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JewishJournal.com

July 30, 2010

“Mad Men,” The Jews and Hollywood anti-Semitism

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/mad_men_the_jews_and_hollywood_anti-semitism_20100730/

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During a week in which the so-called Jewish domination of the media was being bandied about thanks to Oliver Stone, I’m reminded of the following quip my editor Rob Eshman made three summers ago, the year “Mad Men” made its television debut:

“When they say Jews control Hollywood, I always think to myself: Thank God.”

He wrote that in a 2007 profile of “Mad Men” creator Matt Weiner, in which he touted the show as a shining example of why Jews should dominate Hollywood. It made sense, after all, he wrote, “it is Jews whose style and whose themes have dominated the entertainment media for much of the past century.” 

But what was it about “Mad Men” that felt more Jewish than “Seinfeld” when everything on the show’s surface screamed WASP world of Manhattan—including its blatant anti-Semitism?

And yet, the first thing Eshman asked Weiner was, “Is Don Draper a Jew?”

“Everybody asks me that,” Weiner said. “I had to go back and check—did I put anything in the show that said Don’s not Jewish? Don’s a Jew in the sense that he is a white person who is an outsider…”

And of course, Weiner himself is a Jew. But instead of falling into the category of Jewish writers Eshman called “frustratingly inarticulate and unperceptive” about their Jewishness, Weiner seemed to be an exception. And in Don Draper, he’s created a character who is mired in the same kinds of identity issues Jews have always struggled with: a complicated past, an uncomfortable ascension to wealth and power, and an inability to let his guard down, even for a moment.

There is something about Don’s station in life, no matter how high he climbs, that feels unbearably tenuous. It’s the same feeling that, earlier this week, prompted the entire Jewish establishment to pounce on Oliver Stone after he made some controversial statements about Jewish power. What would have happened if Jews didn’t react? If they had assumed their power without calling it into action, what then? There’s a chance Stone’s comments would have been quickly forgotten. On the other hand, one need only read the beginning of Elie Wiesel’s “Night” to infer the alternative, and Jews by and large, do not want to take that chance.

The great thing about Hollywood is that it’s a place where these opposing tensions can play out, where it’s hard to distinguish between the Jewish writer and his non-Jewish character. Which is not so much Jewish domination as it is Jewishly inspired. For example, during a recent interview with New York Magazine, the writer Mary Kaye Schilling asked Weiner about how “scandalized” viewers become when story lines don’t go their way.

“Our concept of sin is in the Ten Commandments, and was always there,” Weiner told the magazine. “But the thing that’s strange to me is that when people turn on the television, they want to judge the bad guys and love the good guys. When you fall in love with characters, when they do crappy things, or are cruel to each other, you feel a sense of betrayal.”

In other words, Judaism’s moral precedent is there, even in a show that isn’t ostensibly Jewish. And Weiner is surprised by viewers’ low threshold for disappointment when examples of human failing and frailty are as old as the Hebrew bible.

Read another way, Weiner’s comment is also about the impulse to escape reality with Hollywood fantasy. Why bring grim realism into a world where idealism can be the norm? Maybe that’s why it cuts so deep when people like Mel Gibson or Oliver Stone decide to denigrate the Jews. Because by being a part of Hollywood, they become part of some extended Jewish family, and they should know better than to claim exaggerated truths when the reality is so much more complicated. After all, they work in a business where in some form or another, the Jewish story gets told over and over and over again.

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