August 18, 2005
Private Author’s Public ‘Memory’
"Omaha Blues: A Memory Loop" by Joseph Lelyveld (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $22).
As a child, Joseph Lelyveld's parents called him "memory boy." He was the family's institutional memory, paying attention and recalling with ease events and people -- a useful skill for someone who would reach the top of his profession as a journalist.
Lelyveld, the former executive editor of The New York Times who spent almost 40 years at the newspaper, has written an unconventional and compelling book about his family, "Omaha Blues" (Farrar, Straus Giroux). He describes the work as a memory loop rather than a memoir, as he traces a particular circuit of connections, using his reporting skills to research family mysteries and events he seeks to better understand.
"History may be linear but memory, at least mine, isn't; it runs in loops," he writes.
The loop circles his heart. The book delves into personal history, which might seem surprising for someone who has a public reputation as a private man. As he told The Jewish Week in an interview in his Upper West Side home, he began this as a personal exploration, unsure whether he would show it to anyone.
In 1996, when his father was dying, a family friend led him to a trunk filled with family memorabilia stored in the basement of the Cleveland synagogue, where his father served as rabbi. He had the contents shipped to his country home, and it took years before he began sifting through it, but he finally found the seeds of this book. He began writing after he retired from The Times in 2001, some months later showed it to an agent and had a contract by the time he completed what he calls his little encore, his return to The Times in 2003.
Lelyveld is the son of Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld, a prominent Reform leader, and Toby Lelyveld, who was less interested in the role of rabbi's wife than in her own literary studies. His father was kind but largely absent, showing the same warmth to his family as he did to his congregants. His mother preferred independence to family life, and struggled. Their marriage ultimately dissolved. For the memory boy, childhood was neither easy nor happy, as he was often left with grandparents, and once with Seventh-Day Adventists on a Nebraska farm. Early on, he developed a sense of self-sufficiency.
The family lived in Omaha, Neb., where Rabbi Lelyveld led a congregation, before moving to New York, where he took on organizational rabbinic roles, including heading up the national Hillel organization. Although Omaha faded quickly from the author's memory as a real place, it had symbolic meaning as somewhere he was from, rather than Manhattan. He would go on to have a career as a foreign correspondent, living and working in places that were briefly home, but where he didn't altogether belong.
He doesn't have many memories of carefree father/son moments, but this one stands out: The summer he was 16, he and his father were driving on the highway in a new, powder-blue convertible, wearing only sunglasses above their waists, taking in the sun. When they were stopped by a state trooper for speeding, the officer noticed his father's clerical title on his driver's license and let them go, saying something about his being "a man of the cloth," without commenting on how little cloth was visible.
Lelyveld also focuses on a family friend and rabbi named Ben, who gave him the devoted attention he didn't get from his parents. Before working with Rabbi Lelyveld in New York, Ben was driven from his Montgomery, Ala., congregation for his outspoken support of the Scottsboro Boys, and he was eventually fired by Rabbi Lelyveld for his communist affiliations. Through tracking down family members, combing FBI files and other archives, Lelyveld frames Ben's biography, weaving his friend's story into his own.
In an endnote, he tells of how his father, as a Zionist official, would call on the publisher of The Times to advocate for the Zionist cause. He notes the irony that a half-century later "representatives of Jewish groups who wanted to talk about the paper's coverage were usually steered to his son."
In conversation, he mentions a visit by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein: The rabbi asked if he was Arthur Lelyveld's son, and the editor asked the rabbi if he was Joseph Lookstein's son. Lelyveld recalls that the senior Rabbi Lookstein, who served on his father's Hillel Board, was at his bar mitzvah at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue.
But readers won't hear about that bar mitzvah in this book. It's not amnesia but a disinterest in certain coming-of-age details -- usually found in memoirs -- that makes the author selective in reporting.
Lelyveld, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his first book, "Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White" (Viking, 1986), recognizes that memory is neither truth nor history, but a kind of storyteller. He carefully shapes the narrative, in language that's precise and poetic, powerful, too. When he might sound whining, he catches himself, grateful for his gifts: He moved from a downcast family life into a strong and joyful marriage and to an illustrious career.
In person, he's articulate, manages to be both confident and modest, sometimes funny, like the voice of the book. Like his father, he has a firmness of purpose.
Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic for the Jewish Week.