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OMAHA BLUES by Joseph Lelyveld

OMAHA BLUES

A Memory Loop

By Joseph Lelyveld

Pub Date: April 1st, 2005
ISBN: 0-374-22590-7
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Generous, evenhanded, somewhat mistitled memoir of growing up first in Omaha, then in NYC, with a peripatetic rabbi father and a disappearing mother.

With the death of his father, and nearing the end of his own sixth decade, Pulitzer-winning Lelyveld, the retired New York Times editor (How Race Is Lived in America, 2001, etc.), reflects on the dynamics of his parents’ marriage, which sparked when they were students at Columbia University, took them to Ohio, then Omaha, where his father led a congregation, then back to New York when his glamorous mother grew weary of being the wife of a midwestern Zionist rabbi and deserted her husband and two sons (then a third, by another man) to finish doctoral work in dramatic literature at Columbia. By third grade, Lelyveld had “washed up” at PS 165 on the Upper West Side, an immigrant from Omaha by way of Brooklyn, having recognized that he had “inexplicably become a burden” to his parents. Yet he is never bitter here; rather, he devotes many of his pages to a protégé of his father’s, also a rabbi, Benjamin Goldstein, a.k.a. Ben Lowell, who was the closest adult friend of Lelyveld’s boyhood, and whose shadowy life he learns about many years later, when he receives files from the FBI on a Freedom of Information request. Ben was the buddy who took Lelyveld to Columbia football games because his father, the head of the Hillel Foundation, was too busy traveling; in fact, Ben had an early career as a Communist organizer; led a congregation in Montgomery, Alabama, that subsequently ousted him when he couldn’t restrain his support for the scandalous Scottsboro boys’ cause; worked in agitprop in Hollywood; and, by 1950, got branded a “pinko rabbi” for his defense of pro-Communist front organizations. Lelyveld’s exploration of Ben’s mysterious life allows him to delve into issues dear to his own heart, yet he skirts the abandonment by his mother, whom he cannot summon anger against.

Eccentric and a bit self-indulgent, in mellifluous prose.