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April 9, 2014

Jonathan Tobin: Why Did Kerry Lie About Israeli Blame?

Samuel G. Freedman: A resolution 70 years later for a father's unsettling legacy of ashes from Dachau

Jessica Ivins: A resolution 70 years later for a father's unsettling legacy of ashes from Dachau

Kim Giles: Asking for help is not weakness

Kathy Kristof and Barbara Hoch Marcus: 7 Great Growth Israeli Stocks

Matthew Mientka: How Beans, Peas, And Chickpeas Cleanse Bad Cholesterol and Lowers Risk of Heart Disease

Sabrina Bachai: 5 At-Home Treatments For Headaches

The Kosher Gourmet by Daniel Neman Have yourself a matzo ball: The secrets bubby never told you and recipes she could have never imagined

April 8, 2014

Lori Nawyn: At Your Wit's End and Back: Finding Peace

Susan B. Garland and Rachel L. Sheedy: Strategies Married Couples Can Use to Boost Benefits

David Muhlbaum: Smart Tax Deductions Non-Itemizers Can Claim

Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.E : Before You Lose Your Mental Edge

Dana Dovey: Coffee Drinkers Rejoice! Your Cup Of Joe Can Prevent Death From Liver Disease

Chris Weller: Electric 'Thinking Cap' Puts Your Brain Power Into High Gear

The Kosher Gourmet by Marlene Parrish A gift of hazelnuts keeps giving --- for a variety of nutty recipes: Entree, side, soup, dessert

April 4, 2014

Rabbi David Gutterman: The Word for Nothing Means Everything

Charles Krauthammer: Kerry's folly, Chapter 3

Amy Peterson: A life of love: How to build lasting relationships with your children

John Ericson: Older Women: Save Your Heart, Prevent Stroke Don't Drink Diet

John Ericson: Why 50 million Americans will still have spring allergies after taking meds

Cameron Huddleston: Best and Worst Buys of April 2014

Stacy Rapacon: Great Mutual Funds for Young Investors

Sarah Boesveld: Teacher keeps promise to mail thousands of former students letters written by their past selves

The Kosher Gourmet by Sharon Thompson Anyone can make a salad, you say. But can they make a great salad? (SECRETS, TESTED TECHNIQUES + 4 RECIPES, INCLUDING DRESSINGS)

April 2, 2014

Paul Greenberg: Death and joy in the spring

Dan Barry: Should South Carolina Jews be forced to maintain this chimney built by Germans serving the Nazis?

Mayra Bitsko: Save me! An alien took over my child's personality

Frank Clayton: Get happy: 20 scientifically proven happiness activities

Susan Scutti: It's Genetic! Obesity and the 'Carb Breakdown' Gene

Lecia Bushak: Why Hand Sanitizer May Actually Harm Your Health

Stacy Rapacon: Great Funds You Can Own for $500 or Less

Cameron Huddleston: 7 Ways to Save on Home Decor

The Kosher Gourmet by Steve Petusevsky Exploring ingredients as edible-stuffed containers (TWO RECIPES + TIPS & TECHINQUES)

Jewish World Review Nov. 19, 2008 / 21 Mar-Cheshvan 5769

‘Mad Men’: Tackling prejudices or reinforcing them?

By Elliot B. Gertel


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JewishWorldReview.com | The runaway cable TV hit of late summer/early fall for two seasons, AMC's Mad Men recently won the Emmy for best dramatic series. Purportedly a tell-all account of the advertising industry and other corporate life in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it has spun a yarn of nonstop sexism, racism, alcoholism, marital infidelity and of the worst sin of all, smoking. Producer-writer Matthew Weiner is unrelenting in his efforts to expose the hypocrisies and myscogenies of the era.

The drama centers around the double, triple and quadruple life of advertising rising star Don draper (Jon Hamm), who broke into the business shortly after returning from World War II service, and has risen to the top ranks of a smaller, but respected and prospering agency. Draper, we soon learn, is literally living incognito. He has changed his identity not due to criminal activity, but because he is ashamed of being born in rural poverty and out of wedlock. He cuts himself off from his past and destroys his only, younger brother in the process. He seeks to find himself through relationships with women of different ages and backgrounds, with mistresses as well as with his beautiful, upper crust wife who shows signs of dissatisfaction.

In the first episodes of the series, Weiner and his writers bombarded viewers with the antics of their white Protestant office men of all ages, who engage in nasty treatment of, or in making nasty comments about: blacks, Jews, women, and Jewish women, in that order.

The show's early episodes obviously sought to catch the attention of different ethnic groups. An aging African American waiter is concerned that a younger black waiter chats too much with the customers. Women viewers are expected to gasp when a young partner in the advertising firm is advised: "You got to know what kind of guy you are. Then they'll know what kind of gal to be." And Jews are put on alert with this office dialogue: "Have you ever hired a Jew?"-"Not on my watch."-"Most of the Jews work for Jewish firms."-"Selling Jewish products to Jewish people." There are also jokes about "Chinamen" to pique Asian Americans.

Indeed, Weiner plays his audience as did the original suds-selling soap operas. He seeks both sympathy and disapproval for most of his characters, especially Draper, who is so much on the fringes and so lost that his bad and unfaithful behavior is clearly intended to stir the pathos of viewers as much as their censure. Draper's nemesis, Peter Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser, effectively portraying a cad morphing into a lost soul), on the other hand, is an ambitious blueblood of mediocre ability whose clumsy efforts at blackmail, exploitation and milking his wealthy in-laws are intended to elicit jeering response.

All of the men seek to exploit the women, who were treated sympathetically in the first season, whether they chose to be exploited or not. There is no hero here, only an anti-hero, Draper. But the show has a heroine, earnest and demure Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), a secretary who may have the most advertising talent in the bunch. Comments are often made that Peggy is not watching her weight. Weiner and the other writers challenge their viewers to cheer her on by gifting her with office promotions just as she gives birth to Campbell's illegitimate son, after one office couch encounter, without having known that she had been pregnant. Such is Weiner's tribute to a naïve time — or, rather, to an age whose excesses, in his vision, fed on naivite.

If Weiner is attentive to his women characters, he obsesses over his Jewish characters far more. The firm is approached by its first Jewish clients, a patriarchal department store owner named Abraham Menkin and his daughter Rachel, who is running much of the business. The ad men are wary of dealing with Jews: "Ready to sweet talk some liberal Jews?" Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff) is rather determined to reconfigure the store in a certain way. Campbell looks askance at her strength of convictions: "Adding money and education doesn't take the rude edge out of people." Campell dubs her "Molly Goldberg." (in the third episode, written by Tom Palmer) Don Draper is offended by Rachel's refusal to allow him to stereotype her and her store (or at least her plans for the store). "I'm not going to let a woman talk to me like this," he snorts, as he walks out on their first meeting. Later on, during a lipstick campaign, writers Maria Jacquemetton and Andre Jacquemetton will have a colleague joke about Ethel Rosenberg sporting "pink wear…to the chair" (sixth episode).

Yet Don Draper is drawn to Rachel. He takes to heart Rachel's complaint that none of the ad men at the table have so much as come to the store. He appears there himself, though viewers already know that he is indulging in one extramarital affair, with a young bohemian type, and is looking for other conquests. During Draper's visit, Rachel speaks of her family, but not in particularly affectionate ways, though she does seem to care about them. Her father and uncle "picked this place up for a shekel." Of her sister she says, referring to the caged watchdogs that she lovingly tends on the store roof, "These bitches were easier to handle."

On the roof, Don and Rachel kiss. The first words out of Don's mouth are, "I'm married." (He is always honest about his marital status, ostensibly to win the support of his lovers in not betraying his infidelity.) Rachel says, "I guess I didn't ask because I didn't want to know." Don admits, "It shouldn't have happened," but that he wanted to kiss her from the first time she stormed out of his office. (third episode) After taking a puff on a cigarette (of course), Rachel declares: "I know you understand. I'd rather not have to explain this to anyone." She tells him that she will put someone else on the account.

Later, Don learns from his beautiful, blond wife, Betty (January Jones), "The first boy I ever kissed was Jewish." She tells him that this boy, David Rosenberg, was "very good-looking," but that there was "something about him that was gloomy." She had met him at a fundraiser at a synagogue for "those poor skinny people on the boats." As for David, she said that he had more practice at kissing than she did. "The only reason he chose me was that I wasn't part of the synagogue." Are the writers Jacquemetton offering some kind of commentary on why some Jewish men are drawn to Gentile women — because they have not been part of the synagogue? Betty suggests that the relationship ended because she "got looks" on the schoolbus for "necking with a Jew."

This discussion and a good deal of other dialogue are generated because the writers introduce a subplot, quite soon in the series, in which the Israeli Ministry of Tourism courts the advertising agency, and vice versa. Campbell remarks that the "kibbutzes" are "positively Soviet." Yet Draper is fascinated that the Daughters of the American Revolution are "shuttling" the new best-seller, Exodus, "up and down Fifth Avenue." Another colleague observes: "As far as I can see, the biggest thing this place has got going for it, [is that] the people are good-looking. The Jews there don't look like the Jews here. Have you been to the diamond district?"

The conversation only makes Draper yearn for Rachel all the more. Indeed, there is something about the Israelis that stirs his libido and appeals to his sense of danger. Rachel fuels that when she observes, "I'll say one thing about Israelis. Don't cross them." The writers Jacquemetton actually engage Don and Rachel in a discussion of Zionism. When Don asks why Rachel is not in Israel, she says, "My life is here. For me it's [Zion is] an idea." Rachel declares, "I'm really not very Jewish. If my mother hadn't died having me I could have been Marilyn instead of Rachel. [That was probably her mother's name; the biblical Rachel died in childbirth. Note the editorial decision to highlight Jewish babynaming customs.] No one would know the difference." Yet she does seem to have thought out her philosophy of galus or exile: "Jews have lived in exile for a long time….They've managed to make a go of it. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that we thrive at doing business with people who hate us."

As it turns out, the Israeli Ministry chooses to go with a larger company (Sept. 13, 2007 episode, written by Weiner and Chris Provenzano) , showing a kind of snobbishness on their part, I suppose. They are also rather anti-Bible, at least according to writers Jacquemetton. (Aug. 23, 2007). When Don Draper quips that being given the book, Exodus, saved him "some legwork" because the only other source he had was the Bible, Yoram from the Israeli tourism ministry retorts instantly. "Let's stay away from that."

But Rachel chooses to enter into a protracted affair with Don, so Jews do remain in his life. Much of the rest of the first season of this series could be described as a study of this Jewish career woman of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

It is hard to figure Rachel out. She is sympathetic to Don or at least spouts sympathy, but to the point of being patronizing. When he tells her in an early meeting that what she calls love "was invented by guys like me to sell nylons, she responds, "I never realized it until this moment, but it must be hard to be a man, too." Such rhetoric on her part does not seem intended merely to disarm, but also to seduce. It also reinforces her hold on him. Once their affair begins, Rachel says: "Do you want to go home? I don't want you to. This is hard for me. I can't even imagine how hard it must be for you."

Do Rachel's words ring hollow? She does express some moral concerns, repeatedly, even as she allows herself to become Don's mistress. She tells her sister that sometimes "good things" come, "but there's no future in them." As noted above, she stops seeing him (for a while) after he kisses her and declares that he is married. "I didn't ask because I didn't want to know," she replies. After telling him that she wants someone else to handle her store's advertising, she says: "Don't look at me like that. What do you do, just kiss women all the time you're not married to? Am I supposed to live some life running alongside yours?" (third episode)

The series creator/writer/executive producer Matthew Weiner pontificated at the end of that episode, "Somehow fidelity itself or the bond of matrimony becomes frivolous, and it's part of our social fabric. And of course it's not frivolous." Despite these vague, pious-sounding words, Weiner does not allow Rachel to take the option of walking the other way, or even of continued moral exhortations. She does not become a Rebeccah to Draper's Sir Walter Scott. Before we know it, Rachel is spouting moral relativism in her pillow talk to Don, "I don't know if I understand how this works, where it goes."

Whatever moral stamina Rachel may have possessed quickly wears down. Yet she does take a stand when Don declares that he wants to run away with her. She calls him a coward, saying that he doesn't want to run away with her, but from his wife; that he is looking for an excuse to leave his children without a father. This occurs in the last episode of the first season, written by Lisa Albert, Andre Jacquemetton and Maria Jacquemetton. Yet by the end of the first season she has run away, or at least has been sent into exile by her own father. After receiving a call from Abraham Menken, Rachel's dad, Don's boss reads him the riot act: "I'm sure you know that his daughter will be unavailable for the next few months, taking some sort of ocean voyage to Paris and what not. As a partner I do not expect your personal preferences to interfere with our business….It was his tone of voice. He's her father."

We are therefore left with a rather negative impression of Rachel Menken. She is wise enough to see trouble in Don, but not strong enough to steer clear of him. She takes a moral stand in the midst of their affair, and yet runs away in a cowardly fashion. At least Don who is a haunted man and rather amoral can tell Rachel with full conviction during their pillow talk: "I'm right where I'm supposed to be." He doesn't seem to know any better. But does she? And what about the other Jewish woman in this production, a Dr. Guttman, a psychologist hired to convince people to smoke?

Though not perfect themselves, the Jews of Mad Men, particularly the Jewish women, do not hesitate to refer to others disparagingly. At one point Rachel's sister asks her: "Are you still seeing that goy? Jesus." This is the same sister who previously remarked: "It's 1960. We don't live in a shtetl. We can marry for love." Though ambiguous about marrying Gentiles, Rachel's sister does offer a moral perspective, derived from the movies, that Rachel herself cannot maintain: "All I know is what you've seen in the movies. It's magical and then they start about him leaving his wife" (in an episode that starts with the words, "Do you have to go home?").

All of this leads us to wonder whether Weiner and his writers are tackling the prejudices of the Sixties, or dealing with ongoing prejudices about Jews and their looks in society as a whole and among certain Jews or even certain TV writers. The bottom line is that Weiner has made Rachel beautiful, but amidst cracks that she (and Israelis) are the exception and in ways that lead to questioning the quality of her moral makeup.

We meet Rachel again only once in the second season, in an episode written by Robin Veith. Don runs into her in a restaurant (Sardi's!) while awaiting a new mistress. He greets her with a respectful "Miss Menken." She corrects him, "Actually, it's Mrs. Katz. This is my husband, Tilden." The writers suggest that "nice Jewish girls" of the period did not have to make moral decisions, anyway. Their ambivalences and even indiscretions became irrelevant as soon as they married Jewish husbands. In the same episode we are told that a nasty comedian, Jimmy Barrett (Patrick Fischler) is really Brownstein. Don and Barrett's wife (who may or may not be Jewish) have been pursuing each other; Barrett will later confront Don in front of Don's wife about the affair, adding to her anger and depression and passive aggressive revenge-taking.

Yet the same writer, under direction of the show's creator, of course, are hell bent on introducing us to a different kind of Jewish woman. A new secretary, Jane Siegel (Peyton List), is a bright "college girl" who is a tad exhibitionistic. She is also a fighter, and when head secretary Joan Holloway (Christine Hendricks) tries to discipline her, she wiggles into the good graces of the firm's lecherous partner, Roger Sterling (John Slattery), according to the writers Jacquemetton, Weiner and Jane Anderson. In subsequent episodes we learn that the two engage in a passionate and prolonged affair, so much so that Roger wants "Jane from Trenton" to marry him. When Roger's devastated wife storms into the office and tells him, in front of Jane, to explain the affair to his daughter, the usually intrepid Jane runs off in tears (at the end of an episode on Marilyn Monroe's death by the Jacquemetton's and Weiner). Such was the "Jewish" element to the show in the second season.

Weiner and the other writers do not seem to regard Jewish women as possessing dignity, self-control and prudence. But then again, the other women in the series were not faring any better in the second season, certainly not in the way they were portrayed. Can all of their destructive behavior could be attributed to the insensitive men in their lives? In the last episode of the second season, long-suffering Betty, who has found the courage to banish Don from the home, indulges in a one night stand after she learns that she is pregnant. Before that, she turns to alcohol and then to sadistically maneuvering a married friend into an affair with a man at their riding club. In the same episode, Peggy cruelly gets even with Campbell and head secretary Jane decides to let her Jekyll-and-Hyde fiancé get away with raping her, just so that she can have the "security" of marriage, or at least of a large wedding ring (and the option of lucrative divorce?).

While this series is very slick and beautifully mounted and produced, there is something insidious about it. Weiner and Company point to the Fifties and early Sixties, now held up as times of greater morality and conformity to traditional values, and insist that demeaning others and cheating on others were rampant norms, and, worst sin of all, that everybody smoked. This kind of skewered presentation reminds me of an objection that Rabbi Samuel Dresner raised to certain stories and novels by Isaac Bashevis Singer which suggested that East European Jewry was not the paradigm of morality that many of our grandparents remembered it as being. Dresner pointed out that such disparagement and diminution of the moral standards of an earlier time and revered place only serves to lower moral standards in our own time and place.

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Contributing writer Elliot B. Gertel, JWR's resident media maven, is a Conservative rabbi based in Chicago. His latest book is "Over the Top Judaism: Precedents and Trends in the Depiction of Jewish Beliefs and Observances in Film and Television". (Click HERE to purchase.)

© 2008, ELLIOT B. GERTEL