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May 12, 2005 - Image 60

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2005-05-12

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Arts & Life

On The Bookshelf

`Memory Boy'

Joseph Lelyveld is one of five authors slated to speak at the
Metro-Detroit Book and Author Society luncheon.


and Toby Lelyveld, who was less inter-
ested in the role of rabbi's wife than in
her own literary studies. His father was
s a child, Joseph Lelyveld was
kind but largely absent, showing the
called "memory boy" by his
same warmth to his family as he did to
parents. He was the family's
his congregants. His mother preferred
institutional memory, paying attention
independence to family life and snug-
and recalling with ease events and peo-
gled. Their marriage ultimately dis-
ple in their lives — a useful skill for
someone who would reach the top of his
For the memory boy, childhood was
profession as a journalist.
neither easy nor happy, as he was often
Lelyveld, the former executive editor
left with grandparents, and once with
of the New York Times who spent almost
Seventh Day Adventists on a Nebraska
40 years at the newspaper, has written
farm. Early on, he developed a sense of
an unconventional and compelling book self-sufficiency.
about his family, Omaha Blues (Farrar,
The family lived in Omaha, Neb.,
Straus Giroux; $22). He describes the
where Rabbi Lelyveld led a congrega-
work as a memory loop rather than a
tion, before moving to New York, where
memoir as he traces a particular circuit
he took on organizational rabbinic roles,
of connections, using his reporting skills
including heading up the national Hillel
to research family mysteries and events
organization. Although Omaha faded
he seeks to better understand.
quickly from the author's memory as a
The author will be among five to
real place, it had symbolic meaning as
speak Monday, May 16, at Burton
somewhere he was from, rather than
Manor in Livonia, where the occasion is
the 66th luncheon of the Metro-Detroit
He would go on to
Book and Author Society. In addition to
have a career as a for-
Lelyveld, the authors include Beth
eign correspondent,
Gutcheon (Leeway Cottage), Meg
living and working in
Wolitzer ( The Position), Harlan Coben
places that were
(The Innocent) and Charles Hyde (The
briefly home, but
Dodge Brothers).
where he didn't alto-
"History may be linear, but memory
gether belong.
— at least mine — isn't; it runs in
He doesn't have
loops," Lelyveld writes. The loop circles
Joseph Lelyveld many memories of
his heart.
carefree father/son
The book delves into personal history,
moments, but this one stands out: The
which might seem surprising for some-
summer he was 16, he and his father
one who has a public reputation as a pri- were driving on the highway, in a new
vate man. As he said in an interview in.
convertible, wearing only sunglasses
his Upper West Side of Manhattan
above their waists, taking in the sun.
home, he began this as a personal explo-
When they were stopped by a state
ration, unsure whether he would show it trooper for speeding, the officer noticed
to anyone.
his father's clerical title on his driver's
In 1996, when his father was dying, a
license and let them go, saying some-
family friend led him to a trunk filled
thing about his being "a man of the
with family memorabilia, stored in the
cloth," without commenting on how lit-
basement of the Cleveland synagogue
de cloth was visible.
his father served as rabbi. He had the
Lelyveld also focuses on a family
contents shipped to his country home,
friend and rabbi named Ben, who gave
and it took years before he began sifting
him the devoted attention he didn't get
through it, but he did find the seeds of
from his parents.
this book.
In an endnote, he tells of how his
He began writing after he retired from
father, as a Zionist official, would call on
the Times in 2001, after some months
the publisher of the Times to advocate
showed it to an agent and had a contract for the Zionist cause. He notes the irony
by the time he completed "his little
that a half century later "representatives
encore," his return to the Times in 2003. of Jewish groups who wanted to talk
Lelyveld is the son of Rabbi Arthur
about the paper's coverage were usually
Lelyveld, a prominent Reform leader,
steered to his son."

Special to the Jewish News




But readers
won't hear
about his bar
mitzvah in
this book.
It's not
but a dis-
interest in
certain coming-of-age
details — usually found in memoirs
— that makes the author selective in
Lelyveld, who won the Pulitzer Prize
for his first book, Move Your Shadow:
South Africa, Black and White, recognizes
that memory is neither truth nor history,
but a kind of storyteller. He carefully
'shapes the narrative, in language that's
precise and poetic, powerful, too.
When he might sound whining, he
catches himself, grateful for his gifts: He
moved from a downcast family life into
a strong and joyful marriage and to an
illustrious career.
In person, he's articulate, manages to
be both confident and modest, some-
times funny, like the voice of the book.
Like his father, he has a firmness of pur-
pose. Of the senior Lelyveld, he says,
"He was just better built for the public
eye. He wore that fairly easily and well."
As an editor, he sometimes felt his
pastoral side. "I'd joke that perhaps the
earliest decision of my life was not to
become a rabbi, and look what hap-
For much of his life, religion was
"always something my dad did, and I .
did, if I did it at all, mainly to please
him," he writes. Although he has always
felt himself the rabbi's son, it was only in
his Omaha days that he felt watched, as
though he weren't just another kid.
"In New York, religion was a kind of
smorgasbord," he says. "For Sukkot, we
would go to the Spanish and Portuguese
Synagogue. Our favorite cantor was at
Park Avenue. We went more often to
Conservative and Orthodox synagogues
than Reform."
"I've never had any problem feeling
Jewish," he explains. "I did drift away. I
moved away from any participation in
religious observance. I came to have
issues with the whole notion of worship,
and a lot of the prayers, beautiful as they
are — despite the fact that I've heard
them all my life — ceased to ring true to

Basically my
attendance in syna-
gogue as an adult
was largely limited to
where my father was
preaching. Maybe
that's the way it always
was, that religion was
wrapped up in my
father for me; other
temples and other rabbis
just didn't do it for me."
He adds, "I'd like to believe that I
retain some values that might be
described as Jewish values.
He says that he could never have writ-
ten this book while his parents were
alive. "I -don't really feel that I've done
something they would have disapproved
of. I don't believe in channeling, but I
know what my father would have said,
I'm glad he could get it out.'" His
mother's reaction would have been more
Has writing this book changed him?
"How much can a 67-year old man
change?" he laughs, looking much more
youthful than his age. "It has thrown me
off balance as a writer. It makes it hard
to imagine doing a conventional jour-
nalistic book." He adds that he also
doesn't intend to do further memory
His apartment has wide windows,
overlooking the Hudson River. He
points to where his wife's hospital bed
had been, where she read most of the
book, and one of their daughters read
the rest U3 her. Carolyn Lelyveld died
last year. ❑

The Metro-Detroit Book and
Author Society will hold its 66th
luncheon Monday, May 16, at the
Burton Manor, 27777 Schoolcraft,
Livonia. Books go on sale at 11
a.m. Lunch will be served at noon.
Authors begin to speak at 1 p.m.
and will be available to sign books
after the talks. $30. (734) 397-
0999, ext. 154.
Lelyveld also discusses his memoir
2-3:30 p.m. Sunday, May 15, in
Ann Arbor in the Downtown
Library's lower level Multipurpose
Room. Books will be available for
purchase, and a book signing fol-
lows. Seating is limited; arrive early.
(734) 327-4200.

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