When Joseph Lelyveld was six years old it occurred to him that he was less important to his parents than he wanted to be, that they might even think him a nuisance. That summer—it was 1943—he found himself living with a farm family of Seventh-Day Adventists in rural Nebraska. Though he was Jewish and his father a rabbi, he spent Saturday mornings in the basement of a country church taking religious instruction in the Seventh-Day Adventist faith.
His memory of this has the bizarre quality of dreaming: his family is “somewhere else, far away.” He doesn’t know why he is here, or why he must learn “a second religion.” It is not quite a nightmare, but soon he will incorporate the memory and come to think of the summer of 1943 as a formative moment in his life. It came to stand for the moment he “inexplicably became a burden to my parents.”
Time’s passing only heightened his sense of having been abandoned that summer. As he grew older he sometimes pretended to be kidding his parents with light banter about the time they “abandoned” him on the farm. “But, of course, I wasn’t kidding,” he writes. Even after childhood was behind him, he continued to use the word “abandoned” in talking to his parents, “out of lingering grievance or spite.”
All this seems familiar territory: “Ah yes,” we think, “another childhood memoir of insensitive parents leaving children psychically mutilated.” But Lelyveld is not so quickly understood. What we have here is a memoirist who distrusts memory, especially his own. Pondering a cherished old memory—the cruel abandonment of 1943, say—his immediate instinct is to investigate it. This sometimes makes Omaha Blues feel less like a memoir than an investigative report on the cunning game with which Lelyveld’s treacherous memory has been distorting his understanding of his own life.
His investigation of that summer on a Nebraska farm has been extensive. It included visits as an adult to the scene of the memory. There he walked the ground again and interviewed surviving members of the family he had lived with. The report on his findings is reminiscent of Proust’s account of his forgotten childhood world suddenly reappearing, full and intact in his mind, under the magical taste of a small cake dipped in tea.
Returned to the scene of his Nebraska exile, the adult Lelyveld is flooded with happy memories of a farm boy’s summer: milking a cow by hand, the taste of warm bread fresh from the oven, pumping the household water at a rusting windmill, the two-holer outhouse, a pigpen, the beheading of chickens destined for the pot, kerosene lamps at twilight on a landscape still not electrified, a scalding August day of old-fashioned country communalism when crowds of neighbors descend to help with the threshing of the oats and revel in the harvest picnic feast.
Barely launched in a tale of childhood desolation, he realizes that memory has betrayed him. He had not been “lonely, sad, and miserable every minute and hour” of that summer. Far from it. At times “I was actually happy, excited by a sense that ‘Joey’ [as the host family called him] had begun to win a bit of acceptance as someone who belonged on the farm.”
Many writers would have been content to leave the original memory uninvestigated. The facts spoil a powerful story line. Worse, they distort the one terrible, painful truth embedded in Lelyveld’s primitive memory. His parents, as his story proceeds to show, really did want to be rid of him that summer. Memory may have dropped out some of the facts, but it had always clung to the fundamental truth.
Memoir writers commonly treat such vivid childhood memories as treasures not to be handled roughly by the fact checkers. If the typical memoirist is not always as slavish to fact as historians, biographers, and journalists fancy themselves, it is because memoir aims to turn a life into a story, and a storyteller requires a strong narrative line. Memoir, with its insistence on a narrative, is responding to a natural urge to make sense of the incomprehensible. A life faithfully told in prose by the person living it would, after all, seem as dull, pointless, and stultifyingly unreadable as a month’s supply of the Congressional Record. By trying to squeeze such a baffling profusion into a coherent story, however, the memoirist produces something very like fiction, and it is the fictional nature of the form that Lelyveld deliberately shuns.
He is a journalist, unskilled, he insists, in the fictional art. He writes like an investigative reporter assigned to take a good close look into his own life, not failing to check out those old rumors spread around by flibberti-gibbet memory. As a good reporter he is wary of information for which there is only one source. Never mind that the one source is his own memory. He wants two sources, and preferably more.
This makes Omaha Blues a curious diversion from the usual memoir of life with parents who did their worst. Lelyveld’s constant testing of assumptions and memories discloses nothing even slightly appalling in his highly respectable household, but only a sad, rather lonely family in which everyone tried hard to do his and her best and seemed surprised to find that it was often just not good enough. Among the Lelyvelds, confusion, misunderstanding, and too much silence at all levels were the makings of an obviously unhappy family, whose members, if asked, Lelyveld says, would have called themselves a happy family. His book is more like life than memoir.
If the Lelyveld family was an unsuccessful organism, individual members were remarkably successful. The father became a figure of great eminence in Reform Judaism and the Zionist movement. Young Lelyveld was admitted to Harvard, graduated summa cum laude, started working at The New York Times as a copyboy, and worked there throughout his entire journalistic career. He eventually became executive editor of The New York Times, maybe the most prized job in American journalism, but readers will not learn this from Omaha Blues.
With a modesty rare among such grandees, he omits mentioning his many honors and achievements, including his term as the Times’s top man between 1994 and 2001. He stepped down shortly before the mandatory retirement age of sixty-five to make way for Howell Raines, and the book is a product of the retirement years. It is not a celebration of himself, but a search to understand what happened in youth to make him the person he became.
Since retiring, he writes,
I’ve been wandering the land, looking up old acquaintances or their survivors, indulging the urge pathetic old folks baffled by life’s swift passage sometimes feel to find out what actually happened when they were too young or too stunned to take it all in.
The search for the truth behind his memories produces something closer to confession than to memoir. It often feels like a meditation on the morality of family duty. Has he been an undutiful son? Quite possibly. And his father who became such a distinguished and dynamic rabbi—was he as dutiful to his family as he was to Zionism? What of his mother? She was demonstrably derelict, but her record of mental instability is to be weighed in mitigation.
A third of the way into his story Lelyveld introduces Ben, also a rabbi, who at last gave him the attention and warmth his father never provided. It is Ben to whom Lelyveld gives his heart in a long, fascinating digression which goes to the question of filial duty. “Dad” always has his son’s respect, but it is Ben whom the son recalls with unabashed filial love.
In Lelyveld’s boyhood Ben filled a role that his father “was usually too absent or too busy or too preoccupied to fill.” For two years or so, Ben was “the one adult in my life who seemed consistently and reliably available.” If asked, he says,
I would certainly have confirmed that my parents loved me, but I’d never felt as indulged as I did in Ben’s company…. My impression is that I never stopped talking because when I picture Ben he’s generally smiling and nodding, encouraging me to go on.
As he recalls it now, the boy was close to finding a better father. A great part of his book is devoted to worrying and testing that memory.
Though investigations showed that the farm summer of 1943 was a happier experience than memory reported, Lelyveld finds nothing to dispel the old suspicion that his parents had put him there to be rid of a nuisance. This fact shapes his book. As in memory’s dreamlike state when his parents were “somewhere else, far away,” a chilling sense of distance between family members suffuses the book, starting from its opening sentence: “Long before I taught myself to hold them at a safe distance, my parents…”
His parents held their son at a safe distance too. There must have been a stifling feeling of aloneness in that family. Typically, although Lelyveld has two younger brothers, they rarely appear in his book. Even at the end, sitting quietly with his dying father in a hospice room, he is burdened by a sense of old unbridgeable distances:
There was no look of recognition in his eyes, but when I held his hand I felt the comforting pressure of his grip. More for my sake than his, since the words didn’t register, I’d tell him I loved him, but that still left plenty of time for sour-sweet reflection on the paradox of this unfailingly loving father who was almost as consistently beyond reach.
Lelyveld’s mother, née Toby Bookholtz, is worth a book of her own. Ambitious, dreamy, suicidally neurotic, disappointed by marriage as well as motherhood, she is a woman modern feminists might view as a martyred heroine of their struggle for freedom from a patriarchal society. But she too is a resolute keeper of distances. In his researches Lelyveld found it “a little startling” to come upon “evidence in my mom’s own words and hand that she had, in truth, begun to find me unbearable the summer after I turned five.”
It is never quite clear what was happening to the family that summer in Nebraska, but his parents’ marriage was obviously in trouble.
The Lelyvelds were New Yorkers. They had met as students at Columbia, fallen passionately in love, and married very young. They were intellectual, academic, ambitious, driven by an intense desire to achieve. Toby’s interests were literary and theatrical. She was working on a doctorate about theatrical interpretations of Shylock through the years. As a student, Lelyveld’s “dad” apparently never passed a day idly. He was editor of the Spectator, leader of the Glee Club, a member of the wrestling team, organizer of the Columbia Ramblers, a dance band for which he also sang and played banjo, and a superior student who graduated Phi Beta Kappa.
Finishing college in 1933 at the age of twenty, he married Toby that December and went off to Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati to study for the rabbinate with his bride thrilling at the prospect of being a rabbi’s wife and, her son now supposes, determined to be acclaimed by his congregation as the best rabbi’s wife ever.
At the time of young Lelyveld’s farm summer, they had been married ten years; had two sons, Joseph and David; and were settled into a congregation in Omaha. The anticipated glories of being a rabbi’s wife seem to have faded. Toby missed New York and pined for the old academic life at Columbia. As Lelyveld puts it,
The higher degrees on which she set her sights were rumored to be available west of the Hudson and even west of the Missouri, but my dad agreed without hesitation that she should return to Columbia in successive summers to take courses.
She wanted to put distance between herself and her sons, and also between her husband and herself, and the rabbinical life. Lelyveld’s childhood suspicion that he had become a burden was not “childish invention” after all, he writes. His father, absorbed in pursuit of his own career, was obviously hard pressed to keep the marriage from breaking up:
Exiling me to [the farm] as a young pioneer was my city-bred dad’s way of trying to make things right for everyone, for now he was getting his first glimpse of how wrong they could go.
An absence of parents left the son without explanations for what was happening. Toby, as he later learned from her letters, wanted to “rediscover her ‘simple and honest drives’; to ‘do it alone’; ‘to be myself’; living with ‘no plans, no hopes, no desires for the future.’”
His father spent the summer traveling the country on behalf of the Zionist Organization of America. What kept the family separated now was not just his mother’s “impulsiveness,” but “my dad’s commitment, his larger purpose.” Young Joe, bounced around among relatives and grandparents, became “guarded, pensive, and, for a child my age, unusually but not happily self-sufficient.”
He was an adult when the marriage, after thirty years, ended in divorce. His father’s second marriage lasted another thirty years.
Lelyveld’s most extensive investigation takes him into the decade that followed World War II. It was a time when people were sent to prison for refusing to “name names” and blacklisters worked with congressional committees to destroy the reputations and employment possibilities of people on the political left.
It was during these years that Lelyveld encountered Rabbi Ben Lowell, some ten years older than Lelyveld senior and far more at ease with a growing boy. He was the kind of grown-up who could take a kid to Yankee Stadium and enjoy it as loudly as the kid when Johnny Lindell’s game-ending home run gave the Yankees a 5–4 victory over the Boston Red Sox’s twenty-five-game winner, Mel Parnell.
That game was played on October 1, 1949. Lelyveld’s rabbi pal was to die only four years later, but now, though half a century has passed, Lelyveld speaks from the page as to a living friend:
What a game! You’re as much a part of that memory in my mind as DiMaggio. I didn’t know where you’d been and couldn’t then imagine that you’d be leaving. The important thing was that we were there together.
Lelyveld was then twelve, a bit too young to have known that the places where his friend had been were recorded in FBI files, or that Ben’s past travels might be alarmingly troublesome to his father. The two rabbis were associated in the works of B’nai Brith, the organization devoted to improving the condition of Jews, and, in the fashion of the era, the activity was being suspiciously watched by a third rabbi, Benjamin Schultz, who was to become so much admired in red-hunting circles that Senator Joseph McCarthy delivered the main speech at a testimonial dinner in his honor.
The two chapters in which Lelyveld brings Ben to life and walks him through a time of fear, betrayal, and dishonor are remarkable pieces of reporting—the New York Times man at the absolute top of his form—and clearly a labor of love. These chapters make up nearly a third of the book. They are meant not just as homage to a precious friend, but also as “an attempt to round out and perhaps put to rest an early chapter of my own life.”
It is astonishing how much evidence an American of little public significance may leave behind when the government takes an interest in him. Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show Ben in 1943 being watched by the FBI as a possible spy for the Soviet Union. Old Alabama newspapers disclose a young rabbi—then known as Ben Goldstein—alarming his Montgomery congregation in 1933 by speaking publicly in defense of the “Scottsboro Boys.”
As a youth, Lelyveld had loved Ben almost as a father and hadn’t a thought that he might have a complicated past. Now he constructs him, as it were, out of a mass of data laboriously assembled, and what he finds is a genuine old-fashioned political radical in rabbi’s clothing. Born in the Oklahoma Territory and brought up in California, he came out of the West’s nineteenth-century radical tradition. Influenced perhaps by the passions that flowered around the Sacco-Vanzetti case in the 1920s, he seems to have been a fairly representative leftist of the sort that still thrived well into the 1950s. Characteristics of the style were quickness to identify social injustice, courage to cry out against conventional authorities supporting it, much violent expostulation, and ineffectual confusion when trying to unite for action.
In the 1920s Soviet communism, which had just triumphed in Russia, had a romantic allure for many a bold and high-minded radical. Aside from the romantic promise of an altruistic state, the Soviets could act without ineffectual dithering. That it was a dictatorship made things awkward for idealists, but at least it was a dictatorship of the good people—the proletariat—or so its partisans told themselves.
Ben was probably attracted early, and joined the Communist Party, at least briefly, long before the reaction of the 1950s stigmatized and criminalized it. It took a bold and high-minded rabbi indeed to challenge a Jewish congregation in the racist Alabama of 1933 to support a group of black youths accused of raping two white women, though one of the victims confessed that her story was a fiction. Defense lawyers come south to defend the accused already had the white-sheet set fulminating against “New York Jews” assaulting the Alabama way of life. Ben’s Montgomery congregation could not have been thrilled by his wading into the battle on the side of decency.
A “pseudo rabbi,” one member of the congregation called him, “preaching and practicing social equality…he doesn’t fit in our Southern civilization.” Influential members eased him out of his congregation and out of Montgomery, and he landed in New York, where he met Lelyveld senior, then a young Columbia graduate about to head for Cincinnati to study to be a rabbi. “Don’t,” Ben urged him.
When Ben was taking young Lelyveld to Yankee Stadium in the late 1940s, the FBI had been watching him for years. At first they seemed to suspect him of spying for the Soviets, but they gradually seem to have decided that whatever he was up to, Ben was small fry and not worth much attention. Their files contain some arresting history, though.
From 1937 until 1948, when he was between rabbinates, Ben lived in Los Angeles under the name George Stern and held a variety of jobs connected to the movie industry. He was California representative for the Soviet film company Artinko, dealing with distribution. Its parent company, Amtorg, was often used as a cover for Soviet spies. At various times he belonged to the Hollywood and Beverly Hills branches of the Communist Party, and must have had some standing in California’s Soviet social circles. He seems to have been caught in bed with the wife of a Soviet consular official in San Francisco. In 1943 an FBI agent reported him entertaining one Vasily Zarubin, sometimes called Zubilin, at a party in his Los Angeles home. Zarubin, who was then a rising Soviet spy and later became somebody important in the KGB, played the piano and sang a few songs. That year too, Lelyveld found, Zarubin visited California to oversee a network which later penetrated the Manhattan Project.
In this period and well into the time of the Korean War, Ben apparently preached the Stalinist view of the world, even finding justification for Stalin’s 1939 alliance with Hitler. “Reading it now,” Lelyveld writes, “I want to say, ‘Oh, Ben.’ I can only be grateful the archives haven’t yielded my old friend’s rationalization for the Moscow trials.”
The burden of Lelyveld’s story is that his father was faced with a painful test of character because of Ben’s politics. Lelyveld senior had taken on Ben to help run B’nai Brith’s Hillel Foundation. In an age of loyalty oaths and vigilantes on the hunt for Communists, Ben’s political history presented problems. Part of the anti-Communist strategy was to drive people like Ben out of their jobs.
The Zionist movement had its vigilante rabbis as well as its lefties, and as was probably inevitable in that dishonorable time, Lelyveld’s father risked being denounced for having a red on the Hillel payroll. Important Zionists, including David Niles at the Truman White House, were brought into private deliberations about Ben. Niles used his White House influence to get an opinion from J. Edgar Hoover. With admirable discretion Hoover declined to pass judgment, while making it clear that Ben was not to be trusted. Thus Ben’s doom.
It remained for Lelyveld’s dad to let him go on grounds that Ben had not been honest about his past when he was first interviewed for the job. Lelyveld is in a muddle about what to make of his father’s role in all this. In Montgomery in 1933 Ben had done something brave for racial justice and had lost his job because of it. In the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, following the murders of three civil rights workers, Rabbi Lelyveld went south to take part in demonstrations and was savagely kicked, pummeled, and beaten with a tire iron.
If he were writing fiction, his son says, he might be tempted to find connections between this event and Ben’s behavior years before in the Scottsboro case, in order to prove a point or settle accounts. But “my dad wasn’t one to brood on the past,” he writes. “I don’t believe he gave Ben a moment’s thought as he traveled South.”
Lelyveld’s dad had a long and apparently rewarding life. He worked hard in the Zionist campaign to establish a Jewish state in the Middle East and personally lobbied President Truman at the White House to argue for the creation and recognition of Israel. After thirty-eight years as rabbi and rabbi emeritus of an important congregation in Cleveland, he became a public figure of great eminence there. At his death his entry in Who’s Who in America was more than twice as long as that of his son the executive editor.
His funeral was a large event in Cleveland. Seated near the coffin, only half hearing the eulogists’ praise for his father’s accomplishments, Lelyveld was listening to his own thoughts:
Suddenly I imagined a little boy with curly blond hair, a projection from pictures taken when I was three or four, running up a slight slope, through high grass, on a summery day. The little boy was calling, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy…” It was a feeling I’d suppressed practically all my life.
Toby died in a coma at home. The son who had suspected her of abandoning him and knew that she had found him a burden hard to bear kept operatic arias and choral music playing in the room, hoping to “ease whatever was left of her spirit.”
He and his brother Michael threw her ashes in the Bay of Fundy at high tide and made a mess of it, failing to notice that the wind was blowing back onto the ledge where they stood. Amazement and horror were followed by hilarity. “A fair portion of Mom was now in our hair and eyebrows. She clung to our shirts and our skin.”
He is reminded of what her own mother would say when someone she loved had done something badly: “They meant well.”