‘Mad Men’s Most Jewish Moments
Sunday marks the end of an era.
After seven seasons spanning a tumultuous decade, “Mad Men” is leaving us for advertising heaven (and I don’t mean McCann-Erikson). By this time next week, Don, Peggy, Joan, Roger, Betty, Sally, Pete, and all the other characters we’ve come to know and love (and sometimes hate — I’m looking at you, Megan) will be but a distant memory to be revisited on Netflix in moments of nostalgia. It’s time. But it’s also too soon.
“Mad Men” is nominally the tale of Don Draper, 1960s ad man. But that only scratches the surface of what has morphed into one of the most carefully crafted, framed and nuanced shows on TV. “Mad Men” is the story of America. “Mad Men” is the story of a generation. “Mad Men” is the story of women. And “Mad Men” is the story of the Jews.
The Jewish storyline on the show has always been very intentional. It’s no coincidence that the very first episode includes a rather shocking display of anti-Semitism: We’ve hardly even gotten to know Don when a slick, 1959-style Roger strides into his office to ask: “Have we ever hired any Jews?”
Don’s deadpan answer is even more revealing: “Not on my watch.”
Matthew Weiner confirmed the importance of the Jewish context in an in March: “I wanted to highlight what I found to be the parallel issue of assimilation to what’s going on with Don in terms identity. I wanted to have this character Rachel Menken who said that she was Jewish. I wanted to talk about the ambiguities of what it means to be an American Jew. And really, how could you tell the story of New York at any time without including Jews?”
More than ten fictional “Mad Men” years later, we’ve come a long way from that first meeting with Menken’s Department Store. Sterling Cooper & Partners (formerly Sterling Cooper then Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, then Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, Cutler Gleason & Chough) hired a full-time Jewish copywriter, the ever-neurotic Michael Ginsberg; Peggy dated a Jewish man; Roger married a Jewish secretary (and then divorced her), and Don revealed his affinity for Jewish mistresses. The company courted Manischewiz as a serious client (and then gotfired). The Jews have arrived. “Mad Men” is a show about reinvention and rebirth. We are, as it were, the perfect example illustrating Don’s signature line: “If you don’t like what they’re saying, change the conversation.”
And so, in honor of our favorite TV show, we bring you the definitive guide of Jewish “Mad Men” moments.
Season 1: Jews are out
“Have we ever hired any Jews?”
What creator Matthew Weiner refers to as America’s “casual anti-Semitism” is on full view in this scene, in which Sterling Cooper meet with Rachel Menken, owner of a Jewish department store on Fifth Avenue — “Ready to sweet talk some liberal Jews?”
Meeting with Israeli Tourism
Don and Roger meet with representatives of the Israeli Tourism Ministry, who are looking for an agency to rebrand the emerging country. This leads to scenes of Don reading “Exodus,” and a discussion about Zionism with Rachel Menken, fast on the way to becoming his mistress.
Best line of the episode:
“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?”
Betty tells Don about her first kiss — with a Jewish boy, natch.
“The first boy I ever kissed was Jewish.” Apparently, David Rosenberg, was “very good-looking,” but that there was “something about him that was gloomy.” The two met at a fundraiser at synagogue for “those poor skinny people on the boats.” As for David, he had more practice at kissing than she did. “The only reason he chose me was that I wasn’t part of the synagogue.”
Nah, Betty. He chose you because you’re fierce.
Season 2: Marginal — But Tolerated
“Grin and Brownstein would be the name of the show if it wasn’t for me,” Barrett’s wife Bobbie lets slip to Don. The two basically embody the trope of pushy Jews in show business.
Jane Siegel Sterling
Mrs. Siegel Sterling doesn’t advertise that she’s an MOT — in fact, she “gets a nosebleed above 86th street.” But fast-forward to her acid trip with Roger in Season 6, and there she is, speaking Yiddish like a pro.
Season 3: Acceptance
”Two months at Grey and you’re already having a nosh?”
After Duck Phillips gets fired from Sterling Cooper, he goes to work at Grey Advertisement, founded in 1917 by Larry Valenstein and Arthur Fatt. More of Pete’s casual anti-Semitism.
Season 4: Assimilation
Dr. Faye Miller
What? Faye Miller is Jewish? Well, yes. And you should have seen it coming. Some subtle hints : “Go shit in the ocean.” (English translation of Gai kakhen afenyam). And some not-subtle-hints: “Look at that punim.” Also, she’s a female psychologist in 1965, which as Rachel Shukert pointed out in Slate, was a field “about as Hebraic as the rabbinate.”
Don’s not the only one who’s got a thing for the Chosen People…
Season 5: “Everybody Has One Now.”
“Turns out, everybody has one now.”
Season 5, a.k.a the year Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce hired a Jew. Roger’s sigh of relief upon realizing that Mohawk Airlines will not spontaneously combust when they hear Michael Ginsberg (hear that, berg) will be handling their account is perfect. Jews are now kosher.
Ginsberg’s father blesses him (He got a job!)
Ginsberg tells Peggy about his Holocaust past.
Landing the Manischewitz account
Menken’s is all well and good, but the real sign of Jewish success is when SCDP courts Manischewitz as a client. “They make wine for Jews, and now they’re making one they want to sell to normal people,” Roger tells Ginsberg, who he not-so-subtly hires out of pocket to come up with ideas for his pitch. Roger also enlists ex-wife Jane Siegel to translate for the WASPs. Ladies and Gentlemen, we’ve made it. (Fast-forward one season later, when they lose the Manischewtiz account, and you get Bob Benson telling Ginsburg: “They’re good people, they’re your people. They sell wine for religious people of all faiths.”)
Season 6: Jews Are In
Joan plays a chicken-soup-making bubbe in the St. Joseph’s aspirin commercial
Ginsberg goes on a date with a nice Jewish girl
Ginsberg’s father sets him up with “Beverly Farber, Haim Farber’s daughter.” Things get awkward. We’ve all been there.
Dr. Arnold Rosen
Poor Arnold. All he wants is to find a way to perform a viable heart transplant and save lives, and Don has to go and sleep with his wife.
Stan Rizzo has a Moshe Dayan poster hanging over his bed
Season 7: Mainstream
Pastrami at Canter’s
Aww. Pete really misses New York. First he makes Ted bring him back two dozen bagels, then he takes Don to lunch at L.A.’s famous Canter’s deli to have a Brooklyn Avenue (basically pastrami with coleslaw in the sandwich.). (skip to minute 4)
Roger gets mistaken for a Jew
“Well the snow’s melted but not the hearts of New Yorkers. Just had some old lady call me a kike. Maybe it’s the hat.”
Don reading “Portnoy’s Complaint”
Michael Ginsberg’s mega nipple meltdown
Ok, so not uniquely Jewish, but we just couldn’t resist.
Rachel Menken makes her big comeback from the afterlife and Don brings cake to her shiva. He’s lived in New York a long time.
That’s all folks! But don’t despair. As Roger Sterling would say, “When God closes a door, he opens a dress.”