“The Donigers of Great Neck: A Mythologized Memoir” by Wendy Doniger. Brandeis University Press. 2019. 152 pages. $19.95 (paper)
If it’s true that opposites attract, then Lester and Rita Doniger’s marriage should have been a match made in heaven. It is hard to imagine two married people with more divergent backgrounds, values and personalities than Wendy Doniger’s parents. Wendy chronicles their lives and their influence on her in this fascinating memoir.
They were both born to Jewish parents, but that’s were their similarities ended. Lester, who was born in 1909, came from a religious family that lived in Czarist Russia and fled the brutal civil war in the Soviet Union to refuge in America in the 1920s.
“Though a confirmed nonobservant atheist, Lester nevertheless was very serious about being a Jew,” writes his daughter — a scholar renowned for her study of Hinduism and mythology, professor emerita at the University of Chicago Divinity School and the author of more than 40 books.
Rita was born in New York City in 1911, but her parents took her to Vienna to live shortly after her birth. Her family was quite wealthy in the late 1920s and lived well as assimilated Jews, some of whom had intermarried with Catholics. They considered themselves to be Viennese, not Jews.
Her family looked down on Lester, for they thought of themselves as “German Jews, yekkes,” while he was only an “ostjude,” a Jew from Eastern Europe.
Rita was against all religions “because she was basically against any organization that told you what to think, and that is what she thought all religions did,” her daughter writes.
Lester was an ingenious entrepreneur. When he graduated from NYU in 1931, he became a stringer for the religious pages of The New York Times, visiting Manhattan churches and summarizing their sermons. He began publishing Pulpit Digest in 1936, which recorded sermons of some ministers and made them available to other clergy. He and Rita also wrote sermons for the publication under pseudonyms, and their sermons were preached all over America by Protestant ministers. In 1950, he began to publish Pastoral Psychology. He also founded the book publishers Channel Press and the Book Club Guild. Lester became a successful and prosperous publisher.
He “lived the American dream, from rags to riches, and was always deeply grateful to this country for what it had done for him,” Wendy writes.
He was a Democratic Party activist — the author writes that he wept when Franklin Delano Roosevelt died.
His wife was not only a communist, but a Stalinist. “She was a Communist simply because she believed that the rich should be forced to share their wealth with the poor,” Wendy writes. “She wanted to change the world.”
Their lifestyles also diverged. Lester Doniger enjoyed his wealth. Rita Doniger’s first priority always was to economize.
Wendy writes: “When she shopped for food, Rita bought the fruit and vegetables that had been ‘reduced for quick sale,’ past their prime or damaged. She bought meat that the butcher sold off cheaply at the end of the day. She kept food for weeks and weeks, until green mold was visible; when we complained, she retorted, ‘What do you think penicillin is made of?’ ”
But it was in her personal life that Rita’s behavior was completely off the charts. “She would never do anything just because other people did it or because you were supposed to do it,” the author writes. “This made her a scofflaw; she broke the law constantly, and I was often her unwilling and nervous accomplice.”
When driving, she ignored stop signs, speed limits and parking restrictions. She would take a trowel with her in the car with which she dug up other people’s plants. She was always late and took pride in the Viennese relaxed attitude toward time compared with the punctual Germans.
She stayed up all night and slept most of the day. “What did she do all night? Most important to her, I think, was the fact of simply being alone, away from all of us,” according to her daughter.
As an intellectual and a writer, Wendy was greatly influenced by her publisher father. She writes: “I inherited Lester’s respect for religious people, his love of English and American and Russian literature… . I took after him, went into his business, the world of books, galley proofs and printers, indeed the world of religion. …
“When I grew older, Lester became an important influence on my writing. He was, after all, a successful publisher, a man who knew how to read a manuscript and make it better.”
Nonetheless, after both her parents had died, she came to realize she was more like her mother than her father.
“Now that I am just a few years short of the age at which she died,” Wendy writes, “I realize that I have Rita’s no-holds-barred sense of humor and her disregard for social customs and for minor legal regulations that I don’t believe in.”
This is an interesting memoir, whose appeal surely would have been broadened had it included more about Wendy’s time spent in India.
But it may make you smile — especially the jokes, doggerel and other poetry found in the final chapter.
Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, “Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family,” available at amazon.com and in Kindle format.