Born in 1856, in Louisville, Kentucky, Louis Dembitz Brandeis was the child of European immigrants who maintained a minimal Jewish identity. However, his maternal uncle, Lewis Dembitz, lived a more Jewish involved life-style and inspired Brandeis’ subsequent Zionist activities.
Brandeis graduated from Harvard Law School at 20 with the highest (at that time) grade point average in the history of Harvard. After a brief stint in Louisville, he set up a practice in Boston. Achieving financial success, Brandeis began representing causes he believed in, purely for the love of the law. Professionally, Brandeis was involved in breaking monopolies, creating the Federal Reserve System and the Federal Trade Commission. He is also noted for his articulation of the legal “right to privacy” concept.
Brandeis was nominated by President Woodrow Wilson to become a Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court in 1916. On June 1st, he was confirmed to the Supreme Court by a Senate vote of 47 to 22. He was the first Jewish Justice on the Supreme Court. While his Jewish identity was certainly the cause for some opposition, it was his reputation as a crusader for social justice that predominately energized his opponents.
Although Brandeis had a distant relationship with his Jewish heritage, he was an ardent Zionist. During World War I, he chaired the Provisional Executive Committee for Zionist Affairs (predecessor to the Zionist Organization of America, ZOA). In 1919, however, he left ZOA after an administrative disagreement with Chaim Weizmann (later President of Israel). He remained active on a personal level, including using his political influence to benefit the Zionist movement.
Sadly, Brandeis never witnessed the creation of the independent State of Israel. He died of a heart attack in 1941, two years after resigning from the Supreme Court. Brandeis was survived by his wife Alice nee Goldmark, and two daughters, Susan Gilbert and Elizabeth Raushenbush.
This Treat was originally posted on June 28, 2010.
If you enjoyed this mini-biography, check out Jewish Treats: 99 Fascinating Jewish Personalities