Ted Solotaroff wanted to name his memoir “Rachmones.” He was certain that there wasn’t a Jewish reader who wouldn’t understand the word Leo Rosten defines as pity, compassion in “The Joys of Yiddish,” but his editor, and a random sampling of younger Jews, convinced him otherwise. “It’s what this book finally is about,” the 70-year old distinguished editor, essayist, critic and now memoirist tells The Jewish Week.
The actual title, Truth Comes in Blows (Norton), comes from Saul Bellow’s “Henderson the Rain King.” A coming-of-age story set over the first 20 years of his life, the book is about his troubled relationship with his father Ben Solotaroff, a self-made business success who was overbearing and brutal at home. It’s his father who delivers the blows — and for whom he now feels rachmones.
The book begins in the recent past, in the last two years of Ben’s life, when Ted, the oldest of his three siblings, attempts to help his father, then separated from his fourth wife. “We had been estranged for many years, though ‘estranged’ isn’t quite right since we were mostly strangers to each other from my adolescence on, and yet remained tensely connected across the long silences of the four decades that followed.” In one of the book’s most tender moments, the author consents to give his aging father a massage, pressing his fingers into the shoulders and arms that had beaten him. Hearing his father’s “humming gratitude,” he feels a new degree of closeness toward him.
Solotaroff then goes back in time to his earliest years, recalling growing up in Elizabeth, N.J., pulled between the bully-like Solotaroff side of the family, and the more refined relatives of his mother, who was also treated harshly by Ben. He writes about the bar mitzvah his father wouldn’t pay for, an early brush with juvenile delinquency, sexual yearnings, summer days at the Jersey shore; some of the few pleasant moments with his father are when they go hiking together. As a boy, Ted was an athlete and a reader, but had to give up after-school sports in order to work in his father’s plate-glass factory. But he kept on reading, and was drawn to a life of the mind.
“I began to realize by the time I was 11 that the place I wanted to live was in my aunt’s apartment building on 86th Street off Riverside Drive, the most interesting and classy and different place, as far from Elizabeth as I felt I needed to get. It was only 25 miles but worlds away,” Solotaroff, who was an editor at Commentary in the early 1960s before he founded the influential New American Review, says in a telephone interview from his home in Quogue, L.I.
The author’s father’s father, an intellectual and an early Zionist, died when Ted was 3, but he says he “always felt a shadow relationship to my grandfather. I felt he would have understood me more than my father.” As he was growing up in a largely gentile neighborhood, the major Jewish influences were his grandfather, his mother’s brothers and a Hebrew school teacher who showed interest in him. He says that at times in his more recent life when he hasn’t been particularly interested in Judaism, “Judaism was interested in me; every so often it reached out and grabbed me by the neck and said pay attention.”
This is an elegantly written memoir, evoking the era from the Depression through World War II. The book, which has been highly praised in reviews, shares some similarities with the writings of the poet laureate of post-immigrant New Jersey Jewish life, Philip Roth. In fact, Roth and Solotaroff have known each other since they were graduate students together at the University of Chicago. Solotaroff, who published pieces by Roth in New American Review and has also written about his work, says that in some ways Roth’s “Patrimony,” about his father, was a model in its directness.
Roth describes this book as “not only a literary achievement but a considerable moral achievement as well.” “Truth Comes in Blows” was perhaps the last book read by the late critic Alfred Kazin, who wrote an enthusiastic blurb from his hospital bed in the last week of his life last spring.
Solotaroff says that he never could have written this if his father were still alive. “He would have been furious, he would have felt very exposed, as indeed he is.” A week after his father’s death, he began writing. He says that there are times when he is “troubled” about what he has done, but that he did try to put it in a context of “understanding, love and gratitude for what I did get from him.” There’s more affection in his voice as he speaks about his father than one finds in the book, so it does seem that in some way he had to write it in order to come to terms with the relationship-and to be able to feel rachmones for the man.
The former senior editor at Harper & Row who worked with such authors as Yehudah Amichai, Bobbie Ann Mason, Allegra Goodman, Russell Banks, Leonard Fein and many others over a 10-year tenure, started this memoir six years ago. “I knew I wanted to take on something larger than another book review or essay. The question was where to begin.” At first, he began with his tenure at Commentary, assuming that that’s what people wanted to know about, but realized that if he were going to make sense of his life in a narrative, he’d have to begin 25 years earlier. Now, he plans two additional volumes, following the course of his life until his retirement from publishing. Solotaroff is also the author of two books of criticism and cultural commentary and the editor of five anthologies.
His first draft of this volume was over 600 pages, and the experienced editor and self-described novice memoirist had to heed the advice of his editor at Norton about cutting and shaping the book, rewriting a much more lean and dramatic version. Above his computer, he’s pasted a note: “It’s a story, stupid.”