions of supporters would not have waited with baited breath over reports on her condition after a fall at home resulted in broken ribs.
Not ever in the court’s history has a justice been so celebrated, via a Hollywood biopic, an Oscar-nominated documentary, TV shows, a book and frequent video reports of RBG’s octogenarian workout routine.
And it makes perfect sense that a CD and live concert about her life would be produced – the brainchild of Jim Ginsburg, the formerly prankster kid who’d break away from the family business of law to become a Chicago-based classical-music producer running Cedille Records.
But the younger Ginsburg was no black sheep in the household. He kept close to the soundtrack of his mother’s life. RBG is a noted classical music and opera aficionado. As she works on briefs at home, Washington, D.C. classical radio outlet WETA provides the background music. Years ago, she took the stage in costume with close friend Justice Antonin Scalia in an opera performance.
Any real story of RBG is best written and sung in an all-in-the-family fashion. Jim Ginsburg’s singing voice is not up to the challenge – those who sing do, those who can’t, produce and sell CDs. He tapped the best person available for the job: wife Patrice Michaels, with whom he has produced 14 albums over a generation.
Their collaboration will result in a 75-minute special concert at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 19, at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, 610 S. Michigan Ave. Soprano Michaels’ one-act concert will take from her CD, “Notorious RBG in Song,” produced and distributed by Cedille Records.
Michaels will be accompanied by collaborative pianist Kuang-Hao Huang and their guests, soprano Michelle Areyzaga, tenor Matthew Dean and baritone Evan Bravos. Jim Ginsburg will come on stage for a post-concert question-and-answer session.
Michaels scripted out vignettes from RBG’s life. Fittingly, Frankfurter’s clerkship turndown was the first CD track, setting the stage for the rest of the musical story. Also central to the tale are bookended tributes to Marty Ginsburg, the love of RBG’s life and a remarkable man in his own right through their 56-year marriage.
RBG likely would never have taken on her nickname. Nothing about her is “notorious.” Fans slapped on that monicker in a wry nod to fellow Brooklynite Biggie Smalls, a rapper known as The Notorious B.I.G.
A more apt adjective for RBG might be “indestructible,” given her multiple brushes with cancer and other maladies. But no one is truly immortal in physical form, even if RBG has pushed herself harder than most consider humanly possible to return to the bench.
Try again. “Indomitable?” A dictionary definition is “incapable of being subdued…unconquerable.” Jim Ginsburg thought for three seconds. “I guess that works,” he said.
Interestingly, the most creative telling of the RBG story was a confluence of two artists from opposite ends of the country, both settling in Chicago to develop first a creative relationship dating back to 1991, then uniting in second marriages for both eight years ago.
Ginsburg, of course, grew up in New York, watching his parents pursue legal careers that came together in a landmark case that set up RBG’s further quest to provide gender equality under the law.
Michaels grew up in Southern California and Minneapolis, with a career detour to Banff, Alberta. Given a choice between familiar sun and possible surf in the Los Angeles area and the enthusiastic change of seasons in Chicago, she picked the latter as her long-term home.
Now both have common connections to the University of Chicago. Ginsburg attended the prestigious college. Michaels became director of vocal studies at the U. of C. Michaels applies her voice as a member of the holiday choir at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe. “I appreciate doing the liturgies,” Michaels said.
Of course, “Notorious RBG in Song” would not exist without good material – and not just from the justice herself – along with Jim Ginsburg’s passion for classical music.
Jim Ginsburg was briefly a little hellion going to The Dalton School on New York’s Upper East Side. Michaels picked up the tale of how Jim worked his way into the production.
“The movement is a good example of a personal viewpoint on equality translated into family life,” she said. “James (then nicknamed ‘Jamesie’) as a kid could be quite naughty. The school elevator was left unattended, and a friend commanded him to run the elevator. He was found out.
“So the principal (called the headmaster) of Dalton School called RBG and said you must come here immediately. She was prepping a briefing and had little sleep. RBG did come, but asked the principal to call Marty the next time, noting that Jim had two parents.
Added Ginsburg: “My mother used to like to say, ‘James was a lively child.’”
But “Jamesie” also was a cultured kid, taking after Marty Ginsburg and RBG. At first, he’d “raid” his parents’ classical record collection. “By 7, I was collecting my own records,” he said.
“Music was always in the household. They started taking me to concerts as a youth. The Little Orchestra Society. And the Young People’s Concerts. I graduated going to the city opera and the Met. My parents were regular opera-goers.
“My father had a particular love of Mozart. There often was a lot of Mozart on in the house. I’d go to the symphony concerts with my dad. At his memorial, one of his friends talked about what a musical soul he was.”
Ginsburg turned his avocation into a vocation at the end of the 1980s. He had attended the U. of C., then briefly dabbled in law school. After coming back from a two-year return to New York, he looked over the Chicago musical landscape. Local record labels had long produced all kind of genres, but classical was omitted. Ginsburg decided to carve out his own niche to serve the underappreciated, and un-recorded, classical artists of Chicago.
Obviously, eyebrows were raised at first from pragmatic tax attorney Marty Ginsburg and federal judge RBG. “There was a long discussion when I told them I was dropping out of law school,” the younger Ginsburg said.
But he won over their support. And Marty Ginsburg used his people skills to help the new venture, which Jim Ginsburg re-classified as non-profit.
“I think my father particularly appreciated that,” he said of the non-profit status. “It gave him a role to play as our most effective fund-raiser. He became our best evangelist. He wrote the greatest letter saying there would be a place in heaven (for a prospective donor).”
Early on, Ginsburg launched his creative partnership with Michaels, who majored in theater at Pomona College, and did not sing in earnest until graduate school at the University of Minnesota . “I backed into it. I did not know it would be my calling,” she said. Michaels sang in “The Merry Widow,” “Carmen” and other classics, while writing adaptations of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “The Trojan Women” and an original opera under composer Dominick Argento.
Moving to Chicago in 1984, Michaels spent time juggling musical gigs in and out of town. In the fall of 1991, Jim Ginsburg first noticed her in a recital of Rembrandt Chamber Players. He was impressed. Within two months, she appeared in her first Cedille recording session of the Rembrandt Players’ “20th-Century Baroque Program.”
The Ginsburg-Michaels pairing, which produced six CDs by the turn of the millennium, was noted in a Dec. 23, 1999 Chicago Reader article. “She was all poise and knowledge,” Ginsburg told the Reader of their first working session. “I knew right away that I wanted to showcase her on my label, so I proposed some sort of recital album of songs to be chosen by her.”
Michaels knew she was good. “The feeling of singing is like athleticism,” she said. “If you don’t have control over your body to a degree, you will not have success. It’s how you use your breath.”
Michaels first met RBG in 1995, during Ginsburg’s first wedding ceremony to Shaker Heights, Ohio art historian Lisa Brauston at the U. of C’s University Club. The new Cedille prodigy was tabbed as Ginsburg’s wedding singer. RBG officiated the nuptials in her judicial robe and, in Michael’s words, “pretty pink slippers.” The otherwise all-business RBG started making personal fashion statements in her SCOTUS attire.
Now familiar with Michaels, the musically-inclined RBG invited her to perform at a court-sponsored concert in 2002. Then, moving the clock forward and now united in matrimony with Ginsburg, Michaels was one of three women composers invited to craft a tribute in song to RBG’s 80th birthday in 2013. Her piece was a story about one of RBG’s secretaries.
Light bulbs went off in both Michaels’ and Ginsburg’s minds. “I had such a fun time setting it to music,” Michaels said. “There could be an entire portrait of her life if you could find the right documents (on which to base the production).” And where old letters and such did not exist, oral history from RBG herself proved invaluable.
“We were just planning to make an archival recording,” Ginsburg said. “I stepped in and said there might be a project here.”
After getting RBG’s go-ahead, the pair produced “Notorious RBG in Song.” But soon there was more.
“As we put the project together in the studio, I saw it was also a very viable concert project,” Michaels said. “I could see what I really wanted to do was make a stage show out of it.”
What the CD and live show display is RBG with an iron will and determination – but still eminently human with doubts. One of the tracks has Ginsburg’s paternal grandfather, second-generation American Morris Ginsburg – a vice president at Montgomery Ward – pushing his new daughter-in-law to study the law in spite of her trepidation.
“He is giving advice to a (reluctant) pregnant woman, if you want to go to law school, you will find a way.”
Michaels’ performances simply don’t have the time to capture the entire RBG as only her son has witnessed.
“One thing she did pass on to me is the ability to hyper-focus,” said Ginsburg. ”In my recording work I’m especially like that. In postproduction, you’re listening (to small specifics). That takes a certain level of focus.
She is able to do that. She is able to compartmentalize. She does not waste a moment. If we go to the movies, she will go through her mail ‘til the movie starts.”
RBG indeed must possess incredible mind-over-matter talents. To be sure, she has been exceedingly fortunate in her cancer treatments and recoveries. But, remember, this Story of Ruth harkens back to the days when she slept little, handling both her sick husband’s law-school work and her own. RBG simply would go against all medical experts’ counsel and catch up on her sleep on weekends.
Decades later on the court as a senior citizen, she missed little work despite several bouts with cancer and the fall at home that broke ribs, causing worldwide consternation. “Even while at home (recovering), she wrote more opinions than any of her colleagues,” said a proud son.
“Patrice seems to think somebody should study her brain. All the physical stuff has not altered her mind.”
The inevitable next CD and stage show thus has got to be titled “Indomitable RBG In Fact.”
Tickets for “Notorious RBG in Song” can be purchased at www.spertus.edu/programs-events/RBG-in-Song. Prices are $18, $10 for Spertus members and $8 for students and Spertus alumni.