Kagan was born in New York City, the middle of three children, on the city's Upper West Side. Her mother, Gloria Gittelman Kagan, taught fifth and sixth grade at Hunter College Elementary School, and her father, Robert Kagan, was an attorney. Kagan's two brothers are public school teachers.
Kagan and her family lived in a third-floor apartment at West End Avenue and 75th Street and attended Lincoln Square Synagogue. Kagan was independent and strong-willed in her youth and, according to a former law partner, clashed with her Orthodox rabbi over aspects of her bat mitzvah. "She had strong opinions about what a bat mitzvah should be like, which didn't parallel the wishes of the rabbi," said her former colleague. "But they finally worked it out. She negotiated with the rabbi and came to a conclusion that satisfied everybody." Kagan's rabbi, Shlomo Riskin, had never performed a ritual bat mitzvah before. "Elena Kagan felt very strongly that there should be ritual bat mitzvah in the synagogue, no less important than the ritual bar mitzvah. This was really the first formal bat mitzvah we had," said Riskin. Kagan asked to read from the Torah on a Saturday morning but ultimately read on a Friday night, May 18, 1973, from the Book of Ruth. Today, she identifies with Conservative Judaism.
Childhood friend Margaret Raymond recalled that Kagan was a teenage smoker but not a partier. On Saturday nights, she and Kagan "were more apt to sit on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and talk." Kagan also loved literature and re-read Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice every year. In her Hunter College High School yearbook of 1977, Kagan was pictured in a judge's robe and holding a gavel.
Next to her photo was a quote from former Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter: "Government is itself an art, one of the subtlest of arts." After graduating from high school, Kagan attended Princeton University, where she earned an A.B., summa cum laude in history in 1981. Among the subjects she studied was the socialist movement in New York City in the early 20th century. She wrote a senior thesis under historian Sean Wilentz titled "To the Final Conflict: Socialism in New York City, 1900–1933". In it she wrote, "Through its own internal feuding, then, the SP exhausted itself forever. The story is a sad but also a chastening one for those who, more than half a century after socialism's decline, still wish to change America." Wilentz insists that she did not mean to defend socialism, noting that, "She was interested in it. To study something is not to endorse it." Wilentz called Kagan "one of the foremost legal minds in the country, she is still the witty, engaging, down-to-earth person I proudly remember from her undergraduate days."
As an undergraduate, Kagan also served as editorial chair of the Daily Princetonian. Along with eight other students (including Eliot Spitzer, who was student body president at the time), Kagan penned the Declaration of the Campaign for a Democratic University, which called for "a fundamental restructuring of university governance" and condemned Princeton's administration for making decisions "behind closed doors".
Kagan graduates from Harvard Law School in 1986.
She received Princeton's Daniel M. Sachs Class of 1960 Graduating Scholarship, one of the highest general awards conferred by the university, which enabled her to study at Worcester College, Oxford. She earned a Master of Philosophy at Oxford in 1983. She received a Juris Doctor, magna cum laude, at Harvard Law School in 1986, where she was supervisory editor of the Harvard Law Review. Friend Jeffrey Toobin recalled Kagan "stood out from the start as one with a formidable mind. She's good with people. At the time, the law school was a politically charged and divided place. She navigated the factions with ease, and won the respect of everyone."
Kagan has never married and has no children.
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