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Obligatory Jewish ‘Mad Men’ Post

Last night, a little bit of Hebrew, a lot of B.S.

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Matthew Weiner (L) and David Simon (R).(Skip Bolen/Alfredo E. Rodriguez/Getty Images/Margarita Korol)

Rachel did her excellent ‘Mad Men is secretly Jewish’ piece. I did a cursory, curtain-raising blog post. I hoped we could be done. Who really wants or needs to read more about Mad Men? However, with last night’s episode, which along with last week’s season premiere has been a real drop-off from the excellent Season 4, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner has forced our hand. When the new copywriter was named Ginsberg, I groaned; when at the ad agency they made a whole thing of him being Jewish, I groaned some more; when they had him be antic and Brooklyn-accented and he made a crack about Mein Kampf, I just sighed; then when, totally randomly, they had this new character entering his apartment, telling his Yiddish-accented father that he had gotten a job, only to have his father say the Shabbat blessing for the children—”Yevarechecha Adonai v’ishmerecha,” that one—I just gave in. It would have been enough? No: enough!

Daniel Mendelsohn’s much-derided Mad Men essay from last year got a lot wrong, but it got the most important thing right: It asked the correct question. The most interesting thing about Mad Men isn’t judging how good it is, but trying to figure out why people think it’s so much better than it plainly is; “the deeper, almost irrational reasons for the series’s appeal,” as Mendelsohn put it. And part of it is, of course, that the show has figured out how to display and have us enjoy shiny surfaces that attain deeper meaning without requiring the investment, on either the creators’ or viewers’ parts, of more time. This scene with the father is an obvious example: It could not possibly hold any deeper meaning to us, because we have met the character less than one hour before; instead, it mugs an age-old prayer’s gravitas and importance and tricks us into thinking that what we’ve just seen is the thing with the gravitas and the importance. It’s a spiritual shortcut, the great-grandson of what the Catholics called simony, and today we call sentimentality (except, that is, when there is literally a prayer involved, in which case I guess we can still call it simony).

Which brings us hastily back to Weiner and the Jews. Weiner is very obviously one of those people who long felt he was a stymied genius who now feels unstymied and needs everyone to know how brilliant he is. His show is ostentatious, and off-set he does more press than a world champion weightlifter. (Compare Weiner’s blabbering to the sly, silent smile of his old boss, David Chase, who was confident enough to know that his show spoke for itself.)

Most of the time, Mad Men pulls this whole sentimentality trick off. With Joan Holloway, in particular, the show has suggested a deep inner life and more complex story with small details, sensational incidents, and, in the scheme of things, not all that much screen-time. Weiner, befitting his personality, slips up the most when he is at his most self-indulgent: the weird episodes where Don Draper finds himself in southern California (Weiner grew up in L.A.); the bizarre, unexplained sub-plot last season featuring Don Draper’s daughter, Sally, and a boy she knows, who is actually played by Weiner’s real-life son; and, of course, all the Jewish stuff. Jews in Mad Men are either gratuitous stock characters (the comedian in Season 2; Don’s accountant, who rarely allows a conversation to pass without a Yiddish word), or are people for whom Jewishness is just an extra layer of “complexity” (chiefly last season’s Faye Miller, whose outer-boroughness was relevant but whose Jewishness wasn’t; also Peggy’s radical-journalist boyfriend, who, like a shadow, exists entirely as a further clarification of Peggy). The one exception was the department store heiress in Season 1, Rachel Menken Katz, a real character who faced a real conflict whose particulars only a Jewish woman would have faced in 1961: She was great. (Want to be generous? Throw in the former Jane Siegel, now Mrs. Roger Sterling: Maybe this says something about superlative Jewish social-climbing; maybe it’s obnoxiously unnecessary and unrealistic.) And now, we have Ginsberg, whose inclusion can’t be a symptom of Weiner’s adolescent obsession with chronicling social change (since, as a character admits, by the mid-1960s advertising firms were hiring Jews), but rather purely of his self-indulgence.

So, an egomaniacal, press-hungry, Jewish TV auteur who, um, looks like that? The comparison to David Simon, the man behind The Wire, is unavoidable. (Weiner did grow up in L.A., but would you believe me if I told you he was born in Baltimore? Which is more, actually, than can be said for Simon.) The Wire has two significant Jewish characters. They’re both lawyers, because the point of The Wire is that these roles are chosen for people, not vice versa. One, Rhonda Pearlman, is a basically good person whose Jewishness is irrelevant. The other, Maury Levy, is arguably the most despicable character on a show about drug dealers and murderers, and his Jewishness, at times, is disturbingly suggested to be very relevant.

As The Wire weakened near the very end of its run, there were horrifying moments of tokenism: Levy invites someone over for dinner; Yvette, he says, is making brisket. I cringed when I watched that, but I never suspected self-indulgence. A crucial part of the game is the lawyer who enables the street action, and, in Baltimore, that lawyer is in fact liable to be Jewish; that Levy is a dead-ringer for Simon himself makes sense in Simon’s theology, in which the heroes are a hard-drinking Irish detective, a Polish union leader, a subversive black district commander, and he was just the schmuck who wrote about it, getting only tiny bits of the truth, and only able to depict the full truth in the realm of fiction.

Simon would never have dreamed of polluting The Wire with little Easter eggs, little in-jokes, little gifts to himself. Weiner is a lot like Simon, except his show isn’t nearly as good.

Related: Jew Pop [Tablet Magazine]
Earlier: Which Jew Will Draper Seduce?

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Tara says:

The show was about children. Not Jews. Sorry you missed that. You are mystified because you are looking for a “statement” instead of drama.

Jess says:

The Jewish guy Ginsburg was a caricature of a nebbishy, neurotic-NYC Jewish-y Jew. It was horrible and grating. Who acts like that? The blessing made no sense contextualy. It wasn’t Shabbat or a wedding! I think most Jews in NYC advertising in the 60s were much more trying to blend IN and were part of the mainstream culture. This character did not seem authentic.

Actually,no... says:

Always suspect that when a critic is seizing upon random shards of connection, they’re making it up as they go along.

The actor who rather ably played Maury Levy is the brother of Wire executive producer Nina K. Noble and a theater veteran. It is likely that she — and not Simon — recommended that her brother read for the part. The fact that you think Simon and the actor look alike — and that this fits his theology — is on its face, a juvenile and manufactured bit of bull. It isn’t a matter of Simon’s “theology” or the actor’s looks. The connection goes elsewhere. But that’s okay, this is the internet. Make it up, repeat it, and soon enough it will be true.

Aryeh says:

I had no problem with storyline of hiring a Jewish character (although I don’t know why did they needed to tackle this right after hiring an African-American). I had no problem with Roger’s line that the client was ok with a Jew because everyone has one — that was a very real concept in the 60s. I even had no problem with Ginsberg living in a tenement with a Yiddish accented father. But the blessing made no sense — to me it showed a lack of understanding by Matt Weiner (or the other writers) of what the blessing is for or who was likely to say it (house did not seem remotely observant, and blessing an adult child?). Perhaps they were extending on the theme of the older genrations worry over the younger — but that is a strecth (and I am part of the 2% who know what the father was saying — had to explain it to my co-workers — how could be the point when most people don’t know what it is).

FreeMind says:

I understand this is a Jewish website and all, but why can’t one enjoy a TV show without caring which character is Jewish and which is not? What does it matter? If Don Draper will reveal himself to be of Polish Catholic descent, will any Pole or Catholic care? probably not.

the ginsberg character is offer. i agree with very little else you’ve got going on here, but my wife and i were rolling our eyes so hard over ginsberg that i think they almost fell out. and when he told his dad that they had ‘rye bread and farmer’s cheese’ for dinner my wife actually burst out laughing. is this 1966 or 1910? does ginsberg know what a grocery store is?

i also feel like the show has had a ton of jewish characters and has covered this from pretty much every angle – best with Rachel Mencken. why are we treading this ground yet again?

awful, not offer.

I’m neither Jewish nor American, and my immediate reaction wasn’t to ask: is this true to what it was like being a Jew in New York in the sixties? The blessing seemed out of place, but the way I saw it, the copywriter and his father were supposed to be a bit sheltered and strange. I did however roll my eyes at the Woody Allen-ness of his delivery, but I saw that as the actor’s fault. He was great in the interview with Don, though.

Shoshie says:

I think they made Ginsburg’s ad man persona a stereotype on purpose. I think he’s acting. The contrast between the Michael of the interview and the Michael of the final, apartment scene, could not be greater. I think he’s playing a role because that’s what he thinks they expect. I don’t think this was simply a one-dimensional, stereotypical portrayal. The writers are too smart for that.

However, I admit I was a little confused about the father’s shabbat blessing. I hereby predict: the father is a survivor who now has Alzheimer’s, and Michael is his caretaker. I hope we see more of their relationship, as well as getting a subplot about new secretary Dawn’s personal life. I also thought the obvious working class/ethnic minority parallels between Michael’s home life and Peggy’s, as seen in earlier seasons, was striking. Those two are going to be quite the team (my other prediction). They had obvious chemistry.

Jonathan says:

I’m with you Marc. I thought it was just plain weird and missed the mark. I don’t know of any tradition of spontaneously using Birkat Cohanim (priestly blessing) on a weekday afternoon to celebrate good news. A tried and true “Shecheyanu” wouldn’t have done the trick? Was Weiner trying to show his Tribe bone fides? If so, it was clumsy for Jewish viewers and probably saccharine for Gentiles.
It reminded me of another wonderful term Protestants often use: cheap grace.

verificationist says:

I gotta part with you on some of your points, Marc. Also, surprised to learn that Mendelsohn’s essay was much-derided. I thought it was brilliant, not to mention one of the very few things in The New York Review of Books that I’ve managed to finish in the last decade. The reason I thought it was brilliant was because I think it came out around the time that Mad Men was plodding through the first half of its fourth season, which I thought was utterly aimless — nothing but the bells and whistles (ie the costumes, the mores, etc). In other words, it forgot to be a drama — the way, by the way, David Simon’s other show, Treme, forgot to be a drama, and therefore was incredibly boring.

Then, in the second half of the season, if memory serves, Mad Men shaped up. Which is, more or less, why I tuned in for Season 5. Which, in the drama department, has been stellar, in my opinion. Matthew Weiner, self-satisfied prick or not (and I’m no fan of his grandstanding with AMC), has created characters so alive and so compelling despite — because of? — their ordinariness that as long as he actually remembers his Plot 101s, the show is unputdownable, to borrow a word from books. It’s been riveting. And for that reason, why don’t we wait to see what Weiner intends with Ginsberg? I’m sure we’ve seen only the start.

You’re right — it’s an uneven show, way less good than people think, but when it’s good — oh God, is it good. It just might be better than anything else out there in its league, with the exception of Breaking Bad. It’s certainly better than the Sopranos ever was. I wish Matt Weiner would believe that and relax a little, yes. But this neuroticism and navel-gazing isn’t very unique, or unique to being Jewish. Bill Buford is neurotic in Among the Thugs. Bill Finnegan is neurotic in A Complicated War. It just isn’t along the axis of their ethnic identity. All of which is a function of the singular place of Jewishness in American life far more than Matt Weiner per se…

Not only was the Birkat Cohanim (priestly blessing) out of place…it was delivered bareheaded.

Bill Krebaum says:

I don’t think anyone should assume that Ginsberg is supposed to a typical 1960’s New York Jew (whatever that might entail). Maybe he’s supposed to be an odd character from a strange background. Not a character whose portrayal should make Jews feel embarrassed or uncomfortable.

As Kenneth Moe commented, it seemed “the copywriter and his father were supposed to be a bit sheltered and strange.” It wouldn’t surprise me if Shoshie isn’t far from from the mark, who predicted “the father is a survivor who now has Alzheimer’s, and Michael is his caretaker.”

Did you notice how it appeared that the elder Ginsberg had been sitting around all day in a dimly lit apartment, just waiting for his son to come home? Why? Maybe because he’s *incapable* of holding down a job? And why does Michael have to suggest something to eat? A “normal” unemployed father would likely have prepared a meal for them both, already! When the dad starts in with the blessing, Michael says something like “what are you doing?” with a note of exasperation– but then humors him by standing still for the blessing. Just the thing a son might do for a mentally or psychologically challenged father who wants to give an inappropriate blessing at an inappropriate time. Not embarrassing schmaltz, but pathology here on display, I’d say. No, I don’t think there’s supposed to be anything “typical” about the Ginsbergs.

But what do I know?

Marie says:

I find Matt Weiner’s insertion of Jewish characters and references to be rather charming even if it is self-indulgent. We often hear that Hollywood is filled with Jewish talent and people in positions of power at studios, but how many of the creative people who are Jewish refer to their background or religion in their work? There is still a lot of anti-Semitism in America at large and much of it has to do with many parts of America having few or no Jewish people in it, and people never being exposed to Jewish cultural or spiritual traditions. It makes sense to have Jewish characters in a show set in New York City because there is a large Jewish population there. Therefore, it gives Matt Weiner an opportunity, and one shouldn’t think less of him if he’s sometimes a bit awkward about it. He reminds me of the way Carl Reiner incorporated Jewish characters and Yiddish expressions in the WASP-y “Dick Van Dyke” show, which was also set in NYC. Remember the episode where Buddy Sorel gets Bar Mitzvah’d as an adult to please his mother? Nobody has really done things like that since Carl Reiner did that in the ’60s with the Van Dyke show until Matt Weiner with “Mad Men.”

I think the analysis misses the point, both tactically and strategically.

The tactical point was that this is how “MM” is going to introduce a new character…they’re going to hire after a near corporate death experience. And the ‘blessing’ was a synedoche for this character’s experience. He lives in a world of tension between finding his way, and the old world of certainty.

Strategically, having been a child in the time period in which MM is set, it has alot of touchstones from that era. The “American Dream” was pretty much still alive, and we who watch it see those people still living, very much, a life of programmed values that were even more stilted than they are today (one reason there IS a ‘culture’ war.) That’s one of the reasons why the characters don’t have much ‘inner life’. Who questioned those values at that time?

So the real interest is in watching human beings writhe in the cocoon of inherited views of themselves. They are just beginning to realize these values are not their own.

Paul says:

I don’t think the scene with the father and son was random at all. I think it was there to show that while the son’s Jewishness makes him the fresh new thing on Madison Ave, his Jewishness is in fact thousands of years old. Literally one of the oldest cultural traditions in the history of mankind – the antitheses of fresh and new. I thought it was a nice little point of contrast for the viewer.

Egypt Steve says:

You know, a statement like this:

“It could not possibly hold any deeper meaning to us, because we have met the character less than one hour before; instead, it mugs an age-old prayer’s gravitas and importance and tricks us into thinking that what we’ve just seen is the thing with the gravitas and the importance.”

is instantly belied by the speculation in the comments as to what it could mean. What “cannot possibly” be true is (1) that the writer knows what the scene “meant” in any objective sense or (2) what others will or will not find meaningful, since the experience of “meaning” is entirely subjective.

Cannoneo says:

The larger point that Mad Men is overrated is debatable.

But your reading of the show’s aesthetic is uncharitable, and your understanding of the ways that visual narrative can achieve depth is cramped. A premise of the show is that its ad-industry, upper-middle-class setting is one of surfaces. Perceiving meaning in this world is a matter of decoding a limited set of social signs. The question of whether Don has any depth at all, e.g., is fundamental to the show.

The prayer you describe as superficial, sentimental gravitas, e.g.: that was the whole point. The son’s ambivalence was apparent. The father’s relationship to this ritual is an open question. We only know it shapes this troubled man’s life. He wants to be Allan Ginsburg, but his talent lies in pop-cultural manipulation. He aspires to the world of Don Draper, but he hasn’t separated himself — and we may not want him to — from his familial tradition and its ghetto origins. It’s setting up a potentially rich and poignant character arc. Give it a chance!

Kevin Bailey says:

It irks me when someone claims (as though it were an indisputable fact) that something is “not as good as people think”. That’s exactly how good it is. People are the ones who decide how much they like something. You may like it more or less than they do, but the “overrated” label is a statement about your opinion that you are trying impose on the the rest of the world.

If a stranger says that something is “overrated”, then I am inclined to think I will like it (since so many people like it more than this particular stranger). If I know the person calling a thing “overrated” then I’ll factor in the history of whether that person’s likes and dislikes correspond to mine.

Jason K says:

I’m not sure why the blessing scene has to be taken in a literal this-is-not-how-it-would-be-done context. Can’t it just be weird? Maybe he is weird. In fact, that’s what makes it kind of interesting to me.

Bruce says:

What is not shown is that Jews were excluded from the advertising world in the 1950s and early 1960s. Many Jews changed their names and religius affiliations to get into the business. Show the Jewish character dump his father into a retirement home, marry a Christian woman, and raise a family on white bread and Easter eggs. Run that up the flag and see who salutes.

artcohn says:

Why wasn’t Ginzberg’s Father wearing a Yarmulka?

SherNeth says:

I suppose because I am a fan of the show that I am compelled to comment.  As “Bruce” reported regarding Jews of the 1950s and 1960s changing their names, I recall a comment made by my Long Island Conservative Synogogue Rabbi: “When I was hired as this temple’s Rabbi, I asked to see a list of names of the congregants.  I thought they had given me the list of the members of the Methodist church by mistake.” 

I will say that I sense a bit of the self-loathing Jew in the author.  I was surprised by his comment, ” I cringed when I watched that…” when reporting a scene from a TV show where “Levy invites someone over for dinner. Yvette, he says, is making brisket.”   Although, I don’t watch TheWire,  I would have gotten the sense that someone was being invited over for his wife’s specialty.  Being Jewish, brisket would be a big deal.   I don’t know, would Irish Catholics have cringed if the character said, “Mary Margaret is making a ham,” or would Italians have cringed if the character said, “Theresa is making manicotti?”  Perhaps.  But, no one is outraged by the mannish attire that the semi-regular lesbian character on Mad Men is seen wearing.  To make a point with these short scenes involving minorities (of all stripe), the show reaches for the stereotype.  Perhaps that’s to be expected.  Do they go too far?  When I went to college I was the first Jew my college roommate had ever met and she grew up 2 1/2 hours north of NYC.  She actually wanted me to settle, once and for all, if Jews did or did not have horns, and this was in 1972.   Although I have lived outside of NYC for a long time and no longer talk like Ginzo, he sounds like everyone I grew up with.  (Which makes me wonder actually why none of  the characters on Mad Men sound like they are from NY.)  

If Mad Men were depicting characters who “just happen to be…” it would be a show set in 2012 – not a show that is trying to depict life in the 1960’s.  Back then, nobody would ever say, “…not that there’s anything wrong with that…”  I agree with others that they did well depicting the assimilated Rachel Mencken and let’s not forget the closeted gay account executive from the first season.  I was sorry to see those characters go.

At the end of the day, this is fiction.  Weiner is entitled to depict his view of the Jewish experience on his show.  Like all minorities, when we see a character on TV who is like us, we expect, or, rather, demand that that character is depicted as some “authentic” (in this case) Jew.  I am not so sure there is such a thing.  From my own experience, the Jewish life of my peers here in California was nothing like my NYC suburban upbringing.

How unfortunate it is that, even today, we must continue to monitor media depictions of Jews, even in fiction.  The backlash of anti-semitism has us always on our toes.  

corey949 says:

Golly, this might be the first time on Tablet that I find the comments much smarter, more generous and less snarky than the post to which they respond!

Jews are always the hardest on Jews.

Jews are always the hardest on Jews.

There always seems to be an ‘
Obligatory Jew’ in every movie/tv show.  Can’t you just make something without letting everyone know what religion someone is?


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Obligatory Jewish ‘Mad Men’ Post

Last night, a little bit of Hebrew, a lot of B.S.

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