Eric Meyers, founding director of Duke University’s Jewish Studies and past president of Jewish Heritage North Carolina, has published a memoir, An Accidental Archaeologist: A Personal Memoir. Now Bernice and Morton Lerner Professor Emeritus, Meyers and his wife Carol Meyers, rank among the most celebrated archaeologists of the biblical-era Holy Land. Although it sweeps across history and geography, the memoir is an engaging personal story of two careers and one family. The book is epically divided BC and WC, “Before Carol” and “With Carol.” Their discoveries include the unearthing of the famous Roman mural in Sepphoris, immortalized as the “Mona Lisa of the Galilee,” and the excavation in the Upper Galilee of the oldest known Torah ark. The latter find, coming in 1981 when Raiders of the Lost Ark was packing theaters, resulted in the scholarly academics being costumed like Indiana Jones and Marion for People magazine.
Beyond the antiquarian interest, An Accidental Archaeologist is an engaging blend of the everyday and the historical. Eric Meyers’ memoir recounts his postwar upbringing as an American Jew in suburban Norwich, Connecticut. His parents’ histories—a Meyer married a Meyers– recount the grand dramas of the Jewish people in the twentieth century. His mother descended from Russian-Jewish immigrants who had first settled in Brooklyn while his father left Prussia in 1930s after Hitler’s rise. Eric’s grandfather was managing director of the opera house in Konigsberg—his father recalled sitting on the lap of composer Richard Strauss—and opera permeated the household. His love of singing—Meyers trained professionally as a cantor—would bring him to the concert stage with the luminaries of opera and Jewish liturgical music. Eric’s mentor was his uncle Marshall Meyer, a rabbinic student of the great theologian and civil-rights activist Abraham Joshua Heschel. Rabbi Meyer himself would become celebrated for his brave advocacy of civil rights while serving as a Conservative rabbi in Argentina. The global dislocation of Eric’s father’s family from Germany to America, Palestine, and Switzerland is a tragedy felt personally.
Eric and Carol’s careers in Holy Land archaeology immersed them not only in the ancient, foundational history of the Jewish people but in modern Zionist politics not to mention the global academic rivalries that mark the archaeological field. Where and when to dig involved scientific study, which was often contested, and a constant struggle for financial and institutional support, while Haredim (the ultra-Orthodox) looked hawkeyed at their excavations of burial or holy sites, threatening to shut down years of effort and significant research if, in their medieval worldview, Jewish law was violated. You’ll meet colorful figures, like archaeologist-general Yigdal Yadin and benefactor-exterminator Gary Termite as well as Teddy Kollek and David Ben-Gurion, Martin Buber and Balfour Brickner.
But what will be most relatable to most readers is Eric Meyers’ upraising in suburban postwar America as we follow his personal journey from family dysfunction to happiness. We’ll read of his first date, the first kiss, the bar mitzvah at the suburban synagogue. The overt, omnipresent anti-Semitism that Meyers experienced in high school and as an undergraduate at Dartmouth will put in perspective its resurgence today. At its heart An Accidental Archaeologist is a love story as he recounts his meeting at Wellesley of the undergraduate Carol Lyons from a Hungarian-Jewish family in small-town Pennsylvania. The bubbes and zeydes who put the hecksher on their marriage are endearingly true to type. Their efforts to balance family life and two careers reprise an increasingly common struggle. With two daughters in hand Carol and Eric excavate Galililean synagogue. They find a home at Duke where Eric leads a world-class Jewish studies program while Carol achieves renown for her research and writing on women in the biblical canon especially. Beyond his own papers Eric secures for Duke the Marshall Meyer and Abraham Joshua collections. One chapter recounts Eric’s presidency of Jewish Heritage North Carolina where he was instrumental in creating the Down Home: Jewish Life in North Carolina multimedia project and securing its archive for the Duke Library.
On February 19, 3:00-5:00 PM, the Duke Center for Jewish Studies will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary with Eric Meyers presenting a book launch of An Accidental Archaeologist. The event will be held at the Washington Duke Inn. For information contact Serena Bazemore firstname.lastname@example.org / 919-660-3504.