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Mad Mensches

Another Tattler prediction come true: AMC’s 1960s New York drama series returns—full of ascendant Jews

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(Frank Ockenfels/AMC)
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O ye of little faith.

I told you.

Didn’t I tell you, in my last piece about Mad Men, on these very pages, that things were about to get very, very Jewish all up in Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce? (Is Pryce still on the door, by the way? Do they have rules about that?) That 1968 was the year that America would truly realize you didn’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Rye Bread (but it helps)?

When the show started, the world of Mad Men (if not the real world of advertising in its totality at the time) was a WASP bastion: all dry martinis, Brooks Brothers ties, and utter emotional denial. When Rachel Mencken, the Jewish department-store heiress and first in a long line of Don’s intellectual brunettes, dropped in for what seemed like a fairly routine pitch meeting, the partners acted as though they were greeting some sort of fearsome alien queen, setting out deli, mentioning they were pitching to the Israeli tourism board, all to make some sort of odd and unnecessary point about inclusiveness that only made them look extra anti-Semitic. Season 2 saw the debut of the lovely Jane, who discreetly exchanged the “Siegel” for “Sterling” as soon as she got the chance, followed in quick succession by Jimmy and Bobbie Barrett, the Jerry Lewis-style comedian and his tough-cookie wife and manager (who Don also slept with, because a. she is female and b. once you go Jewish, it’s a whole new youish), and of course, the inimitable Dr. Faye Miller, so admiring of Don’s punim, so effortlessly insightful about his inner state, and thus so ultimately expendable.

Still, it wasn’t until last season that we got Michael Ginsburg, the whiz-kid copywriter. With his thick “regional” accent, Yiddish-accented Old Country father who likes farmers’ cheese and has a dimly remembered tragic early childhood in a concentration camp, Ginsburg is the first Jewish character on Mad Men who isn’t, on some level, trying to hide it. Roger Sterling, ever the gentleman, may have taken it upon himself last season to make sure their client Mohawk Airlines could deal with “working with a Jew,” but the times, they are a changin.’

Season 6 opens in January 1968, roughly nine months after “Ginzo” was hired, and suddenly the world of SCDP and environs looks like that summer at Camp Ramah where everybody became a hippie. Roger—of all people—is in psychoanalysis! Indian food causes gastrointestinal distress! Everybody has started dressing like a Dave Berg character from “The Lighter Side of …” in Mad Magazine! Even Betty Hofstadt Draper Francis, such the epitome of the shiksa goddess that she essentially obviates the term, has gotten chunky and gone brunette.

The cultural reasons for this are manifold and have been discussed here and elsewhere by me and others, so I’ll let you draw your own conclusions; suffice it to say, it was about this time in the ’60s that the Jews were ready for America and America was ready for them. What does strike me, however, is how fast it happened. Scarcely 20 years before the season opener, the Jews of Europe … well, we know where they were, or perhaps more aptly, where they weren’t. In 1960, the only Jew at Sterling Cooper was the one who worked in the mail room; last season, Stan Rizzo derisively hurls the portfolio of “Ginsburg” not because the name itself is an inherent disqualifier, but to warn Peggy away from hiring someone who might be more talented than she. (Peggy herself is happily living in sin with the radical journalist Abe Drexler, who isn’t exactly a Presbyterian.)

The dizzying ascent to commonplace ubiquity puts me in mind of another marginalized group who have, perhaps, at last reached their moment. A little more than 20 years ago, when I was a kid, there were basically only three templates for a gay character on TV or in the movies: drag queen, serial killer, or plague victim. The latter, which became more and more prevalent throughout the late 1980s and early ’90s, invariably appeared on “very special episodes.” I remember how they looked, their faces ashen with makeup and carefully applied sarcoma lesions, gazing up at their mournful, currently healthy but ultimately doomed lovers, with eyes as limpid and bottomless as Anne Frank’s on the cover of The Diary of a Young Girl. The message too seemed to be the same; that to be a male homosexual was to be no less condemned to certain, unavoidable death than a young Jewish girl in Nazi-occupied Europe. Is that how it works? Your people endure an unbearable, foundational catastrophe, then 20, 25 years later everybody finally rubs their eyes and says, “Oh, wait, those people we were so freaked out by? They’re actually great!” and then you get your own sitcoms and everybody starts slipping your slang into their conversation (Harry Crane with his gonifs; Michelle Malkin used the word fierce in relation to Margaret Thatcher the other day). You become culturally ubiquitous, and all that had to happen was for untold numbers of you to die horrible deaths. Sort of like a break-up diet!

I don’t know who the next group to come to the forefront of American culture will be, but I sincerely hope they don’t have to suffer quite so much in order to convince the rest of us that they’re human beings with plenty to offer. In the meantime, I’ll eagerly await Mad Men’s first gay Jew—I hear Salvatore Romano is dating a nice accountant. Next year, at the Stonewall!

***

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Great piece. I wonder to what extent Israel’s smashing success in the Six Day War of June 1967 made it easier for American Jews to carry themselves with more confidence and whether there was any spill-over effect of how Gentile Americans viewed Jews not just in Israel, but in America as well?

So, Ethan, that could be. But also, what about the fact that Hebrew National, Levy’s Bread and El Al Airlines all paid for great advertising copy….and they got it in America. I think it was at DDB in Chicago where I worked during the summer of 1964 (as a secretary, of course) and enjoyed the constant laughter behind closed doors–drinking, or huge fun to dream up an ad campaign? Anyway, huge posters of those three ads (“We answer to a higher authority” etc) were proudly displayed at the entrance of the offices. Perhaps it took some important and big Jewish clients to break in….

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Steven A.Ludsin says:

I found your analysis of the growing Jewish presence in Mad Men very insightful. I entered an Ivy League school in the mid sixties and there was a vague sense of coming of age, partially due to being away from home for the first time, besides summers spent in a Jewish overnight camp, and partially due to entering an elite historically WASP institition. The good news is that being Jewsih at Cornell University was a good experience and I didn’t experience anti-Semitism. Ironically it was when I went to law school and then entered the investment banking world that the white shoe law firms and certain investment banks were basically non-options. Fortunately the creative world of advertising is fertile for Jewish minds that have influenced their industries by being outsiders. The insurance industry and specifically MetLife reminded me of the anti-Semitism of the fifties and sixties. I am so troubled by the biased work environment at MetLife that I experienced first hand, that I actually filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission based on religious and age discrimination. I believe I have a keen sense of anti-Semitism since I am a child of a Holocaust survivor and I served on the President’s Commission on the Holocaust and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. We still have to be vigilant and hopefully discrimination will diminish if we expose it. Mad Men is entertaining and thought provoking and gives us perspective on how far we have come and how much further we must go.

Debra Wolosky says:

Ruchel! Nice post! Linear, rational and everything. I’m not used to that because I read your SMASH recaps elsewhere.

Florence Echtman says:

The plural of mensch is menschen!

surfer_dad says:

Kudos to Matthew Weiner and Mad Men … it’s just so nice to see the Jewish characters created and played as real people, with all the faults and grievances and dreams we all have.

In contrast to what seems like ‘nearly’ every other Jew in the movies or on TV who has to either marry a blonde “shiksa” or simply wash themselves of any vestige of Judasim to be palatable, the Jewish characters on Mad Men seem much more real. Sure SOME Jews in the 60s wanted to escape their Jewishness and some just didn’t care but some others WERE proudly “just” Jewish. As in real life, the characters on Mad Men seem to run the gamut and it’s nice to see.

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Mad Mensches

Another Tattler prediction come true: AMC’s 1960s New York drama series returns—full of ascendant Jews

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