The People’s Attorney: An Evening with Louis Brandeis
Last month the Jewish Museum hosted the ninth installment of Wish You Were Here, a public program series inspired by Andy Warhol’s Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century (1980). Gifted to the Jewish Museum in 2006 by Lorraine and Martin Beitler, and exhibited at the Museum in 1980 and 2008, Warhol’s 10 prints depict luminaries of Jewish culture. The program brings back to life these “Jewish geniuses” (as dubbed by Warhol): Jens Hoffmann, Director of Special Exhibitions and Public Programs, interviews the 10 historical figures who Warhol depicted, each portrayed by living scholars, authors, and art world professionals. Past programs have featured “Martin Buber” (portrayed by professor of philosophy Sarah Scott), “Gertrude Stein” (portrayed by curator and art historian Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev), and “Groucho Marx” (portrayed by actor and writer Noah Diamond).
In the most recent Wish You Were Here program, Jeffrey Rosen, President and CEO of the National Constitution Center and Professor of Law at The George Washington University Law School, spoke with Hoffmann as Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Jeffrey Rosen’s delivery of Brandeis was, at first, somber as the speakers took their seats on the stage beside a floor-length projection screen. What started as a stern-eyed, stiff-shouldered impersonation, however, quickly transformed — Rosen’s Brandeis became a combination of flinging arms and excited exclamations, a voice booming with passion at every question he answered. The first of these questions was about Brandeis’s childhood.
A wave of nostalgia washed over the auditorium as slides of Brandeis’s country home appeared on the screen. Louis Dembitz Brandeis was born in Louisville, Kentucky. A product of a rural upbringing, Brandeis’s father felt that these types of communities were integral to becoming contributing members of society, a belief that was imparted to his son. “Only in small communities could citizens fully develop their faculties of reason,” Rosen as Brandeis said to an applauding audience. The affection Brandeis felt for his hometown could only be matched by that which he felt for his family. Brandeis’s parents were Jewish immigrants that had fled Prague to escape political upheaval — “pilgrims,” Brandeis called them. It was their unrelenting search for liberty, Rosen as Brandeis explained, that inspired his future crusade for justice.
After graduating Harvard Law School at the age of 20 with the highest grade point average in the institution’s history, Brandeis encountered many major turning points in this life. The first came with the introduction of the tabloid press. Brandeis was originally a supporter of complete transparency. However, he readjusted his beliefs when he saw the negative effects of tabloid journalism. “Offenses against dignity,” Rosen’s voice shook the audience as he reprimanded the tabloids for publicizing people’s private affairs. According to Rosen’s Brandeis, his 1890 Harvard Law Review publication, The Right to Privacy, offered a necessary remedy to the tabloids’ blasphemous stories.
Raised by non-observant parents, Brandeis and his siblings were strangers to the Jewish doctrine. Inspired by his uncle Lewis (whose surname Brandeis later adopted as his own middle name), Brandeis discovered the “intelligence of Jewish immigrants” and the “empathy of Jewish employers.” In 1910, Brandeis became a leader of the American Zionist Movement. “To be good Americans, we must be better Jews,” Rosen said, channeling Brandeis, “and to be better Jews, we must become better Americans.”
Hoffmann turned the discussion to Brandeis’s legacy as “the people’s attorney” and once again, Rosen’s performance dominated the stage. As represented by Rosen, Brandeis was not shy about his disgust for the recklessness of large banks or his desire to defend workers’ interests. The audience sat awestruck as he detailed his advocacy efforts, including establishing fair wages and work hours for women and offering pro bono services to labor and capital unions. However, his success did not come without enemies. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson nominated Brandeis to the U.S. Supreme Court. Rosen’s Brandeis recalled the anti-Semitism that he encountered, having waiting 125 days before his nomination was confirmed.
Throughout the interview, Rosen portrayed Brandeis as a dedicated Jeffersonian. He called for a focus on the development of the individual, stressed minimum government intervention, fought for inalienable rights, and advocated the superiority of an agrarian economy and rural society. The interview ended just as it began, with a burst of passion:
The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.
Forever a student himself, Rosen’s Brandeis urged his listeners to always pursue opportunities to learn, reminding them that knowledge is liberty’s strongest defense.
On Thursday, June 22, 6:30–8:30 pm, don’t miss the next and final installment of Wish You Were Here at the Jewish Museum. RSVP here to see writer and New Yorker contributor Rivka Galchen appear as Franz Kafka. Watch the video archive of previous Wish You Were Here conversations on YouTube.
— Kathryn Jan Estavillo, Marketing Intern, the Jewish Museum