'Mad Men': Bring Back the Smart, Scrupulous, Sultry Jewess
One of the most beguiling characters on “Mad Men” was a smart-minded, sexy Jewish broad — bring her back!
As early-60s ad-world drama “Mad Men” gears up for its third season, I have an almost obsessive desire to Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff), return to the show. Rachel is the Jewish career woman and sultry beauty who has come closest of all the show’s women to genuinely stealing Don Draper’s heart.
Everything about Rachel’s plot arc does Jewish women proud (thanks, Matthew Weiner). Don initially dismisses Rachel, due to his ingrained sexism and antisemitism. He storms out of their first business meeting snapping that he won’t be lectured at by a woman, and the unspoken addition is “a Jewish one at that.” But a few episodes later, the famously reticent ad-man is lying on Rachel’s sofa, post-coital, spilling his guts about his tragic childhood. Rachel manages to do what no one else on “Mad Men” has done: bring out Don’s vulnerability without scaring him away. And later, when she breaks off their affair, it proves what an anomaly she is: the only person insightful enough to see deeply into Don’s tortured psyche, the only woman strong enough to resist his wiles, the only one of his paramours to consistently bring up moral scruples about being with a married man. Despite being ahead of her time, though, she’s also human: She falls for Don against her will and suffers as a result of the affair, too. Her father apparently finds out that she’s shtupping a non-Jew, and she takes off on a three-month cruise that is most likely fraught with regrets.
More than just being a tribute to the attractiveness of independent-minded Jewish women, the Draper-Menken affair is a commentary on the place of Jews in the American myth. Rachel sees that Don understands what it is to be an outsider, and uses that to break down his prejudice. She speaks candidly to Don about the Jewish experience — being the daughter of immigrants, her feelings towards Israel — and he eventually sees himself in her story. She’s no longer “the other.”
Rachel’s hold on Don is subtly apparent even after the breakup. In season 2, Don meets her by chance at a restaurant and learns that she is now married to (a nice Jewish) man named Tilden Katz — and in a later episode a drunken Don gives his own name as “Tilden Katz” when entering an underground gambling den. It’s his way, perhaps, of expressing his angst at losing Rachel while also ridiculing her husband’s Jewish name. But it certainly shows that Rachel is still on his brain — and she’s stayed on the audience’s brain, too. It’s rare to see an obviously Jewish woman on a serious TV drama portrayed as smart, moral, warm and undeniably sexy all at once. Even though “Mad Men,” like Don Draper himself, is moving relentlessly forward in time, would it be too much to ask to see a little more Menken?