At the onset of the fifth season of the critically beloved AMC ad agency drama “Mad Men,” a new Jewish copywriter, Michael Ginsberg, becomes the bright creative light of the office, while Abe Drexler, a secondary character dating another copywriter, is outed as a member of the tribe by using the word “bracha.” Then the two men kibitz and eat Chinese takeout in the staff room.
This scene, as some other early episodes of this “Mad Men” season — whose final episode aired June 10 — felt like the beginning of “Mad Men: The Jewish Years.” Even in previous seasons, creator Matthew Weiner offered a parade of strong Jewish women as extramarital love interests for the ad agency’s creative director, Don Draper, from elegant department store heiress Rachel Menken to shrewd consultant Faye Miller. Guessing which characters were Jewish became a kind of pastime for viewers, explicit Jewish references their reward.
But such shtick, whether as text or subtext, was never the point. The Jewish storylines, taking place from 1960 to 1966, inevitably pointed to deeper questions about American Jewish and indeed, American, identity. What are outsiders’ responsibilities once societal gatekeepers let them in? When, if ever, can those outsiders stop viewing themselves as alien? And should they? Through characters like self-made man Don, secretary turned copywriter Peggy Olsen and the gaggle of golf-playing White Anglo-Saxon Protestants with whom they work, we witnessed the thrilling process of breaking into rarefied circles based on merit and guts, and the corrupting anxiety that follows when the break-in is complete.
Jews are far from the only group that has gone through that transition on “Mad Men.” The ad agency of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is a threshold for women in the workplace, for men without social pedigrees and, in the future, as the storylines intimate, for gay men and lesbians and people of color. “Mad Men” doesn’t study the move of these groups toward broad social equality; rather, it observes interpersonal dynamics in the hallways of elite society (and since those hallways remained largely segregated in the 1960s, the show’s treatment of people of color is more cursory than it could be, which is a major flaw).
As the fifth season began, the show’s writers plunked another new character, Ginsberg, down into those hallways. Roger Sterling, a partner in the agency and a quintessential WASP, had already gotten over his qualms about hiring a Jew: “Everybody has one,” he says, giving the go-ahead for Ginsberg to come on board. The new kid’s Jewishness is of the nebbishy variety: Ginsberg, many recappers and Tweeters immediately remarked, acts as though he’s walked into the advertising offices right out of a Woody Allen film.
Ginsberg has a pushy and unabashedly neurotic demeanor that disturbs not only his colleagues, but also some viewers who see him as a caricature. But throughout the season, his relentless drive and knack for the business challenges his colleague Peggy and their boss, Don, in the creative realm. And the audience never forgets his roots, even as he tries to obscure them himself. Ginsberg swears to Peggy in an interview that he has no family, but after his hiring, he arrives home to a dark apartment and receives a Hebrew blessing from his heavily accented immigrant father. In a subsequent episode, he avows to Peggy that he isn’t that man’s son; he’s been told he was adopted after being born in a concentration camp. He’d rather believe, Ginsberg says, that he comes from Mars, the literal embodiment of being alien.