Relative Truth

In Omaha Blues: A Memory Loop, he certainly buries the lede, but then, that’s both the intention and the genius of the book, in which he writes, History may be linear but memory, at least mine, isn’t; it runs in loops. This particular arc of memory will inevitably be compared to Katharine Graham’s memoir, Personal History, because it is just as fine and because Lelyveld has left himself just as undefended. Yet this is another kind of book, more jagged than a traditional autobiography, and not particularly chronological. It sets out subtly and concludes with such force that you may feel obliged to begin again and read Omaha Blues the way it was remembered.

Lelyveld, born in 1937, rose from copy boy to foreign correspondent to executive editor of The New York Times and won the Pulitzer Prize for his deeply reported book on South Africa under apartheid, Move Your Shadow. He ran the paper from 1994 to 2001 and then again, briefly, after his successor was forced out only 21 months after he had left. Yet this is an almost Times-less tale and contains not a word about just desserts served in record time. Instead, in retirement, he finds himself looking back, all the way to childhood. Then he assigns himself the scariest imaginable reporting job, that of investigating his own early life.

For years, Lelyveld complains mildly, the media writers who covered him tended to sum him up in two words: rabbi’s son, a phrase apparently opposite in implication to the stereotype of the wild-child preacher’s daughter. He never sought to explain himself further, and it’s not clear that he could have. As he tells it, he never had any firm handle on his own situation as a boy; he did not always know where his family would end up next or whether they would be there together. What seemed true one day might not last the night. And like not a few others in the profession, he seems later to have been attracted to the business of recording reality as a result. As a reporter, it must have been easy for him to find the lie or face even the ugliest fact of life with not so much detachment as relief.

But in this memoir, he goes further, and, with more emotional fearlessness than journalism ever requires, tests the reliability of everything he thought he knew about his early life. 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, he writes. Inevitably, he discovers that some of his strongest memories have been doctored over the years. Others prove all too true. Starting at the age of 5, for instance, he was shuttled off to friends, relatives, and even a Nebraska farm family of Seventh Day Adventists, while his mother, an aspiring Shakespeare scholar, returned to Columbia University to work on her doctorate and mull over whether to stay married to the steadfast rabbi she blamed for derailing her career. This period was, and has remained, a confusing time for their son.

After reading a cache of old letters found in the basement of his father’s former synagogue, Lelyveld no longer has to wonder whether his mother was avoiding him as well as his father in the summer of 1942. In those letters to his father, she repeatedly described him as an annoyance and wrote that she was absolutely dreading the thought of coping with the noise again when mother and child were reunited. Yet, true to himself, and to the newsman’s religious belief in the salutary effect of even the most painful facts, Lelyveld seems unburdened now that he knows: That is how it was, then.

Just as his parents’ marriage is finally breaking up in the summer of 1964, his father heads off to register black voters in Mississippi, a trip which ended in his being beaten by racist obstructers. Some thirty years later, Lelyveld writes, I opened a survey form from the town of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, that had been mailed to newspaper editors across the country. ‘Have you ever heard of Hattiesburg, Mississippi?’ the first question asked. I checked ‘yes.’ ‘If yes, in what context?’ it continued. ‘My father was beaten there with a tire iron in the summer of 1964,’ I wrote.

He also recovers the traces of the mysterious sometime rabbi who befriended him at a time when he so needed attention that even the illusion of steadiness meant the world. This man, Ben Goldstein, had lost his job as rabbi of Temple Beth Or in Montgomery, Ala. after embarrassing the congregation with his passionate defense of the Scottsboro Boys, black men wrongly accused of raping two white women on a train in 1931. Lelyveld quotes a letter written by one of Goldstein’s chief critics at the temple, saying that the rabbi, for all his gifts, just didn’t fit in our Southern civilization. Lelyveld writes: That phrase, ‘our Southern civilization’ has a pitiable eloquence in this context, revealing as it does a hunger to believe that Temple Beth Or should ‘fit in’ and does fit in, even if its leaders haven’t yet achieved the summum bonum of admission to the Montgomery Country Club. It says they’ll always stand with those who exclude them, instead of those far more grievously excluded whom they also exclude.

Years later, Lelyveld’s father ends up firing Goldstein againbreaking his son’s heart in the processafter it comes out that he has concealed communist ties. Following the paper trail on his old friend Ben, Lelyveld writes, I’m half amused to feel my excitement as I lay out my little trove of ancientdocuments. It’s as if the senior citizen I’ve now become is on the verge of cracking some big story. I laughed out loud at this, but was ridiculously thrilled for him, too, and for all that can be known if we decide to know it.

Still, as he says, no life can be shorn of all its self-deceptions. And, even now, Lelyveld seems to feel unduly responsible for his mother’s suicide attempt in the spring of 1960. She had driven across the country from her home in Cleveland to New York, where he was working as a copy boy at the Times. Upon arrival, she checked into a hotel, stood him up for dinner, and swallowed some pills. Lelyveld ties her attempt on her life to a long, preachy letter he’d sent arguing that she ought to relent and allow her mother-in-law to visit for Passover because, as he had pleaded, for Grandma not to be invited for a year and a half, to be perpetually stalled, was to be left isolated, sad, and shamed before her cousins and the friends with whom she played canasta. Lelyveld recalls it as three or four pages of scribbled indignation on lined legal paper. His mother finally relented, but a few days after Lelyveld’s grandmother arrived, skipped town with the result we now had before us.

Lelyveld surmises, As my mom saw and felt it, Grandma’s passivitythe finiteness, the absolute ordinariness of her expectationsstood for all the inertia, all the conventions, all the obstacles that checked her own progress on the path to the more independent life to which she felt entitled. He thought his mother finally had seemed at peace with her life, until my bombshell landed, showing her, I now suppose, that she was still at cross-purposes with her family and herself.

Cross-purposes, mon oeil. Well-loved in his own marriage, he finally had felt safe enough to criticize his mother, and she punished him for it. When he wrote of her reviving in the hospital, smiling the sweetest of smilesOphelia awakes!I personally felt like smacking her. That his own generosity towards her is so thoroughly undeserved is its own kind of happy ending, thoughand proof that the well-lived life can obviate as well as follow years of therapy.

Omaha Blues is a remarkably discreet tell-all, and, absent the dead weight of self-justification, reads like someone’s answered prayer, very much the meditation of the rabbi’s son.

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Melinda Henneberger

Melinda Henneberger is an opinion writer for USA Today and a visiting fellow at the Catholic University of America’s Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.