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Mad Men’s Jews

Elliot Gertel
June 10, 2015

by Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel

maxresdefaultTHE ARTISTIC and engaging AMC series, Mad Men, which just ended, contrasted the closed 1960s male Protestant world of Madison (“Mad”) Avenue admen with an occasional Jewish character. Actually, the Jewish male characters were all contrasted with mysterious advertising genius Don Draper, known for his conquests of corporations and women.

In a 2013 episode (4-7-13, written by the show's creator, Matthew Weiner), we met Don’s closest Jewish “rival,” his downstairs neighbor Dr. Arnold Rosen (Brian Markinson) and his wife, Sylvia (Linda Cardellini). They are an interfaith couple, a far more rare quantity in that era. “I guess I don’t say ‘Merry Christmas’ to you,” Don reflects. The doctor replies, “Save that for Sylvia.” When Sylvia proposes a toast at a New Year’s Eve party, the doctor jokes, “It’s Italian for l’khayim.”

A skilled cardiologist, Rosen is wholly dedicated to his profession and to saving lives, while also cherishing his beautiful wife and their son. He doesn’t care about receiving credit or even thanks. He saves the lobby doorman, who had technically “died” for a while during a heart attack. When the latter obnoxiously greets him some time later, Rosen acknowledges to Don, “No good deed [goes unpunished].”

It is very clear that Rosen does not do the good deeds for reward or even for recognition. True, he makes a crack about Don being paid to tell people what they want to hear and about his being paid for the opposite. But unlike the advertising hotshot, Dr. Rosen prefers to remain behind the scenes. Hoping to purchase a camera from Don, he must schedule a meeting after a surgery. No bragging here, simply the schedule of a man with priorities, who is intent on (mad about?) saving lives. The usually aloof Don, who avoids most of his family responsibilities until the end of the series, is so moved by the doctor’s saving of lives that he uses his influence to shield Rosen’s college-age son from active duty in the Vietnam War (though it is suggested that the son, while “too soft” for battle, was becoming rather aggressive in pursuit of Don’s teenage daughter, Sally).

Don admires Rosen even while ogling the doctor’s attractive, and, as it turns out, needy, wife. On New Year’s Eve, the doctor is summoned for an emergency. Though there are blizzard conditions outside, he nonchalantly glides to the hospital on cross-country skis. Don admiringly helps the good Jewish doctor onto the skis and then beds Mrs. Rosen, under a crucifix yet (in the maid’s room). There is a protracted affair during which Don will loiter outside the Rosens’ kitchen, leaving behind cigarette butts — much to the chagrin of the doctor, who tried to get Don to stop smoking and is now worrying that his wife has returned to that deadly habit!

Not all Mad Men’s Jewish physicians are dedicated to the right things. The ad firm hires a Dr. Shelly Hecht (Rick Zieff) to administer “energy serum” for the increased thought process and productivity of the staff. Hecht describes it as a “complex vitamin super-dose,” as “my own combination of B vitamins and a mild stimulant,” leading to “24-72 hours of uninterrupted creative... energy and confidence.” When senior partner Roger Sterling expresses concern about how the stuff will affect his heart condition, Dr. Hecht tells him, “Don’t worry about it” (5-19-13, Jason Grote and Matthew Weiner). If Dr. Rosen is clueless in his personal life but idealistic in his practice, then Dr. Hecht is depicted as clueless regarding his personal health and the health of his clients.

ANOTHER JEWISH MAN, young and eager, Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) enters the firm as the first openly Jewish copywriter. He always has a good comeback line for his elder “rival” Don Draper. When the latter comments on Ginsberg’s way of talking, the latter tell him that it’s a “regional accent” and that Don has one also.

When Ginsberg is first introduced to the firm, he says he had no family. Early on, he waxes rhapsodic about Howard Johnson's entree of crabs, but Don suspects him of making up that he has even been at a Howard Johnson’s. There’s something about Ginsberg that makes him come across as a liar whether he is telling the truth or not.

In the April 1, 2012 episode, writers Matthew Weiner and Erin Levy depict Ginsberg as embarrassed by his old-world East European dad with a foreign accent who blesses him in Hebrew, embarrassed to the point of telling Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), who comes from a devout Catholic family, that he has no family. Yet dad is “with it” enough to suggest that he and his son “get two girls, one old, one young.”

The talented and ambitious Peggy, the only woman among the copywriters, deals most closely with Jewish men, both at the agency and then at home. One colleague ribs her that Ginsberg is “too talented” and that he will be her boss one day. She is the first to interview Ginsberg, and is appalled by his crassness, awkwardness, and utter lack of social grace. But by his second interview, with a principal of the firm present, he amazes and even scares Peggy with his manners and impressive demeanor. Is he some kind of chameleon?

In a later episode, Ginsberg tells Peggy that he is a Martian through his “adoptive” father Morris, who told him that he was born in the concentration camp where his mother had died. Ginsberg assures Peggy that he is not a take-over-the-earth kind of Martian, only a displaced person, who recalls meeting his father at a Swiss orphanage at age 5. It is clear to Peggy that Ginsberg is in some kind of pain, and that there is some truth in all of this somewhere. She does not take him to task for his initial lies. Instead she asks her Jewish boyfriend, Abe Drexler (Charlie Hofheimer, see below) how someone could be born in a concentration camp (4-22-12, Matthew Weiner and Semi Challas).

One day, Ginsberg returns home to find a young woman with his dad. Morris introduces her as Chaim Farber’s daughter, Beverly (Nicole Hayden). Apparently their fathers play chess together and are now playing matchmaker. The senior Ginsberg gives his son money to have dinner with Beverly. She says that she is a schoolteacher and works all the time, indicating that she takes any reasonable opportunity to meet eligible men, and adding that she was under the impression that he knew that she would be there.

Dad playfully tells Michael: “Look at her. I’m obviously doing you a disservice.” Sure enough, she is an attractive and tactful young Jewish woman. But Michael can only spout inappropriate things around her: “A couple of alter kokers arrange a little meeting like this. It seems very old world.” He blurts out, “I’ve never had sex, not even once” (4-28-13, written by Tom Smuts and Matthew Weiner). Such cluelessness is contrasted with Don’s sexual overdrive, which gives him pleasure most of the time, and with Michael’s father, Morris, whose views of sex are far from “old world.” After Michael tells his father that the date ended early because of the news of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Dad protests that “now’s the time when a man and woman need to be together the most.”

AT WORK, Ginsberg keeps making strange remarks along with pointed comments on dying in Vietnam and criticisms of client chemical companies manufacturing napalm — yet he takes no strong political stands, just raves. He becomes increasingly defensive when questioned about whether he has completed certain work tasks, and progressively paranoid that Don and others may be trying to undercut him. At the request of a (drunk?) colleague, a sober (!) Ginsberg throws a “William Tell” knife at this co-worker, hurting his arm. This is a Mad Man who is emerging as a madman.

Interestingly, Ginsberg is the only one who competes against Don with some success. He wins a campaign by suggesting a concept that Don has rejected (April 8, 2012, Victor Levin and Matthew Weiner). Don, a bit jealous of Ginsberg’s talent, will retaliate by purposely leaving Ginsberg’s ad idea in the car after they had agreed to present both. Ginsberg confronts Don in the elevator, telling him that he has a million ideas and that he feels bad for Don. “I don’t think about you at all,” Don replies cuttingly (May 13, 2012, Erin Levy).

It would seem that the more Ginsberg must fit the mold of a cutthroat business, the more he is expected to lie and compete, the more unraveled he becomes. Don, on the other hand, balances a hiding act like no other person can, taking occasional breaks from it. Don’s Jewish “rivals” are too outspoken to be effective liars.

Ginsberg dissembles over a couch being cleared from an old staff lounge that is slated to become a computer room: “They’re trying to erase us, but they can’t erase this couch.” He imagines that the newly-installed computers are coming for the workers one by one, turning people into “homos.” He tells Peggy that he has feelings for her and wants to fight the computer “takeover” by “reproducing” with her. As a token of his honorable intentions he cuts off one of his nipples, which he regards as the valve through which the computer enters the human psyche. Finally, Ginsberg is written to spiral into irrationality and delusion and sex-obsessed paranoia until he is carried out of the office to a mental institution (5-11-14, writers David Iserson and Matthew Weiner).

THE ADVOCATE of the people is supposed to be Peggy’s boyfriend, Abe Drexler, an aspiring writer for leftist journals. After spotting Peggy, Abe arranges to meet her in a bar, and then rails endlessly about corporations throwing around their money to preserve the status quo and to block Negro rights. An outspoken feminist before the word was even used, Peggy retorts, “Most of the things Negroes can’t do, I can’t do either [because I’m a woman].” After Peggy notes that a lot of corporations are family-owned and that advertisers can try to use their influence to change what they don’t like in those companies, Abe needs to get in the last word, comparing corporations to the Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg (Sept. 19, 2010, written by Matthew Weiner and Dahvi Waller).

Yet Peggy moves in with Abe. To please him, she takes an apartment in a rather dangerous neighborhood. When Abe is mugged near the subway station, he refuses to identify his attackers after the police ask whether they were “colored or Puerto Rican.” Abe calls the cops “fascist pigs” (after they leave). Peggy chides him for protecting criminals (who, I would add, could have attacked her), and he resents her “siding with the police.” Abe asserts, “These kids have no other recourse in this system.” Peggy regards the thugs as “animals.” Abe suggests that her unenlightened attitudes enable him to write enlightened articles.

Peggy stabs Abe accidentally when she panics over rocks thrown into their window. Instead of comforting her, Abe tells her that she’ll always be a scared capitalist” who “hides behind complacency.” He then breaks up with her (5-27-13). He is the angry “mad man.” Peggy has been Don’s protege and one of the closest people to him. Abe’s beliefs may be deep-seated, but they only advertise his self-absorption, his arrogance and cluelessness. Don, by contrast, can advertise anything without revealing himself.

THE MAIN MALE Jewish characters in this series were not only clueless in the ways described above, but each seemed inalterably stuck in his own particular brand of cluelessness. Many of the other characters, maybe even Don, change and grow at least a tad. By the show’s final hour, for example, even office cad Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) seems dedicated to making amends and to starting a new life with the wife and daughter he had ignored. Peter showed early signs of “manning up” when challenged to a fist fight by a senior colleague and better boxer who had been rightly appalled by his behavior (4-15-12, Frank Pierson and Matthew Weiner). Peter gets things right when he is ready. The implication is that personal maturity brings more wisdom than traditional teachings and values.

Don more than holds his own against his Jewish “rivals.” But he loses his biggest battle early in the series, when the Jewish community, as it were, circles the wagons. He has been having an affair with a Jewish department store heiress and (pioneering woman) executive, Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff), who knows he is married but cannot walk away from him, except when he out-and-out asks her to run off with him. She will not be party to his abandoning his children. After this, her father intervenes; he sends her off on a long trip and complains to Don’s boss. Rachel, who is articulate in the boardroom and bedroom about her opinions, never offers Don any closure of their affair. Don finds out that she is married when he runs into her at Sardi’s, where she introduces him to her husband. The only one who can beat Don at his own game is a determined immigrant Jewish father who has built a substantial business, and who puts pressure on Don’s firm.

Was Matthew Weiner saying that the strength or weakness of Jewish men, in morals or sensibilities, depends on the extent to which they are involved with the Jewish community?

Elliot B. Gertel is a retired pulpit rabbi who has been film and TV critic for the National Jewish Post and Opinion for 35 years. He is the author of Over the Top Judaism and What Jews Know About Salvation.