Great Jews in Robes
by David G. Dalin
Brandeis University Press, 384 pp., $35
Once ubiquitous, books celebrating the Jews’ attainments in one field or another have in recent decades lost their place in American Jewish culture. This is no doubt a consequence of the normalization of Jewish accomplishment (except in sports, which is the reason why the market for books about Jewish athletes is still strong). Among major institutions of American life, the NFL may be the only one in which Jews can still be considered pathbreakers.
David Dalin’s Jewish Justices of the Supreme Court is thus something of a latecomer to the library of communal success, but it is nevertheless a very revealing study of the elevation of Jews to the pinnacles of American society as matters have unfolded on the United States’s highest judicial body. Just more than a century after Louis Dembitz Brandeis took his seat in 1916, defying vociferous and sometimes anti-Semitic opposition, hardly anyone finds it strange that the nine members of the court include three Jews. This means that Jews now enjoy a representation more than 15 times greater than their presence in the general population. If Merrick Garland had been successfully confirmed for the seat now occupied by Neil Gorsuch, Jews would have been just one vote shy of constituting a majority on the court. Yet, as Dalin notes with astonishment, “for most of the country, [Garland’s] religious identity was utterly beside the point.”
How did this amazing state of affairs come about? One explanation is that Jews have a special affinity for the legal profession. Early in the book, Dalin quotes Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s version of this argument. In an introduction she wrote to a previous volume about Jewish justices, Ginsburg contends that: