by Joseph Lelyveld; New York, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2005, $22
Dr. Berger lives in Downsview, Ontario, Canada.
Joseph Lelyveld was executive editor at the New York Times between 1994 and 2001. He is also the eldest son of a very prominent Reform rabbi, Arthur Lelyveld, and in many ways this memoir is a belated eulogy to the memories of his dead parents. Lelyveld has a cordial, and certainly not hostile, relationship with his father, but it is not a close relationship. His parents have their difficulties with each other and eventually divorce, and his mother is also often emotionally unavailable. Lelyveld is emotionally—and at times even physically—abandoned by his parents.
In his later years, Lelyveld's father sends his son a number of letters he and his wife wrote to each other when they were younger. Joseph is very reluctant at first to look at these letters. But when his father is dying, a visitor mentions that in the basement of the father's synagogue in Cleveland there is a trunk that belongs to his father and is believed to contain many documents. Lelyveld retrieves the trunk, and the combination of the letters and the material in the trunk lead him to discover much greater insights into his parents and their lives during the time before he was born and when he was very young. More important, Lelyveld discovers much about himself and events in his own early life that he thought he had remembered, but with this new evidence realizes he had distorted.
Lelyveld follows this discovery by searching for and interviewing a number of people and their descendants, who are family members or important figures at various times in his and his parents' lives. He obtains various factual records to fill in gaps and correct some of the memory distortions in his family history. What this leads to is a fuller and more accurate picture of his parents, their paths, and their struggles, and how those factors might have influenced his own growth, choices, and attitudes. In other words, the author did what we try to do in a good psychodynamic psychotherapy, especially if we have a patient as articulate as Lelyveld.
Although this book is a memoir, it is not really an autobiography. Lelyveld shares very little about his career and work as editor of one of the world's leading newspapers. Instead, this book is about his parents and their marriage as seen through his own eyes and with the "modifications" or "corrections" as offered by the perceptions of others.
Lelyveld also pays tribute to a highly controversial character, known as both Ben Goldstein and Ben Lowell, a rabbinical colleague of his father who at one point in Lelyveld's life seems almost to be a substitute father figure. Lelyveld's many references to this other man can perhaps be understood as reflecting Lelyveld's own need for greater closeness and attention from his father.
Lelyveld basically suggests that his mother felt unfulfilled and stifled in the marriage. She frequently sought to escape, sometimes physically leaving the family but at other times making suicide attempts. Joseph's father appears to have been the one repeatedly trying to hold the marriage together.
A brief vignette at the end summarizes so much; his mother who has wanted to be free and who remains single after the marriage broke up, later resents her husband's remarriage and yearns for some sort of recognition from him on the family occasions when they both are present. Shortly before they both die they meet at their grandson's Bar Mitzvah, and for the first time in many years Lelyveld's father greets his mother with a smile, "my Mom's face lit up with sheer delight," they hold hands, kiss, and part. The whole episode lasts barely a minute. Joseph sees it as his father being his usual friendly self, but for his mother it brought a belated peace and sense of relief. A fascinating book.