Avrom Bendavid-Val’s father grew up in Trochenbrod and regaled him with tales of his childhood there. Avrom specialized in economic development and has traveled the world with the U.S. Economic Development Administration and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). He retired in 2007 and lives in Washington, DC.
As his father lies dying, Joseph Lelyveld finds himself in the basement of the Cleveland synagogue where Arthur Lelyveld was the celebrated rabbi. Nicknamed "the memory boy" by his parents, the fifty-nine-year-old son begins to revisit the portion of his father's life recorded in letters, newspaper clippings, and mementos stored in a dusty camp trunk. In an excursion into an unsettled and shakily recalled period of his boyhood, Lelyveld uses these artifacts, and the journalistic reporting techniques of his career as an author and editor, to investigate memories that have haunted him in adult life..
With equal measures of candor and tenderness, Lelyveld unravels the tangled story of his father and his mother, a Shakespeare scholar whose passion for independence led her to recoil from her roles as a clergyman's wife and, for a time, as a mother. This reacquired history of his sometimes troubled family becomes the framework for the author's story; in particular, his discovery in early adolescence of the way personal emotions cue political choices, when he is forced to choose sides between his father and his own closest adult friend, a colleague of his father's who is suddenly dismissed for concealing Communist ties.
Lelyveld's effort to recapture his family history takes him on an unforeseen journey past disparate landmarks of the last century, including the Scottsboro trials, the Zionist movement, the Hollywood blacklist, McCarthyism, and Mississippi's "freedom summer" of 1964. His excursion becomes both a meditation on the selectivity and unreliability of memory and a testimony to the possibilities, even late in life, for understanding and healing. In Omaha Blues, as Lelyveld seeks out the truth of his life story, he evokes a remarkable moment in our national story with unforgettable poignancy.