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.