Below the fold on the front page of our May 20, 1994 issue
Below the fold on the front page of our May 20, 1994 issue

That time Stephen Breyer was kicked out of the Soviet Union, and five other tidbits from our archives

Earlier this week, Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer announced his intention to retire after nearly 28 years on the bench. Over the years, Breyer — who grew up in San Francisco and celebrated his bar mitzvah at Congregation Emanu-El in 1951 — has made several appearances in J., when it was known alternately as the Jewish Community Bulletin and the Jewish Bulletin. Below are some highlights from our archive, which will be available digitally to all beginning next month.


“Religious Schools Plan Chanukah: Temple Emanu-El” (Dec. 9, 1949)

Breyer makes his first appearance in our pages in a list of Emanu-El religious school students who are set to perform in a Hanukkah-themed play. What role Breyer, age 11, has in “The Magic Top” goes unmentioned.

“Stephen Breyer Wins CAFTY Contest” (June 3, 1955)

The future jurist distinguishes himself early on as a brilliant thinker and public speaker when, at age 16, he wins a sermon-writing contest sponsored by the National Federation of Temple Youth (now known as NFTY: The Reform Jewish Youth Movement). His sermon — or rather, “sermonette,” according to our report — is titled “I Speak for Judaism.” His prize for winning the contest? A silver Kiddush cup.

“S.F. Student Winner of Top Honors, Will Enjoy Unusual Vacation” (June 22, 1956)

After completing his freshman year at Stanford, where he is a “top debater,” Breyer spends the summer in New York and Europe thanks to two scholastic awards.

For winning an essay contest organized by the American Association of the United Nations, the 17-year-old receives a tour of U.N. headquarters and meets with U.N. officials. For winning an achievement award from Bank of America, he receives a one-month stay with a family in France, followed by a monthlong tour of Europe.

A few years later, he will win a Marshall Scholarship and study philosophy, political science and economics at Magdalen College in Oxford.

“S.F. Man Ousted From Russia” (Sept. 16, 1960)

Breyer appears to have traveled widely as a young man — and to have run into trouble now and then. At age 22, he reportedly is expelled from the Soviet Union for taking a photograph of a Russian policeman.

Breyer explains that he and a friend were giving a ride to a group of locals when they drove off the main road and were stopped by the police. “Breyer snapped a picture of the group, including the officer, only to learn later that Soviet law forbids the photographing of men in uniform,” we reported.

“S.F. Student Named Aide to Supreme Court Justice” (Jan. 17, 1964)

Breyer, now 25 and a student at Harvard Law School, secures a clerkship with Supreme Court Justice Arthur J. Goldberg. Our article notes that Breyer’s father, Irving, is a Board of Education attorney, and his brother, Charles, is a student at Berkeley Law. (Today, Charles Breyer is a federal judge in the Northern District of California.) There is no mention of his mother, Anne, who is missing from most coverage of Stephen Breyer in our pages — a reflection of the sexism that, unfortunately, permeated news coverage for decades.

“S.F. Jews proud one of own heading for top court” (May 20, 1994)

Bulletin correspondent Garth Wolkoff speaks with several Jewish community members following Breyer’s appointment to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in May 1994.

S.F. philanthropist Richard Goldman, a former president of the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, kvells: “The most amazing thing is that we will have two Jewish members on the court. It’s quite incredible. I’m sure he’ll make his mark.” (Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had been appointed the previous year.)

A local political consultant, John Rothmann, suggests that Breyer’s appointment is another sign that one’s Jewish identity is not the professional hindrance it once was. “Quotas for Jews in politics are now past,” he said. “Whether [officials are] elected or appointed, the overwhelming majority of people don’t care.”

Rothmann adds that Breyer’s appointment “is a tremendous tribute to the quality of life and the education here. We can take great pride… that San Francisco was able to [nurture] such a rising star as Stephen Breyer.”

Rabbi Alvin I. Fine, who led Emanu-El from 1948 to 1964, says of Breyer, “I remember him very well. He was just an outstanding person. One could have predicted something like this. He was brilliant and conscientious.”

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv.