You Are My Wit­ness: The Liv­ing Words of Rab­bi Mar­shall T. Meyer

  • Review
By – September 24, 2012

This is an inspir­ing book filled with fer­vor, insight, and prophet­ic com­ments. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, it is also, at times, a frus­trat­ing work. 

What’s inspir­ing? The pro­found voice of Rab­bi Mar­shall T. Mey­er, who went to Buenos Aires as a young man in the late 1950’s and end­ed up spend­ing 25 years there. Meyer’s accom­plish­ments in those years are aston­ish­ing: He built a huge, vibrant con­gre­ga­tion, a rab­bini­cal sem­i­nary, a pub­lish­ing house, and a Jew­ish sum­mer-camp move­ment. Dur­ing the Argen­tine junta’s reign of ter­ror from 1976 – 1983, Mey­er fre­quent­ly, and coura­geous­ly, stood up for human rights. Then, in 1985, he returned to New York City and revived a his­toric but shriv­el­ing syn­a­gogue on the Upper West Side, turn­ing it into today’s vital, influ­en­tial Con­gre­ga­tion B’nai Jeshurun. 

Rab­bi Mey­er died sud­den­ly at age 63 in 1993, leav­ing behind a wife and three grown chil­dren, a griev­ing con­gre­ga­tion, and hun­dreds of pages of bare­ly orga­nized papers. One of his con­gre­gants, vet­er­an edi­tor Jane Isay, then spent years culling the mate­ri­als to pro­duce this, Meyer’s only book-length work. 

We owe her a great debt. By com­pil­ing this book she has pre­served Meyer’s high­volt­age ideas and lan­guage, his rag­ing com­mit­ment to social jus­tice, and his impa­tience with Jew­ish self-sat­is­fac­tion and insu­lar­i­ty. We must lib­er­ate our faith from the insipid and min­i­mal goals we have set for our­selves,” he com­mands in one piece. 

You Are My Wit­ness is divid­ed into more than 90 items, most of them very short. They are pre­sent­ed in six sec­tions labeled Faith; Con­fronting God in Events; War and Peace; Pray, Dream, Remem­ber; Days of Awe; and The Lessons of Argenti­na. Each sec­tion is pre­ced­ed by a few sen­tences of introduction. 

So what could be frus­trat­ing about such a valu­able work? Unfor­tu­nate­ly, some­thing major. Although the book is faith­ful to the author’s voice and vision, it is often lack­ing in con­text. Few pieces include dates, places, or any infor­ma­tion to help the read­er under­stand the cir­cum­stances under which they were deliv­ered. In the editor’s note (unfor­tu­nate­ly locat­ed in the back of the book), Isay explains, There were occa­sions when I couldn’t resist putting the place and date right on the page, but most of the time I thought such infor­ma­tion was dis­tract­ing.” I dis­agree; I believe that most read­ers will want to know — on the page — when and where Mey­er deliv­ered these mes­sages. (A bit of this infor­ma­tion is includ­ed in the first-line index’ on pages 167 – 173.) 

Despite these prob­lems, You Are My Wit­ness is pow­er­ful and valu­able. Rab­bi Meyer’s words remain vivid­ly alive (the sub­ti­tle of this book is tru­ly mer­it­ed), and his pas­sion­ate Judaism con­tin­u­al­ly inspires and/​or pro­vokes. I closed this book sad­ly, think­ing how much his strong voice is missed today.

Ira Wolf­man is a writer and edi­tor with a deep inter­est in Jew­ish his­to­ry. He is the author of Jew­ish New York: Notable Neigh­bor­hoods, Mem­o­rable Moments (Uni­verse Books) and the own­er of POE Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, a con­sult­ing firm that spe­cial­izes in edu­ca­tion­al publishing.

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