Where did she come from?
That’s what we were asking ourselves, my sister and my father and I, after she left us and this world on the morning of May 9, 2022. Of course, we know where she came from in the strictest sense. She was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, on July 25, 1927. Her mother had also been born, amazingly enough for a Jew, in the Twin Cities in the year 1894, the youngest of ten whose parents had immigrated from Lithuania quite a while earlier. And her father? His mother bore him at 14 in Poland after marrying a much older man over her own parents’s objections. He was a widower with children of his own who turned out to be a drunk. He beat her one night when she was newly pregnant.
My great-grandmother would have none of it. She went back to her parents. They got the drunk to give their daughter a get—a Jewish divorce. And then it was off to America with the baby in tow. By the time my grandfather was a teenager, there was concern he was heading into trouble on the Lower East Side and so he was sent to live with a relative in St Paul. It was there, in 1916, at a Zionist meeting, that Harry Rosenthal met Rose Calmenson. Eleven years after that, their daughter Marjorie was born. They called her Midge.
So this is where my mother, who was known to the world as Midge Decter, came from. From a Polish Jewish grandmother with an iron will and an unbreachable sense of self that remained with her until she died at 89. From a Litvak mother whose immigrant father almost made a huge fortune in scrap metal but died before the business, Paper Calmenson, took off. From an immigrant father who migrated from Poland to New York to Minnesota and began an increasingly successful career as a small businessman once he had returned from World War I. By the time Midge had grown into a teenager, the Rosenthals had become highly respectable burghers, perhaps even more starchy in their commitment to the most conventional social rules even than the Gentiles who made up 99 percent of the population of the Twin Cities. The Rosenthals kept kosher, but in all other ways they were more Catholic than the Pope.
And yet my grandparents must have had certain radical tendencies. Being a Zionist in 1916 was far from conventional. Their passion for Zionism predated the state by three decades and was pretty much the only passion they ever really had. What’s more, my grandfather fancied himself a Reconstructionist and quite pointedly spoke brachot without God’s name in them.
Harry and Rose started the first Zionist summer camp in the Midwest, called Herzl, which remains a going concern in Wisconsin to this day and was where Bob Dylan and the Coen brothers got their Jewish educations. Harry was also on the leading edge of a new business category founded at the end of the Second World War. He became an early mass wholesaler of Army-Navy surplus goods. Remember Army-Navy stores? My grandfather sold them their wares. Made a lot of money, but less than he should have, because he was stubborn and was unable to modernize as he got old.
Interesting lives, without question. Yet neither of Midge’s parents ever actually said anything remotely interesting. They were both, either by training or by inclination, dull. And they passed that dullness on to two of their daughters, my mother’s older sisters. But the dullness didn’t take with Midge.
So I ask again: Where on earth did she come from? My parents met in 1946 on a registration line at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where my show-offy 16-year-old future father was trying to make time with a girl and misquoted T.S. Eliot—whereupon the 18-year-old with a thick Midwestern accent turned around and corrected the quotation.
How had she come to T.S. Eliot? There had been barely a book in my grandparents’ house. My dad says that when he met her Midge had already read Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Proust. Proust! And yet this was a woman who spent her life regretting the fact that she never graduated from college. One of the few times in her life I saw her choked with guilt was when Rachel, my oldest sister, dropped out of college. She said, quietly, and over again, “I did this, I gave her permission.” But what on earth did Midge ever need college for?
Let’s talk about that 18-year-old and college and the Jewish Theological Seminary. She had wanted to go the University of Chicago upon her graduation from St. Paul Central High School. Her parents said no. They told her the University of Minnesota was just as good as any other school—if my grandparents had a faith besides Judaism it could have been called Minnesotanism—and to forget such things.
She enrolled at the University of Minnesota. But she was not going to stay. Her older sister Connie—the pretty one, because you know there was always a pretty one—was already following the path her parents had charted for her; she was engaged to her sweet high school boyfriend, who went to work for his father-in-law and never took a free breath for the rest of his life. Her oldest sister Sheva also went to the state U but then followed her high-school boyfriend to Washington, where they both went to work in the war effort at the Department of Defense. Sheva’s husband Marver Bernstein later ended up the president of Brandeis University. One sister got out. One sister didn’t. But the one who got out got out because of a man. What was Midge going to do? She came up with a plan.
My grandparents were pious about their Judaism. So my mother used what was at hand. She told them she wanted to go to New York to study at the Jewish Theological Seminary, which at the time was an academic institution as well as a rabbinical school. She wanted to learn about our faith, and our faith traditions. And to participate in the burgeoning Zionist life in New York, as excitement built about the revolt against the British Mandate in Palestine and the hopes for a Jewish state.
What could they do, my grandparents? Minnesotanism simply had to give way to Judaism. Midge had outfoxed them. She boarded the train to New York. She met my father in her earliest days at the Seminary, but he was almost three years her junior. Instead, she paired off with Rachel and Naomi’s eventual father, whose name was Moshe Decter, who was also a student there.
I once asked her why she married him, and she said, quite succinctly and enigmatically, “because he made me feel like shit.” She stopped studying at the Seminary and started working for a new little magazine called Commentary as an assistant to its editor, Elliot Cohen. But then she had my sister Rachel and a year and five days later she had my sister Naomi, and she stayed at home in Queens raising them. At some point she could take no more, and she left her husband and took the girls and moved into Manhattan to a dump of an apartment. She went back to work at COMMENTARY, for an editor named Robert Warshow, who was then the mentor of the young writer Norman Podhoretz. Warshow wrote to my father, who was serving in the Army. He said, “I’ve hired a young woman you know named Midge Decter and if she just learns to type a little better, she’ll be a keeper.” Then Warshow died at the age of 37 and it fell to my mother to write to Norman to inform him of this loss. Norman wrote back. Midge wrote him back. A year later he returned to America, to New Jersey, to finish out his military service. He came into Manhattan on his first leave. He knocked on her door. She opened it and threw herself into his arms.
The young woman who had married a man because he had made her feel like shit—well, she was no longer that person. After several months of dating, she told my father that they were either going to get married or they were through. He said really? She said yes. He said can I walk around the block and think about it? She said yes. He walked around the block.
Imagine the sense of self she must have had then, the knowledge of herself she must have possessed, and the deep self-esteem this must have taken. She was a divorcee. She was 28 years old. She had two kids. It was 1955. This was not a power position, a place from which to make demands. To prove my point, when my father told his mother they were going to be married, she told him she was going to take my grandfather up to the roof and throw him off and then come down and take the gas pipe. My grandmother eased up, especially after meeting Rachel and Naomi. But she was terribly fearful of her own Haredi father’s disapproval, and when the wedding was rolling around, she suggested to Norman that the girls (who were 5 and 4) not be present for the nuptials. He said, “No, Ma, of course they’ll be there.”
The divorcee’s kids at her second wedding? “Who does she think she is?” my grandmother said. “Rita Hayworth?”
When Orson Welles divorced Rita Hayworth, she famously said, “Every man I knew went to bed with Gilda”—the sexpot character she played in an iconic 1946 movie—”and wakes up with me.” Ah, but waking up with my mother…that was the jackpot. My friend Joseph Epstein wrote me yesterday to say I had won the lottery in the parent sweepstakes, but the truth is, they were the winners, Norman and Midge. They were married for 66 years.
The great irony of my mother’s life is that she, a trailblazing female intellectual in a frankly misogynistic world of New York highbrow jerks whose views of women were reductionist and noxious, would end up being America’s most formidably serious anti-feminist. What she could not bear was the culture of complaint. She once said something slighting about Gloria Steinem and I asked why. She told me Gloria Steinem had once whined that she had wanted to write about politics but that they wouldn’t let her. “Who,” this woman who had written plenty about politics by this point said, “were ‘they’?” She felt the same way about Betty Friedan and the idea that Friedan and her cohort had somehow been tricked by the capitalist powers that be into moving into beautiful upper-middle-class suburbs in nice houses.
She was appalled by the misandry of the feminists—the idea that they were basically the victims of men. Her life experience had told her something different. She had allowed her first husband to make her feel like shit. But then she married a man who loved her and appreciated her and cultivated her gifts. She took jobs and she quit jobs at will, because my father was there to support her both financially and emotionally. Not that he made much money, by the way. My parents were almost comically unmaterialistic. Their dining room table was a door from the Door Store. Yes, she was fortunate in her marriage, and she knew she was fortunate, but she knew also that you had to make your own fortune, and had no patience for those who believed otherwise and who believed their complaining was the mark of a higher truth.
She felt the same way about the ‘60s and post-‘60s youth she portrayed and satirized in her uncategorizable masterpiece of a book, Liberal Parents Radical Children, from 1975. These youth were similarly full of objections and complaints and woes and wounds, and in the final analysis, what she really wanted to know was just what the hell it was they were whining about. These kids had had the inestimable good fortune of being born into the freest and most pliable society the world had ever seen. And she thought their effort to belittle the country and belittle its gifts to us was a moral crime. And who would best know this than a member of the most beleaguered tribe in this planet’s history? Why, she could hardly believe her own luck, as a Jew with a knowledge of the horrors of Jewish history and the improbable journey her parents had made to end up together and give her life, that she had been born an American.
Most of her best writing has this quality, like someone telling you to believe the evidence of your own eyes and not be seduced by theory. Go read her essay, “Looting and Liberal Racism,” published in COMMENTARY in 1977 in the aftermath of the New York City blackout that year. The word “bracing” hardly captures its clarifying, revivifying, saddening effect—and just how prophetic it sounds today. It concludes in part:
The young men who went rampaging on that hot July night were neither innocents nor savages; they were people in the grip of the pathology that arises from moral chaos. They were doing something they knew to be wrong but had been given a license for, and had not been able to find the inner resources to overcome their temptation. A New York Times editorial written in response to a flood of mail from readers condemning the looters reiterates the proposition that poverty and race were the salient factors in the looting: “Denounce them, jail them, hate them. Still the question lingers. . . . They appeared only in the poorest sections of town and drew recruits only from the poorest population groups, albeit only a tiny fraction of them. The question is why these and only these? Why, bluntly, no white looters in white neighborhoods?” The real answer to this question, I am afraid, is not to be found in the economy, nor even in the hot, nervous streets of summertime New York. It is to be found in a decade’s worth of the spread of this very liberal and very racist idea: that being black is a condition for special moral allowance.
In the course of the radio coverage of July 14, two little black boys, sounding about twelve years old, were interviewed and announced that they had taken no part in the looting going on all around them. They seemed a bit sheepish. When asked by the interviewer, “Why not?” one of them said, “I was scared of the cops,” and the other one said, “Because my mama would have killed me.” A brave and lucky woman, that mama—no thanks to the culture intent on whispering sweet nada into her little boy’s ear.
This was my mother. She cut through the bullshit. I don’t know any other way to put it. She always did, and she always knew bullshit’s seductive quality as well. When she was an editor at Basic Books, a publishing house, in the 1970s, a manuscript came in. It was a fancy-pants work of high intellectual argle-bargle, and her boss at the time was inclined to reject it. “Don’t you dare,” she said. “It’s utter nonsense and it will sell a billion copies.” That book was called Godel Escher Bach: The Eternal Golden Braid. It won the Pulitzer. It is still in print 43 years later. It is utter nonsense. It has sold, if not a billion copies, then a million copies or more. In her seven years as a publisher, she edited books by a writer named George Gilder, one on the sexual revolution and the other on life in the underclass, neither of which made much of a mark. Then came Wealth and Poverty, which helped lay the philosophical groundwork for what came to be known as Reaganomics. Sales: a million copies.
This suggests she could have been one of the most successful book editors of her time, but she didn’t want to publish nonsense even if it sold, and she wanted to do good as she saw it. So she started a modest enterprise called the Committee for the Free World, a kind of clearing-house-way-station activist organization to promote anti-Communist ideals in the 1980s as the intellectual world reared in horror at the supposed vulgarity of the Reagan administration. I had come to adulthood by this point, and it was then that I began hearing from people the things I would hear for the rest of my life: Oh, I love your mother. I had a life-changing conversation with your mother. Your mother is my role model. Your mother had lunch with me and now I know what to do with my life. Your mother is so kind.
I would go back to her and I would say, “Mom, I just met this person and they said you changed their life.” And in response, she would roll her eyes, or make a dismissive wave. She was like this with praise too. You could not tell her you loved something she wrote. It made her actively uncomfortable. She didn’t like her own writing. She thought it mannered and overly ornate. What she liked was simplicity and clarity and she felt she came up short in those departments. In this way, and in no other way whatsoever, she was utterly bonkers.
But she was an absolute bear about this as someone who guided writers. And as someone who guided me. When I was just starting out as a writer, and I would tell her I thought something I was writing was boring, she would say this: “You are incapable of being boring. All you need to worry about is being clear and saying what you mean.” Now, whether or not it’s true that I am incapable of being boring is a subject for another time. The point here is that this was the greatest editorial advice I ever received, and it is advice I’ve passed along to others: Your job is not to be interesting. You are interesting. Your job is to be clear.
She was so very clear. And her clarity came from the quality that made so many people look up to her, emulate her, or feel she was their lodestar. It was an inner thing. You might call it serenity, but while she was very level of mood—except for when she raged under her breath about the little elves her children seemed to think were going to clean up the kitchen after them—she was too engaged with the world to be truly serene. She just had an iron sense of self, as her grandmother had had when she marched away from her widower drunk and chose a different life when nobody did such a thing. Midge had it as a teenager, reading Proust in a home without books. She had it as she planned her escape from St. Paul. She had it when she ended the marriage in which she felt like shit, and when she gave my father her ultimatum. She had it when she put pen to paper, even though writing was very difficult for her. She had it when she was asked what she would do if she were you.
Two terrible things happened to her in her life. The first, of course, was the loss of our beloved Rachel, her first-born, who died at 62 in 2013. That was nine years before her own passing, and while she was always the same, she was also never the same. A vagueness came upon her, a kind of retreat behind her eyes. I envied her this, in a way, because her interiority gave her some kind of solace.
The other terrible thing was an act of amazing aggression on the part of her own mother. The year was 1989. Her mother had died in 1973 and had left a will, the contents of which were not disclosed because all the proceeds from her estate were to go to her husband Harry until his death.
My mother’s mother never forgave Midge for leaving St. Paul, then never forgave her for divorcing her first husband, then never forgave her for marrying my father, who had written Midge explicit love letters her mother had found one day rifling through her drawers. Her daughter, married to a sex maniac; such a thing never happened in Minnesota! So this was not a good relationship, but it was more distant and chilly than it was openly hostile.
My grandfather died 16 years later. My aunt Sheva was the executor of his will. Sheva called my mother one night, distraught beyond words. Rose had, it turns out, disinherited Midge at some point before her own death in 1973. Cut her out of the will. The problem wasn’t the money; there wasn’t, as it turned out, all that much of it. No, it was as though my grandmother had reached out from beyond the grave and slapped my mother across the face. And my grandfather had known about it, and had done nothing to stop it, and had even spent the years following Rose’s death extolling her virtues. “If there ever was such a thing as a saint in Jewish life,” my grandfather told my mother, “your mother was that saint.” So it was not just her mother who had delivered this punishment from olam ha-bah. It was her father’s repellent piety about Rose when he knew, he surely knew, his daughter would soon enough come to know different.
Of all the qualities she had, the one I most envied in my mother was her ability to sleep. She could lay her head on the pillow and wake up eight hours later. It was inner serenity at work. But she plunged into a crisis. She was 62, a year older than I am now. And for the first time in her life, she could not sleep. For four nights she paced, and sat, and lay unrested.
And then she cleared her mind.
“I have decided,” she said, “that my life is a treasure.”
And that was that. Really. It was. I’ve never seen the like of it. The only rueful echo of this monstrous parental abnegation came a few months later when we were at some conservative conference or something and she turned to me and said, “I don’t understand how it happened that I became this great champion of the family. I hated my family!”
But no. She did not. She loved her family—the family she made. She loved us four. And she loved and admired and was fascinated by and charmed by and interested in her grandchildren, the first of whom was born when she was 53 and the last of whom was born when she was 83. Midge Decter has left behind books and articles of uncommon grace and brilliance and an impact on American society at large in the form of those she inspired and the ideas she championed.
But what she has really left the world are those whom she has left behind. There are three of us children who survive her and a fourth, Rachel, who survives her in the form of Rachel’s three children and the eight great-grandchildren they have produced. Ten other grandchildren survive her as well—my three, and Naomi’s three, and Ruthie’s four. Another five great-grandchildren have come from their number, and likely there are many more yet to come.
Midge Rosenthal Decter Podhoretz decided her life was a treasure. And it was a treasure. Because she was a treasure. An unfathomable treasure.
Where, oh, where, oh where did she come from?
This eulogy was delivered at the funeral of Midge Podhoretz, which took place on May 11 at Riverside Memorial Chapel in New York City. She died on May 9, 2022, at the age of 94.