Monday, September 17, 2012

Omaha Blues: A Memory Loop by Joseph Lelyveld 2005

"In this tender, lucid memoir, narrated with wisdom and humility, Lelyveld makes peace with the past," from a review in the L.A. Times by Louise Steinman  4/25/05

Joseph Lelyveld is a retired reporter and editor at the New York Times and the son of a prominent Reform rabbi, Arthur Lelyveld. After his father’s death Joseph Lelyveld “inherited” a chest of old papers and letters which revealed to him much he didn’t know about his family history. As the oldest son of parents who eventually divorced, he found many letters from his parents to each other which gave him a great deal of insight into their troubled relationship. And as a journalist, he was very interested in how other aspects of their personal history intersected with important moments in American history.  So what he has written is a memoir that focuses predominantly on the lives of his parents and their friends and cohorts. In this memoir the author provides us with a window into some of the most highly charged issues of the twentieth century and the roles Jewish leaders and their committed followers played in engaging in these issues.

In the 1930’s Ben Goldstein, a Reform rabbi and colleague of the author’s father and a family friend, was active in the movement to defend the Scottsboro boys. But his motives became suspect because their defense was promoted by, amongst others, the American Communist Party. The author delved deeply into the FBI file on Goldstein, whose pulpit in Montgomery, Alabama served as a place for him to preach about the injustice being served the Scottsboro boys. Despite warnings from the synagogue governing body that he should keep his opinions to himself, after pulling back, he ratcheted up his calls for justice and his contract was not renewed. Lelyveld details Goldstein’s interactions with Leyveld’s father and with Rabbi Stephen Wise and follows Goldstein through two further incarnations, as Ben Stern and Ben Lowell. He traces his subsequent careers and membership in various splinter groups and theorizes about whether he might have been a Communist spy.

Lelyveld’s father served as rabbi in several congregations. Early in his career he had a pulpit in Omaha, Nebraska; his last pulpit was in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. He was for many years the national director of Hillel as well as a prominent member of many national Jewish governing bodies. In discussing his father’s role as spiritual leader as well as a social activist, he writes about another turbulent moment in American Jewish history – the push by many different Jewish constituencies to establish the State of Israel. The messy reality of bringing the State of Israel into being struck many in the Reform movement as a violation of their commitment to pacifism, and Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld played a major role in the debate.  Continuing to be engaged in the world, Rabbi Lelyveld marched in Mississippi on behalf of voter registration, but, like Rabbi Ben Goldstein, he too got in trouble with members of the governing body of his congregation as well as with some members of Jewish congregations in the South who did not want Northerners telling them what to do.

In narratiing these stories Lelyveld introduces readers to non-mainstream groups like the Jewish Peace Fellowship, the American Council for Judaism, The American Jewish League Against Communists and The Progressive Zionist League, groups active in politics on the left and the right who worked to influence the important issues of their time.

The author, because of his journalistic skills and because he is the son of a prominent activist rabbi, is able to paint an up-close picture of turbulent times. His focus on the American Reform movement of Judaism and its members' commitment to engage the world helps us the see these important 20th century landmark events through their eyes.

To read the New York Times obituary of Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld click here.


Joseph Lelyveld
    Ed Lelyveld – son of Joseph; married Dora
       Arthur Lelyveld- son of  Ed; married Toby Bookholtz; 2nd wife - Teela
            Joseph Lelyveld – son of Arthur and Toby; married Carolyn; author
                Amy and Nita Lelyveld – daughters of Joseph and Carolyn
            David Lelyveld -  son of Arthur and Toby
            Michael Lelyveld – son of Maurice Valency and Toby
                Victor Lelyveld – son of Michael
                Adam and Svati are also grandchildren on Arthur and Toby – not clear who their parents are
                     Alice Rose – greatgranddaughter of Arthur and Toby – not clear who her parents are   
Joseph Lelyveld – author’s grandfather Ed’s first cousin (lived in Massachusetts)

Author's mother’s family
Izzy Bookholtz – married to Gussie Sonberg
    Toby Bookholtz – daughter of Izzy and Gussie; married Arthur Lelyveld (see above)

Friends and Acquaintances
The Goldstein/Wise family:
Benjamin Goldstein/ Benjamin Stern/Benjamin Lowell – married to Margaret Wise; 2nd marriage to Juliet Lowell (born Lowenstein)
    Josephine Goldstein Stern Rogers - daughter of Benjamin and Margaret
    Linda Stern Goldberg Benjamin – daughter of Benjamin and Margaret
Stephen S. Wise
    James Waterman Wise – son of Stephen
    Justine Wise – daughter of Stephen
Josephine May Wise - sister-in-law of Stephen Wise
    Margaret Wise Goldstein – daughter of Margaret and step-daughter of Stephen Wise; first wife of Benjamin Goldstein (see above)
    Elsa Wise – daughter of Margaret and step-daughter of Stephen Wise

Arnold Beichman
Lewis Bergman
Joshua Block
Joseph Brodsky
Leon Drum
Frank Goldman
Eddie Jacobson
Alfred Kohlberg
Emanuel and Mayer Lehman – brothers
Samuel Leibowitz
Jimmy Loeb
Henry Monsky
Charles Moritz
Morris Newfield
Louis Newman
Elias Newman
David K. Niles (originally Neyhus)
David Philopson
Abe Rosenthal
Abraham Sachar
   Howard Sachar – son of Abraham
Bobby Schoenfeld
Benjamin Schultz
Arthur Hays Sulzberger – married to Iphigene Ochs (daughter of Adolph Ochs)
    Arthur Ochs Sulberger – son of Arthur and Iphigene
        Susan Dryfoos – granddaughter of Arthur Hays and Iphigene
Simon Wampold
Arthur and Pearl Zipser
David Zipser – son of Harry Gannes and Pearl

Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Warsaw, Radom, Lodz, Poland
London, England
Beachwood, Ohio
Cincinnati, Ohio
Cleveland, Ohio
Montgomery, Alabama
Temple Beth Or, Montgomery Alabama
Clarksdale, Mississippi
Hattiesburg, Mississippi
Meridian, Mississippi
Omaha, Nebraska
New York City, NY
Temple Rodeph Shalom, NYC
Temple Emanu-El, NYC
Temple Reformita, Havana, Cuba

Monday, September 3, 2012

UNorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman 2012

"'Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots' by 25-year-old Deborah Feldman ... is painfully good. Through a narrative voice that is almost hypnotic, she puts you immediately in the center of her chaotic world." from a review by Elaine Margolin in 2/10/2012

A number of negative comments can be made about this memoir, starting with the title which sensationalizes the “scandalous” nature of the author’s narrative. But to focus on the negative is to miss the larger, quite compelling, story about the author’s childhood and adolescence and her struggle to leave the Satmar Hasidic community in which she was raised.

For those interested in the Satmar Hasidic community this memoir has a lot to offer, keeping in mind that it’s written by a disenchanted young woman who I think would say feels traumatized by her upbringing. Drawing from her own experiences, Feldman discusses how women are raised and treated within the Satmar religious community. The restrictions and expectations are limiting, and Feldman, a questioning child, found herself frequently in trouble at school. At 17 she entered into an arranged marriage and  she describes the highly ritualized process of meeting her future husband’s mother, then the occasion of meeting her future husband, then the tradition of gift-giving, then the role of the mikvah, then the wedding itself, then the marriage.

Her marriage was hollow. There was no place in her marriage or in the community for her to satisfy her hunger to explore and experience the world, especially the world of the mind, because the needs of the community took precedence over the needs of any individual. So, after five years of marriage and one child, she left. Beyond her own needs, she felt strongly that she provide her son with opportunities he would not have had if he had grown up a Satmar Hasid.

Feldman includes a disclaimer at the beginning of the memoir that states that all identifying names and characteristics have been changed and some events conflated and transposed to honor people’s privacy, but she also includes many family photos which probably are only identifiable within the Satmar community. Despite the disclaimer, she has been called to task by members of the Satmar community who have pointed out inaccuracies and who call her motives into question, emphasizing that the picture she paints of the community is one-sided and, therefore, distorted. But Feldman calls it as she sees it, and it’s understandable that she would ruffle many feathers.

Although the author is critical of much of the beliefs and behavior within the community, she tries to understand her grandparents who raised her, and she agrees with those who feel that the contemporary Hasidic way of life is, to some degree, a reaction to the heavy losses in their community during World War II. Satmars take to heart the belief promulgated within the community that the Holocaust was a punishment from God because so many Jews had strayed from a devout religious life. It is clear that the author feels that this belief, often repeated by teachers in schools, has the effect of further insolating and isolating its adherents.

To read an article in the New York Times about Hasidic Jews and clothing traditions, click here.

To watch a three-part of a video of a Satmar wedding when the Grand Rebbe engages in a ritualized dance with the bride - his youngest daughter , click here for part 1.  Click here for part 2. Click here for part 3. The three together add up to less than a half an hour.

There are no names to list as all names, except the author’s, have been changed.

Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY
Kiryas Joel, New York