Omaha Blues: A Memory Loop
by Joseph Lelyveld
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Reviewed by Bob Jacobson

What do you do if you’re nearing age sixty, trying to fill in memory gaps to understand a childhood and youth filled with family instability?  If you’re Joseph Lelyveld, former foreign correspondent and editor for the New York Times, you apply your journalistic skills to your own life.

Lelyveld had the misfortune, in a way, to be born in the late 1930’s, when virtually everyone was expected to marry and married couples were expected to have children, whether suited to parenthood or not.  Arthur and Toby Lelyveld were not, yet they had Joseph and two more sons.  Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld’s first pulpit was in Omaha, Nebraska.  Toby Lelyveld was a scholar of Shakespeare who felt that a full life could only be lived in New York City.  Whether in Omaha or Cleveland, she tried yet chafed under the role of rabbi’s wife.  Thus began a long series of separations, with children shunted off to various relatives.  For one summer, at age five, Joseph was literally farmed out to a large, unrelated family of Seventh Day Adventists in Nebraska.  Later, with his father increasingly involved in far-flung Zionist and Hillel-related activities, a wonderful father surrogate, Ben Lowell, entered the picture.

The author has done a marvelous job of uncovering the missing details, which help him understand the dynamics of a chaotic family history.  He finds a foot locker full of clues in the basement of the Cleveland synagogue where his father was rabbi emeritus.  He interviews numerous relatives, members of the farm family with whom he spent a summer, the daughter of his surrogate father Ben Lowell, and combs through four FBI files on the latter.  Accompanying Lelyveld on this journey is both agonizing and enlightening. 

Lelyveld’s research on his father and surrogate father give provide a window on some of the last century’s most crucial issues.  In 1945 and ’46 Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld crossed the country promoting the Zionist cause.  He then became active in civil rights, first in Cleveland, later during Freedom Summer in Mississippi.  Ben Lowell had been Rabbi Ben Goldstein, ejected from his pulpit in Montgomery, Alabama for early civil rights involvement, later burned by McCarthyism for activities as a Communist sympathizer if not actual Party member. 

Only in his musings on the nature of memory did Lelyveld lose this reader’s interest.  Otherwise, Omaha Blues is a well told, fascinating, at times tortuous memoir.