As Jewish women, we’re overjoyed that President Obama has nominated a Jewish woman to fill the coming vacancy on the Supreme Court. If confirmed, Elena Kagan will be the fourth woman on the Court and the eighth MOT (member of the tribe). But who’s counting?
The Supreme Court was established back in 1790. It was 126 years before the first Jewish judge was seated (Louis Brandeis, in 1916) and 191 years until the first woman joined the bench (Sandra Day O’Connor, 1981). Yiddish made its debut at the Supreme Court soon after in a decision that described the National Endowment for the Arts as having “chutzpah.” Curiously, it was Italian Catholic Justice Antonin Scalia who chose that Yiddish word to describe the agency’s brazenness.
In an article in the Yale Law Journal, Judge Alex Kozinski and Eugene Volokh reported that since that first instance of Yiddishkeit, the word “chutzpah” has appeared in 231 court decisions, almost all of them since 1980. The authors wondered if Americans were becoming more nervy and outspoken, or if Yiddish were used more because its words are so descriptive.
It’s not only the Supreme Court that has chutzpah. Lower courts have a lot of nerve, too. According to Kozinski and Volokh, in lower court decisions, the use of the word ‘chutzpah’ outpaces ‘temerity’ (a woefully inadequate substitute) and ‘unmitigated gall,’ which has a mere 13 mentions.”
Back to the High Court. Every new employee has questions, and that first day on the job. Ms. Kagan will be no exception. She could ask John Roberts how much time she gets for lunch and ask Ruth Bader Ginsburg where to find the ladies room. But she won’t get farmisht (confused) when it comes to finding the right word to describe the plaintiff who files suit for tripping on his own shoelaces. She could just say, “No award. He’s a klutz.” This would be the third mention of the word “klutz” in a Supreme Court case.
We wish Ms. Kagan the best of luck in her upcoming confirmation hearings, and we’re sure we’re not the first to wish her, “Mazel tov.” We’ll be kvelling when she’s sworn in.