I want to be what I am, not a symbol of what I am

Rabbi Martin Siegel, 1971
Photo: Dan Wynn

In December of 1968, 35-year-old Martin Siegel began to keep a diary that would continue for ten months and record his every gripe with a job he was struggling to love. For a decade he had been a practising rabbi, and now, serving at Temple Sinai in suburban New York, his frustrations, doubts, and misgivings about the path he had chosen were finally down on paper, offering an unvarnished insight into the world of spiritual leadership. He wrote the following entry in July of 1969, at a point when his beloved wife’s mental health was suffering and, for the good of them both, he pined for a life outside of the public eye.

The Diary Entry

A rabbi is an abstraction, and now, more than ever, I am beginning to feel the awful weight of this abstraction. While I have been able to carry it, I can see that Judith has not. She wants to be human, and people will only allow her to be the wife of an abstraction, an extension of my own unreality.

People tend to make me a symbol. They say they know me, but they don’t. They know only my roles. To some of them, I am a radical. To some of them, I am the signature on the marriage contract. To some of them, I am the man who opposes the indulgences of the psychotic fear of anti-Semitism. People see me only as they care or need to see me.

And poor Judith has to be the wife to all this.

I can’t recognize myself in their eyes, so how could she? We both have to live as exhibits in this community. While people are friendly, we have no friends. We have been made into what they want us to be. Everybody seems to care about us, but yet nobody really does.

It seems that I’m endlessly meeting people—strangers who say, “I’ve heard about you. You stand for racial harmony.” Or: “You stand for progressive religious education.” I have become nothing but a public symbol. I am dissected, examined, interpreted and misunderstood. And Judith? She is prisoner to this reflection. She is allowed no self.

I am dynamic. I am aggressive. I am prophetic. I am concerned. I am lonely.

I want to be what I am, not a symbol of what I am.

I don’t want Judith to have to be the wife of a symbol. She’s worried about having an emotional breakdown, knowing that I am the only one who cares for her. I am her only friend, if I am that.

All day I kept thinking: A simple phone call from somebody, from anybody, inviting us to dinner, to a party, anywhere, even if we couldn’t go, would be better than any medicine a psychiatrist could prescribe.

Further Reading

Amen: The Diary of Rabbi Martin Siegel was published by Maddick Manuscripts in 1971, edited by Mel Ziegler. Admirably honest, often very funny, and sometimes tender, many back then were offended by his lack of restraint. An early excerpt in New York magazine (see here) caused a stir, and when the book itself was published, his synagogue “offered to pay Siegel’s salary for five years if he agreed to leave.” Which he did.

Amusingly, he was then poached by the Columbia Jewish Congregation who loved his diary. He served there for decades. His wife, Judith, died in 2001.


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