Omaha Blues

A Memory Loop

Joseph Lelyveld

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Omaha Blues
Long before I taught myself to hold them at a safe distance, my parents called me “the memory boy.” If once I knew what they meant by that, the memory boy has long since forgotten, shedding memories and the stories behind pet phrases as so much extra baggage. The tag may have had something to do with my inability to forget the lyric of any song I heard as a child. But what I think it really described was a knack for recalling names and the order in which things happened : where we went on those rare occasions we went anywhere as a family, who we saw, who came to see us, what they said, and our verdicts later on, for as a family we were judgmental to a very considerable fault.
Shedding was an acquired skill, a way of getting on with life, which was what you had to do, I later told myself, once you closed your mind to the possibilities of therapy. “Getting on with life” became a slogan of my inner monologues; a catchword or, as I’d now say, admitting to wordplay, a catch cry. Even then, the knack for recalling names and the order of things survived, so long as they had little to do with me. It came in handy on college exams. It came in handy telling the stories of others, which is what I eventually did for a living. I could recall obscure facts, make intuitive connections, ask the right questions. And I could always move on to the next assignment, the next story, as journalists do. Moving on became my particular way of getting on with life, and even if I now acknowledge it as a form of psychic flight, it seemed a liberating, sometimes thrilling, way to live.
So I wasn’t touched or curious or anyway receptive when, three decades after my parents’ divorce, my octogenarian father sent me a packet of love letters between him and my mother that he’d hidden away. He thought his posterity might be interested in preserving them. Not me, his eldest son. I knew instantly that I didn’t want to handle them or own them, let alone read them. So I disposed of them and then, characteristically, disposed of the memory of how I’d disposed of them. Maybe I gave them to my mother; it might have seemed the honorable thing to do. I mention this close brush with family history now only to describe a reflex and to show how unlike me it was, several years later, to go scavenging in the basement of a Cleveland synagogue while my dad, its emeritus rabbi of great eminence, lay helpless in a nearby hospice, his speech and understanding already extinguished by a brain tumor, leaving only his sweetness to mark him as the man we knew while he faded out.
The foray in the basement wasn’t my idea. I’d been sitting quietly with my dad in his hospice room on a Saturday morning; as quietly as you could given the TV din pouring from the surrounding rooms, a universal anodyne for the dying even more than the living in our land. There was no look of recognition in his eyes, but when I held his hand I felt the comforting pressure of his grip. More for my sake than his, since the words didn’t register, I’d tell him I loved him, but that still left plenty of time for sour-sweet reflection on the paradox of this unfailingly loving father who was almost as consistently beyond reach. In the thirty-one years of his second marriage, which had now lasted slightly longer than the one that produced me and my two brothers, I’d found myself alone with him, talking directly, on only a few occasions at best (in truth, only one I could now clearly recall) before he started to die and I began making my visits to the hospice room.
Geography was partly to blame—for many of these years we were thousands of miles apart—but there was also the inevitable balancing he had to do between his two families. Understandably, he was protective of his wife, a vivacious but easily offended person, so conversation that tended to exclude her, especially conversation that dwelled on memories she didn’t share, had to be avoided. Our meetings became performances; if they came off reasonably well, without hurt feelings, as they almost always did, I could expect a good review. But then in the previous twenty-seven years, the years since my birth, he had often been unavailable for reasons that were not dissimilar: my mother, a more complicated person than my dad, sometimes needed to be protected from her children.
Sitting in his hospice room near the end of my sixth decade and his life, I could pretty much count the number of times we had gone somewhere or done something together in the years of my boyhood: three camping trips, one doubleheader at Yankee Stadium, a few Columbia football games, seven or eight sets of tennis (until, finally, I managed not to blow a lead); a single family vacation on the Gulf Coast of Florida; the annual drives to deposit us at summer camp in Maine (and then to haul us back); a few times when I tagged along on his out-of-town speaking engagements; irregular visits to Shabbat services at a half dozen synagogues in Manhattan in the years he had no congregation of his own; and a test for a junior driving license that I had already failed by the time Dad, from the backseat, gently noted that I still had the parking brake on. “You’ve just gone through your third stop sign,” I recall him saying, “so I don’t think it will hurt your chances if I ask you to release it.”
Reaching back to that spring, when I was sixteen, I could also count a more cherished car memory. My dad and I were returning from Boston in the new powder blue Mercury convertible he’d gone all the way to Nebraska a few weeks earlier to purchase at dealer’s cost; the top was down, and in keeping with the then universal belief that nothing could be more healthful than full, direct sunshine, we were wearing only sunglasses above our waists. The way I now fondly recall it, we were two characters in a buddy film zipping along at close to eighty miles an hour until Dad was pulled over by a Connecticut state trooper who, scanning his license, spotted the clerical title. There wasn’t a hint of irony in the trooper’s voice when he said, “I see you’re a man of the cloth.” Cloth was scarcely in evidence but we were sent on our way with a caution and no ticket, only to repeat the encounter ten minutes later with a second trooper who also let us go after remarking, with the same sacerdotal figure of speech, that my dad was “a man of the cloth.” Thereafter, every time we told the story, we’d wonder whether the two troopers ever had a chance to compare notes back at the barracks. In my mind, that drive down from Boston remained a farcical high point of our relationship.
Later, when I was gone from the nest and in the first year of my own marriage, there had been the fearful hours we passed together in a hospital corridor, from past midnight to dawn, waiting to see whether my mother might recover from what I learned, only then, was her third suicide attempt. Wearily and quietly, Dad spoke of his touch-and-go struggle over the seventeen years since the first one to sustain my mother and their marriage, wondering now whether the effort had been misguided. In despair, as she hovered between life and death down the hall, he even wondered whether we had the right to try to reverse the choice she’d made only a few hours before.
Taken altogether, is that a lot of closeness or a little? I have a friend who has no direct memory of a father killed in World War II. He might consider it a lot. At the moment, I was struck by how much more it might have been, by the opportunities I’d let slide. I wasn’t consciously drawing up a balance sheet on our joint venture as father and son, but it was hard not to be aware that the hours I was now passing in the hospice room with what remained of him gave me an unusual dose—too late, of course—of a closeness I’d long missed without fully realizing it. This was family history too, and it was only now, as I was beginning to let down my defenses, that a visitor to his room that Saturday asked whether I knew about the camp trunk in the temple’s basement full of his first family‘s—my family’s—effects; a much larger archive, it turned out, than the one I’d earlier spurned.
The visitor, a devoted friend of my dad’s, led the way. He had been on the synagogue’s staff and still had a key that we used to enter through the back. It wasn’t exactly a heist, but we carried it off as a clandestine operation. A small Saturday morning congregation was praying in a chapel near the main sanctuary as we made our way quietly to the basement. Never having lived in Cleveland, I’d probably been in the building where my dad had held forth for three decades fewer than twenty times, which was most of the times I’d been in synagogues in my adult life, and I hadn’t set foot there for several years. For me, religion was always something my dad did, and I did, if I did it at all, mainly to please him. I was usually moved when I had the opportunity to hear and watch him, but mine was a filial rather than a religious response. I basked in the warmth of his devotions, not my own. Without him, the experience of communal prayer, the only kind I practiced, was at best a matter of heritage, vaguely soothing in its way; at worst a matter of creepy sociology, leaving me with a sense of myself as standing outside the circle, a mere observer—a feeling that carried an annoying trace of guilt over my inability to find compelling meaning in words I’d heard since I’d first heard words. I had never gone to services on my own impulse, and needless to say, I was not on a religious errand now.
I recognized the labels on the battered old trunk, which sat on a shelf at about the height of my shoulders. I had to stand on tiptoe to peer inside. On top was a framed watercolor, a quiet Jerusalem landscape, signed by the artist “To Toby and Arthur,” that had hung in our living room long ago. With the dissolution of that union, it had lost its place on Dad’s wall. I swiftly appropriated it and then dug deeper through mounds of clippings, report cards, speech notes, typed correspondence, and family mail—letters from three boys in summer camp over many years and letters between our parents, scores of them, in periods in which they were apart before long-distance phoning became easy and affordable. The encounter with the archive, the detritus of a family, wasn’t at that moment Proustian. It was suffocating. I closed the lid sharply, meaning to stick the genie of reminiscence and helpless disappointment back in its box, and returned to my station at my dad’s bedside. Nevertheless, after he died several weeks later, I arranged to have the contents of the old trunk shipped to my Hudson Valley house, where, after a rough sorting, I left them to molder for another six years.
I got back to them by a roundabout route. Having run to the edge of a mandatory retirement age for bosses at the only newspaper at which I’d ever worked, I found myself with only myself to order around. The first assignment I gave myself as a reborn writer was one I’d talked idly about all my adult life. It was to write about Ben, the closest adult friend of my boyhood, to delve into the life story of an all but forgotten man and find a way to tell it; to make myself, in that sense, his biographer. Ben had been born in what was called Indian Territory before it became part of the new state of Oklahoma. He talked about the great Oklahoma land rush as if he’d been part of it, although it was already history when he came into the world, and about Choctaws and Cherokees as if he’d grown up with them. He never explained how he became a rabbi but was happy to talk about how he gave it up, how he was run out of his first pulpit in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to take a vow of silence in the case of the Scottsboro boys, nine black youths charged with the rapes of two white women, a case that repeatedly went to trial in the thirties and was not finally resolved till the last “boys” in Alabama’s prisons were approaching middle age; by that time it had long faded as the sensational issue that Communists and others had made it in northern cities and around the globe. In my imagination, incited by a scrapbook of clippings Ben kept in the lower right-hand drawer of his desk at the office overlooking Times Square, crosses were burning on Montgomery lawns as he fled, casting lurid shadows.
I knew that Ben had later found his way to Hollywood, where he made a new life, and that somewhere in that passage he left his family, acquired a new wife and a new name too. He had been Benjamin Goldstein. He became Ben Lowell. I knew that he had at least one daughter by his first wife and that she now rode horses somewhere in Pennsylvania. I knew that he hadn’t seen her as often as he wanted, and that his inexplicable readiness to spend afternoons and evenings accompanying an eleven- (later twelve-) year-old sports fanatic to ballgames might have something to do with this gap in his life and the likelihood—alluded to slyly by my mom and gradually made apparent by the fact that we saw a lot of Ben and little of Mrs. Lowell—that his second marriage hadn’t been going too well either.
I didn’t know why he decided to leave Hollywood and become a rabbi again, working for my dad in the national headquarters of the Hillel Foundations, a movement that maintained centers for Jewish students on college campuses. And I didn’t tell myself then what now seems obvious, that he had begun to assume a role in my life that my dad, who was often on the road like his traveling salesman father before him, was usually too absent or too busy or too preoccupied to fill. For a couple of years, Ben was the one adult in my life who seemed consistently and reliably available. We started going to games in the fall of 1948, a year the Yankees finished third behind the Indians and the Red Sox. We must have gone to several baseball and football games over a few months because I remember feeling virtuous when, as a concession and a break from our custom, I agreed that my brother David, then only seven, could accompany us that same autumn to a Columbia-Syracuse football game at Baker’s Field at the northern end of Manhattan Island.
It was the last game of the season and the seniors who had ended a previously indomitable Army’s thirty-two-game winning streak the year before would not be returning. For decades to come, Columbia football would be a joke, but that year few human activities mattered more to me. Ben, who never pretended to be a fan, would listen with good-humored patience while I provided a precociously detailed briefing on Gene Rossides and Lou Kusserow, the Columbia stars whose dorm rooms I’d been dropping in on every so often for about a year on my way home from school.
Becoming a juvenile groupie of Columbia varsity teams had been, I now suppose, a desperate attempt on my part to nail down an identity and context for myself after a series of uprootings including a whole year when my parents were separated and I lived with grandparents. Columbia was consecrated ground in the family photograph albums I had pored over. It was the scene of my father’s undergraduate triumphs, on which my mother would sometimes dwell with markedly more enthusiasm than she had come to show for his achievements as a rabbi. He had become the first Jewish editor of the Columbia Spectator after the expulsion of an editor who had crusaded against the overemphasis on sports in an era in which Columbia actually made it to the Rose Bowl (look it up). My dad continued the crusade, unable to imagine that his young son would become a small barnacle on the sports establishment he was assailing. And that wasn’t all; as an undergraduate, he also found time to make the freshman wrestling team; to play soccer, not then a varsity sport; to be the leader of the Glee Club, take small parts in plays, earn the Phi Beta Kappa key he always wore on his old-fashioned watch chain, and lead a dance band he called the Columbia Ramblers, featuring himself on a four-string banjo and vocals. Columbia was also where my parents met and fell in love and where my glamorous mother was now striving for a doctorate with a thesis on how the character of Shylock had been interpreted by great and lesser Shakespearean actors from the Elizabethans down through Edwin Booth and Henry Irving to John Gielgud.
Columbia’s campus was only a couple of blocks from where we had finally settled after years in the heartland of America: first in Ohio, where my dad had studied to be a rabbi and had his first congregation, then in Nebraska. When I gained free admission to all home basketball games by walking in at the age of ten as a kind of mascot with the pint-sized playmaker Sherry Marshall, the bulky, high-scoring center Walt Budko, and the other players, I felt it was something like a hereditary right.
My school, by contrast, was foreign territory. P.S. 165 on the Upper West Side of Manhattan was my fourth school in four years when I washed up there in third grade as an immigrant from Omaha by way of Brooklyn. Some of my classmates were Spanish-speaking and ate spicy food in contrast to Velveeta, Bird’s Eye frozen peas (served frozen), Del Monte fruit cup, and the pink custard known as Junket, gustatory high points in the bland regimen on which my family subsisted. Others were refugees from Europe, also learning a new language. In Omaha I’d been unusual because I was the only Jew in public school classes where we sang “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam” and “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know.” (“We’re so pleased to have Joseph,” my kindergarten teacher told my dad on parents’ day. “We’ve always had one.”) On West 108th Street I was unusual because I seemed relatively well off by the school’s humble standards, living as I did on Riverside Drive, and even a little exotic because of my claim of having hailed from the heartland. At least a half dozen kids in my class came from the Caribbean. No one else, I could be sure, had been anywhere near Nebraska. Inevitably, Omaha faded fast as a real place in my memory, but I clung to it for years for purposes of self-definition. Emptied of all other content, the word “Omaha” came to have a private meaning for me. It meant I’m not really from this place, Manhattan.
Columbia was also about self-definition. But even if I’m right in thinking now that going to Baker’s Field was a way of connecting to my dad’s undergraduate legacy on my own terms, on the rare occasions I managed to nag my dad into taking me there I actually found it less satisfying than going with Ben. Dad, a crusader no longer, sang “Roar, Lion Roar” more loudly, it seemed to me, than any other alumnus in the old wooden stands, drowning out and finally silencing my quavering soprano. In his company, I got to participate in his nostalgia. In Ben’s, I took the lead. I knew I had little to tell Dad about Columbia, that he wasn’t really interested in my hard-won knowledge of the career and ambitions of the quarterback. If the question had been put, I would certainly have confirmed that my parents loved me, but I’d never felt as indulged as I did in Ben’s company. He would actually react when I told him that Rossides was the one athlete who was always studying when I barged into his room, that he wanted to go to law school rather than the pros like the legendary Sid Luckman, who’d gone on from Columbia to quarterback the Chicago Bears. My impression is that I never stopped talking because when I picture Ben he’s generally smiling and nodding, encouraging me to go on.
He was forty-six that fall, eleven years older than my dad and, at about five foot ten, several inches taller, a husky, broad-shouldered man with crinkly good looks and expressive blue eyes that didn’t look away. He also had a small scar on his upper lip. That’s not something I could have told you before I got four big files from the FBI on a Freedom of Information request, once I started gathering material a few years ago on my old friend, a half century after he suddenly disappeared from my life. He was removed by my dad, who fired him for speeches that followed the Communist line; or, to split hairs I loyally learned to split in the middle of my fourteenth year, Dad didn’t fire him but rather accepted Ben’s resignation, which was demanded, I was told and easily persuaded, not because he publicly associated himself with the view that the United States was the aggressor in Korea but because he’d earlier been untruthful about his involvement in the Communist Party. Yes, witch-hunters belonging to an outfit called the American Jewish League Against Communism had been screaming for his scalp. But no, Dad’s organization had not succumbed to them. It had reacted to a betrayal at the personal level, a betrayal by Ben.
Now I think I can actually remember that little scar on Ben’s lip. If so, it’s obviously what psychologists call “cued recall,” a term I recently picked up from David Zipser, a classmate of mine in that autumn of 1950 and earlier who is now a neuroscientist making computer models of the way the neurons in our brains fire each other up in efforts of human consciousness such as the attempt to make sense of the memories that give form to our lives. You see, 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. How I got to David, who now lives in La Jolla, California, takes some explaining, as does the serpentine course of these pages. History may be linear but memory, at least mine, isn’t; it runs in loops.
Ben’s FBI file was full of leads, old addresses and names, that enabled me to start gathering material on the different chapters of his life, and for a while, in between conventional journalistic assignments, I happily passed my time contacting archivists and libraries, following those leads. I knew he had become involved with a small Communist-front organization called the League of Struggle for Negro Rights after his precipitous departure from Alabama in 1933, so I spent several afternoons at the Schomburg Center in Harlem reading the files of the Harlem Liberator, a short-lived weekly published by the league, and there, sure enough, I came upon an account by a former Montgomery matron of her visit with Ben to Tallapoosa County in the aftermath of a shoot-out that was portrayed in the Montgomery Advertiser (stridently) as well as the Daily Worker (triumphantly) as a Communist-inspired agrarian uprising. I knew that his first wife had a family tie to Stephen S. Wise, a formidable New York rabbi in the first half of the century who identified himself powerfully with movements of civic and social reform as well as the Zionist cause, so I read all the letters from, to, and about Ben in the Wise papers at the American Jewish Historical Society near Union Square. In an index to the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee over fifteen years that I came upon in the Library of Congress, I discovered that Ben’s name first popped up in 1939 because of his involvement with another Communist front of the thirties, the American League Against War and Fascism (which was rechristened the American League for Peace and Democracy the day after the Nazi-Soviet pact was signed in 1939). At the film department of the Museum of Modern Art I read the unpublished memoir of a documentary film pioneer named Tom Brandon, who had traveled south to make a film on Scottsboro that never got finished and who then gave Ben his first job as a film distributor. In the basement of the Los Angeles County Court, I found the papers on Ben’s name change. At the Alabama Archives in Montgomery, I found, I’m reasonably sure, most of the clippings that were in Ben’s old scrapbook. On the same trip I read through old board minutes of Temple Beth Or, which when pieced together with correspondence and records I received from the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati told the story of his ouster.
In Montgomery I also met elderly gentlemen in the Jewish community who could recall having heard Rabbi Goldstein preach or had sat in his confirmation classes and now after seventy years could still remember their fathers railing against him as an arrogant outsider with no appreciation of the social balance in the old racial order or the vulnerability of Alabama Jews. These were not emotions recalled in tranquillity; the mention of his name was enough to stir them. We’re a presence in this world, it seems, until the last living child of all the people we have loved or angered has expired. Surprising as it had been to discover that an obscure figure, dead for half a century, could have left such a clear paper trail, it was a revelation to discover how unburied or close to the surface such feelings could be.
I was starting my little research project decades late. Ben’s two wives long survived him, as did most of his seven siblings, but when I might have had the chance to find them, I’d no idea where to look or even what their names might be. Now, of course, they were all gone. But finding people was no longer a problem. No one can hide from the omniscient sweep of the Internet without adopting an alias and always paying cash. It took me three phone calls and a couple of e-mail messages to locate Ben’s surviving daughter, Josephine Rogers, in Knoxville, where I visited her twice. I found a stepdaughter in Newton, Massachusetts, but after reminiscing fondly on the phone about the man who had married her mother she changed her mind and, furiously denouncing him in our next conversation, broke off further communication. I found two nieces in California who provided a historical sketch of the family and Ben’s childhood on a farm at the edge of Sacramento where his family had moved from Oklahoma, it turned out, when he was only six years old.
Each call and stop suggested new byways for research, new books to accumulate and read, new characters with whom Ben might have come in contact, new fantasies to spin. I realized I was in danger of drowning in my research when I found myself wondering whether Ben might have consulted Scott or Zelda Fitzgerald, just returned to Montgomery from Switzerland, about a trip to Europe he was planning in 1931. (It was hardly likely but not impossible. The antiquarian sleuth I was fast becoming had discovered a society hostess who entertained the Fitzgeralds and also became close to Ben.) By then I was finally ready to confront the fact that I wasn’t looking only for Ben, or even mainly for Ben. This had really been apparent from the start, but I’d put aside the question of where all this excavation was leading. Clearly I was also looking for clues to my sometimes puzzling self; my own history, my own character. Not in any sense, let me hasten to say, was I questing after the beatitude of “self-realization” and “self-discovery” promised in ashrams and such: I was too far gone and skeptical for that. I was looking for what Michael Holroyd, expressing what I take to be a kindred ambition, called “a lost narrative and sense of continuity” in a memoir I admire, Basil Street Blues.
Holroyd’s title was a tip of the cap to W. C. Handy. I tip my cap to him. The biographer of Shaw and Lytton Strachey, he appointed himself the biographer of his parents and family in order to write what he called “a vicarious autobiography” that would fill in some of the blanks of his early life. I may share his need but lack his discipline. I’m a reporter, not a biographer. I can only go at things episodically, telling stories but not the whole story. I doubt that I’m temperamentally capable of being a biographer of my family and I’ve no inclination to try. I could happily interview survivors of Ben’s confirmation classes in Montgomery, the sons of his trustees there, but I wasn’t in the least tempted to unravel squabbles my dad had with censorious and (taking his corner, I venture to say) small-minded trustees of his Cleveland congregation who made him an icon after he died. With the passage of half a century, Ben’s “lost narrative” was a reporting assignment I could easily give myself. But I could only write about my dad as part of a narrative of my own. I would not live long enough to be able to view him as other than my dad. That’s to say, I’d never learn to view him from a distance in the broader scheme of his busy life.
Still, with Holroyd as an example, I wondered whether there might not be ways for me to fall back on my trade and report out some obscure moments from earlier days that have lingered as pivotal in my tattered and fallible and possibly treacherous memory. The reporter’s impulse is to inquire about things that are not known or understood. Mine here has been to explore things I half understood or never grasped at all while they were happening in my boyhood, as opposed to things that happened later on which I presume to know well or, sometimes, all too well. Mainly, after detouring around the subject for most of my years, I’m now talking about knots in relation to my parents that never got untied—“hot spots,” to lift a term used by radiologists who do cancer scans, of my emotional history.
Which is not to say, I hope, that it’s the story of a malignancy. I think of this as a memory loop, rather than a memoir; a particular circuit of memories that I feel driven to retrace and connect, where possible, to something like an objective record or the memories of someone else, in hopes of glimpsing what was once real. I say they form a loop simply because that’s the capricious way they unravel in my mind.
Strange as it may seem, we clung to the notion that we were a happy and loving family and would not have said with Tolstoy that we were unhappy in our own way. My parents were used to performing in public. In private they also had their showstopping moments, but they had to be coaxed to perform for their sons. It was heaven when we could get my dad to launch himself into one of his renditions of “Mr. Monte Cristo,” an old music hall ballad about the stranded fugitive and his vain boast, “The world is mine,” on which the song heaps scorn:

Just a barren island, he thought was divine.
Just a lot of water, just a lot of sand,
Mr. Monte Cristo, how on earth could that be grand?

There was never any danger that my dad wouldn’t ham it up and bring down the house when he got to the last stanza:

You had no wild, wild ladies
Raising Hades.
You had no liquor there.
You had no banjo playing, serenading,
Just some sunshine and air.
You had no women, wine or even song
But still you poor old chump, you went along,
Though you were sighin’, cryin’,
You know that you were lyin’,
When you said, “The World is Mine.”

My mom’s star turn came at the Passover seder, when Judaism finds its most noble expression not in a house of worship under the tutelage of some rabbi but in an intimate service conducted at home, by and for the family. Since our family included a rabbi who was anything but dutiful about the proceedings, we got it all, the warmth along with the theatrical panache of a pro. The seder, of course, renders the story of the flight from Egypt in the form of a ritual leading to a feast. In our household of long ago, it was always as beautifully laid out as it was performed. We used a liberal Haggadah that censored, on principle, the maledictions and plagues, including the slaying of the Egyptian firstborn, so I was shocked when as an adult in late middle age I first heard the traditional prayer that begins, “Pour out thy wrath upon the nations …” My mom’s moment followed the meal with the recital of a roundelay of a dozen verses that goes by the numbers, a kind of Partridge in a Passover Tree. “Who knows the meaning of number one?” the leader asks, evoking the prescribed response: “One stands for the Lord our God alone.” Each verse then adds another line to the one that came before as the leader asks the meaning of two, three, four, and so on up through twelve (thirteen in other Haggadahs). My dad would start by chanting a few verses in Hebrew, then, taking turns, we’d read in English. That’s when it became a game, a competitive exercise in breath control. The challenge was to read your verse in a single breath. As the verses got longer, the participants read as fast as they could but still mostly ran out of air and voice, gulping for a fresh mouthful before the finish line, as vanquished as a porgy in the bottom of a skiff. Not my mom, who waited for the last and therefore longest verse.
“Who knows the meaning of number twelve?” was her cue, a signal for everyone to look her way. Her training for the stage now paid off. She never raced, beginning at an even conversational pace, with plenty of expression, “Twelve tribes from Egypt did God redeem; / Their redemption is this festival’s theme. / Eleven the stars of Joseph’s dream …” and so on without strain as she made her way down the count to a reprise of the first answer about the Lord our God alone. When she was done, it always seemed she could have easily gone on for a few more lines without any more oxygen than she still had stored in her lungs. Every Passover, she made it look easy.
I remember, too, 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. I was sent to Arthur Murray’s to gain that indispensable sense of release and the confidence that came with it. Someone, Arthur Murray or me, failed dismally. I admired my parents unreservedly in those days, a feeling that was easily translated into a sense that I failed to measure up, never more so than on the dance floor. Now, long after that family fragmented into separate bundles of mixed memories, tender and repressed, I’m moved to recapture a little of those times—and my long-buried feelings about them—if only to avoid having to dwell on these stories of my youth in my dotage as my avid and obsessive mother, in flight from her perpetual sense of being at fault, daily and sometimes hourly harped on hers in her last years.
It was not obvious how you went about reporting on your long-gone childhood, even if all you wanted was a slice. What was obvious, as soon as I indulged myself in the attempt, was that my surest, clearest memories had long since been heavily edited and now had to be revised. Of these, the one that probably had the strongest grip on me, the key to all my memories of Ben, concerned a clash that occurred, the way I always remembered it, a week or two after he was fired by my dad, at the bar mitzvah of a classmate of mine named Bobby Schoenfeld. Having conferred manhood on Bobby, the rabbi, a leonine figure named Louis Newman who was privately written off in our family as a windbag, yanked his homily around to the menace of McCarthyism and then, looking straight at my father, who had accompanied me to the service, mournfully bemoaned the spread of the disease to what he called “our own beloved B’nai Brith Hillel Foundations.” Normally Dad was exceptionally slow to anger. But now he flushed and leaned forward suddenly, gripping the pew in front of us with both hands. Up to then, I’d never heard anyone speak of knuckles turning white, but when I eventually did I thought of that moment. Never had I seen him so furious. Later he said he had been about to rise and reply, availing himself of what he called his “Talmudic right,” when he checked himself with the realization that he’d be spoiling Bobby Schoenfeld’s big day. When the service ended, he rushed up to Newman and wagged a finger in his face, telling him that his charges were as reckless as McCarthy’s. Loyally and proudly, I sided with my dad.
That film still runs in my mind, but now I realize it’s an adaptation. Ever the reporter, I traced Bobby Schoenfeld on the Internet and sent him an e-mail. Soon we were on the phone together, only fifty-one years after we’d last talked. He was now living in Lockport, New York, retired as an engineer from Eastman Kodak. I asked him what he remembered of his bar mitzvah. He remembered that he had to memorize his whole portion because he couldn’t read Hebrew and that in the last weeks of preparation the portion suddenly doubled in length because another kid who was supposed to share it dropped out. I asked him if he remembered the date. He said it had to be October. No, I said, knowing that Ben had been ousted in December, it had to be December or January. Then I asked Temple Rodeph Sholom, situated a few blocks from where I now live, whether I could check its old bulletins. The old bulletins were being rebound, but when they came back from the bindery the date turned out to have been October 28, 1950. Bobby Schoenfeld had been right, except in his insistence that it was the year of Bobby Thomson’s home run; the memory boy knew that was 1951. But on the point that now mattered to me, I was clearly wrong.
The clash between my father and his rabbi was news of slight interest to the retired engineer in Lockport but news nonetheless. It had been sufficiently elliptical to pass unnoticed by Bobby, his family, and the rest of the congregation, but I hadn’t imagined it. Now that I knew that it had preceded the cashiering of Ben, I had to reconsider what had actually happened that autumn between my friend Ben and my dad and, therefore, between Ben and me. The issue couldn’t have come up all at once. It must have simmered. I may already have taken sides. I may even have felt estranged from Ben, a feeling I can’t recall ever having had. And that may have been how I had gotten so deeply that same autumn into ideological disputation with David Zipser, whom I now sought out in La Jolla. David, whose parents were unapologetic and active Communist Party members, had memories that forced further amendment in mine. Yes, I was finding, 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 on your own personal memory console.
Finally, after these and similar encounters, I found enough courage to begin reading the letters I’d recovered from the old camp trunk in the basement. My feeling of not being from this place, I was then reminded, didn’t start with our departure from Omaha. And it wasn’t really about place.
Copyright © 2005 by Joseph Lelyveld