A Journalist Investigates Memory, Family and Race

Omaha Blues: A Memory Loop, by Joseph Lelyveld. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 226 pages, $22.

In 1964, an Ohio rabbi named Arthur Lelyveld went to Hattiesburg, Miss., and started knocking on doors in black neighborhoods, encouraging people to register to vote. A local white man promptly bashed his head in with a tire iron.

A photograph of the blood-soaked clergyman, a bandage dangling over his mutilated face, flashed around the world as a searing reminder of the color-blind homicidal rage of white supremacy. As James Meredith has pointed out, whites were victims of segregation, too-if they were afraid to act against it, they weren’t free. It was the field-execution murder of civil-rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner a few weeks earlier that inspired Lelyveld to journey to Mississippi, and the rabbi recovered from his wounds to give an eloquent oration at Andrew Goodman’s funeral.

The rabbi’s son Joseph, then a young reporter, went on to become executive editor of The New York Times (1994 to 2001), a Pulitzer Prize winner (for his 1985 book Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White) and now author of Omaha Blues, a spellbinding memoir that explores the collision of memory with reality.

It must be hell for a Timesman to try to write a memoir. There’s not really much fresh material to work with. Jack Kennedy dazzled you at a Cape Cod fish fry in 1960, but the crowd was thick and few words were exchanged. Lyndon Johnson screamed pungent oaths at you on the phone one day over a forgotten Vietnam story, but he did that to a dozen other guys in the Times newsroom, a.k.a. journalism’s Mount Olympus. You yearned to go to Peking in 1972, but Nixon loathed your bosses for publishing the Pentagon Papers and he gleefully bumped all Times staff off the plane except Max Frankel.

You squeeze out a few pages on Scotty Reston’s battles with New York and the baroque psychohistory of the Sulzbergers, stir in some color on your drinking problems and the desperate nightmare that was your first marriage, and, well, what are you left with? The stories behind how you wrote your stories-which aren’t, as a rule, remotely as interesting as the stories themselves.

Mercifully, Joseph Lelyveld wastes little time on Times Byzantiniae, choosing instead to write a compact, episodic, intensely personal saga of family fractures and self-discovery. The springboards for the journey are devices that could be borrowed from a magical-realist or Nicholas Sparks novel: “The Deathbed” and “The Box of Letters”. As the rabbi lay dying in a hospice, Joseph, now in his 60′s, uncovered a collection of letters and personal papers in a trunk his father stashed away in his synagogue basement. They led him on a quest to find witnesses and more documents to try to reconstruct the story of his past, especially his rather desolate childhood.

The idea of conducting a thorough journalistic investigation of your own family is a frightening one. Shake many an American family tree and you’ll unleash flocks of skeletons, Willy Lomans and Flem Snopses, scenes of Dickensian melodrama and Gothic horror. Mr. Lelyveld’s journey provides several startling episodes, among the most poignant when he reads letters in which his mother confesses in real time what she thinks of him as a little boy, over a half-century earlier. Gradually, he found “it was possible to do a reporting job on your childhood, not to the point of total recall of course, but at least to a point where you could begin to see the cunning and willfulness of the selections of your own personal memory console.”

The book focuses on four people: Mr. Lelyveld himself; his parents, ambitious New York intellectuals who met at Columbia University and spent several decades in a mostly doomed attempt at a relationship; and a charismatic family friend named Benjamin Goldstein, also a rabbi, who briefly served as a kind of surrogate uncle or stand-in father for the boy and whose exuberance contrasted with Rabbi Lelyveld’s genial detachment. Popping in for a vivid cameo is a family friend, the legendary New York power rabbi Stephen S. Wise.

In 1931, Ben Goldstein took an appointment at Temple Beth Or in Montgomery, Ala., and he soon began orating for justice for the Scottsboro Boys, black men wrongly convicted of raping two white women on a train. Rule No. 1 for white citizens in this time and place (and many others, of course), especially Jews dangling on the fragile edge of the segregation moral fault line, was keep your mouth shut. Likely minimum penalty: You got run out of town on a rail. Maximum: You got yourself killed.

Goldstein kept right on speaking out over the distressed hushes of his fellow Jews, and predictably he was tossed out of Montgomery. His little crusade has a stark symmetry with Rabbi Lelyveld’s sacrificial mutilation in Hattiesburg 32 years later as an act of pure moral courage. The nobility of both acts seems quixotic in retrospect only because of the infinitesimal number of other whites who dared act so freely. The vast number of Caucasian Americans in the South and the North-including any number of leaders like F.D.R., Eisenhower and J.F.K.-were delighted to stumble through life as de facto segregationist collaborators, rarely if ever lifting a finger to challenge the national theology of white supremacy.

But Mr. Lelyveld’s research reveals that the friendship between the two rabbis was destined for a showdown over another titanic moral debate-the one over Communism. A dispirited Goldstein drifted into, of all things, the business of peddling Soviet propaganda films in Hollywood (now there’s a high concept), and along the way he developed, like so many other brainy lefties of the era, a love jones for Joe Stalin. This triggered the opening of Goldstein’s F.B.I. file and a confrontation with the elder Lelyveld.

Mother and father were mostly absent from Joseph’s childhood, both emotionally and physically. The rabbi traveled the country organizing for Jewish groups, and the mother, Toby, a troubled, ambitious Shakespearean scholar, became so frustrated with her professional ambitions that she abdicated her parental role and bolted back to Columbia University to finish her doctorate and essentially exit the marriage. Young Joseph was shuttled from Omaha, where his father had a congregation, to a Seventh Day Adventist summer camp (also in Nebraska), to the distant, frightening landscape of Brooklyn to stay with his grandparents, eventually landing in P.S. 165 on the Upper West Side. Mr. Lelyveld’s sketches of moments from his childhood are striking and lyrical, conjuring a searing portrait of the alienation and confusion of a boy cast adrift.

Memories are strange creatures-they appear uninvited, grab you by the throat, flood your senses and then shoot away in a microsecond, leaving few traces. Mr. Lelyveld explores some intriguing themes: How much do we really remember? Why do we forget? What would happen if we found documentary records or witnesses who could fill in missing pieces of our imagined family narrative? What hidden catastrophes would fly out?

At the bottom of Pandora’s mythical box of sorrows were small slices of hope, and Mr. Lelyveld’s memory box has some, too: fleeting moments of warmth and connection between his parents, secretly witnessing their stolen kiss on the living-room couch in a small, borrowed penthouse on West 84th Street. “I remember, too,” writes Mr. Lelyveld, “my parents doing the samba at the center of a dance floor at a ridiculously extravagant bar mitzvah reception at the Waldorf. All the other dancers stepped back to gape. They couldn’t get over the idea that a rabbi and his wife could throw themselves into the samba with such supple, unaffected zest.”

Joseph Lelyveld tells his story with a similar kind of energy, and what he gives us is a haunting reflection on memories and why we polish some of them to a sweet golden haze.

William Doyle is author of An American Insurrection: James Meredith and the Battle of Oxford, Mississippi, 1962 (Anchor) and Inside the Oval Office: The White House Tapes from FDR to Clinton (Kodansha).