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A memoir brings father figure to life

Omaha Blues: A Memory Loop, By Joseph Lelyveld Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 226pp, $22

I read few memoirs, and part of the reason is that the ones I have read tripped over the genre's occupational hazard, which is that they were written for the author -- as therapy or redemption, for instance -- and not necessarily because they had something especially interesting to say to the reading public.

''Omaha Blues," Joseph Lelyveld's family memoir, is a mixed bag from his past. What distinguishes the memoirist in this case is his smooth way with words. In addition, the journalist in him (he's the retired executive editor of The New York Times, the Globe's corporate parent) comes clean about the personal motives propelling his recounting of his parents' tumultuous marriage, which was marked by infidelity and finally crack-up. Lelyveld also relives his exile to another family's farm during his father's rabbinical posting in the city of the book's title, and he brings to life the friend and father figure he found in Rabbi Ben Goldstein, a colleague of Joseph's actual father, Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld.

Joseph Lelyveld says his parents nicknamed him ''the memory boy," likely for his knack of remembering names and the order of events. ''Omaha Blues" is conceived by memory, but it's midwived by shoe-leather reporting. Lelyveld interviews past acquaintances, unearths old letters and news stories, and plumbs the file that the FBI kept on Ben, who was suspected of being a Communist spy. (Arthur Lelyveld, who was prominent in Hillel, the network of college Jewish groups, canned Ben from that organization for concealing non-espionage involvement in the Communist Party.)

Arthur's gifted but troubled wife thought she'd love being a clergyman's spouse. Instead, she felt smothered and eventually abandoned the family to become a Shakespearean scholar. Joseph Lelyveld conveys his father's desperate efforts to salvage the union.

Ben was a protean figure who changed jobs, wives, and surnames during an often shrouded life that Lelyveld makes it his mission to unveil. His reporting can't confirm or invalidate the FBI's suspicions, but it does make abundantly clear that, politically, Ben wore blinders. An admirer of the Soviet Union during the Depression and World War II, he excused Stalin's non-aggression pact with Hitler, Lelyveld writes, as being compelled by ''the cowardice, greed, and hypocrisy of the capitalist nations." Later, he denounced the Marshall Plan as an American grab for European markets, prompting an acquaintance to recall, ''It was such dull-witted agitprop that at first I thought he was joking."

Yet Ben grasped nobility when he sacrificed his job as a rabbi in Montgomery, Ala., in the early '30s to publicly defend the Scottsboro Boys, nine black youths convicted on blatantly trumped-up charges of raping two white women aboard a freight train. Lelyveld writes that only he and Ben's survivors care about Ben's role in the case. Actually, it's an interesting, untold sidebar in this famous incident in American race relations. This is one section in which ''Omaha Blues" moves beyond solitaire to deal all of us into the memoir's game.

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