I still remember, very clearly, when and where I first met Micah Greenstein, Memphis magazine’s 2013 “Memphian of the Year.” It was a hot summer afternoon in August of 1999, and the place was the Canale Funeral Home on Union Extended, where Greenstein, then an associate rabbi at Temple Israel, was conducting a funeral service.
The deceased was a well-known cotton merchant and great supporter of the arts named Ben Baer, a gentleman who, in his later years, had become something of a mentor to me, teaching me all kinds of wonderful things about fine wines in particular, and even more about life in general.
Not surprisingly, the Baer memorial service was packed; famous for his kindness and generosity, Ben had way more friends than he could possibly count. I knew nothing about this young rabbi whom the family had selected to deliver Ben’s eulogy, but instantly, I was swept away by his sincerity and erudition.
“Erudite” wasn’t the half of it. Rabbi Greenstein talked about the man as if he’d known him all his life. He spoke of his professional and philanthropic contributions to this community, of his wife Eleanor, the light of his life, and about his family and his faith. I remember Micah’s eulogy as being neither too long nor too short, but rather, like Goldilocks’ porridge, just right.
And I remember the rapt silence that fell over the crowd of several hundred at Canale while he was speaking. Wow, I recall telling myself, this is the Ben I remember, only writ so much larger. The rabbi put everything in perspective, with such clarity, with such understanding, with such joy.
So of course, I sought him out in the milling-about-afterwards. “Rabbi Greenstein,” I said, while introducing myself, “What a wonderful tribute. You captured the essence of Ben’s life so perfectly. You must have known him very well.” Micah looked at me a bit sheepishly. “Thanks so much,” he replied, “but actually, I never met the man. His family, though, gave me such a great opportunity yesterday to learn all about him. What a blessing that was!”
If the measure of a man is the positive energy which he generates and redistributes within his community, then Micah Greenstein has to be the Memphis equivalent of the Energizer Bunny. Few if anyone in this city have done so much to “bring us all together,” as the tired cliché says. As he tells Marilyn Sadler in her profile of the rabbi in this month’s issue (p. 42), “Remember in the Bible where God tells Abraham, ‘Go to a land that I will show you’? A lot of us think that land is Israel.
But it doesn’t say that. Maybe what God is saying is, ‘You and I will create a land together, one that I will show you based on our mutual work.’ Maybe that land is Memphis.”
When our staff first determined, several months ago, that we would conclude this calendar year by choosing our first-ever “Memphian of the Year,” we found ourselves with dozens of worthy candidates to consider. With this award, we aren’t looking to honor specific achievement in a specific year, but rather to single out annually individuals whose work over time has made a real difference in our community.
Maybe that’s why our staff’s selection of our inaugural honoree seemed like such a no-brainer. In a city where religious leaders (such as the late Benjamin Hooks, shown) have long played critical roles in shaping our values, our sensibilities, and our progress, Micah Greenstein has taken that role to a whole new level. Ours is a better place on account of his faith, his generosity of spirit, and his passion for Memphis.