What if Hollywood were founded by the same people who brought you Detroit or, say, agribusiness? Would our movies and television shows be so much better?
Understanding the people who shape America's culture is hardly just an exercise in Jewish pride. Because even as America's political and industrial influence has waned, culture has remained one of its most popular exports.
So it's an interesting intellectual exercise, to imagine a Hollywood with a vast overrepresentation of Koreans or Latinos or WASPs.
On the one hand, you could argue that even if the stories would necessarily be different -- about 90 percent fewer Holocaust dramas, I suspect -- the storytelling itself probably wouldn't change much. Wouldn't the elements that make a compelling drama, a funny comedy, an involving cast of characters remain the same?
On the other hand, it's useful to consider what Jews and only Jews bring to the writing table. Not because it's better or worse (my sense is it may be the former, but the laws of political correctness mandate I throw in that phrase), but because it is Jews whose style and whose themes have dominated the entertainment media for much of the past century.
The problem in getting at an answer is that when it comes to discussing their Jewishness and its influence, entire generations of Hollywood writers can be frustratingly inarticulate and unperceptive.
But I knew Matthew Weiner would be different.
Weiner is the creator and writer of a show on AMC called "Mad Men."
Those of us who self-righteously claim we never watch TV always have to list the one or two or 20 shows we make an exception for, and the newest show on my list is "Mad Men."
It has maybe 1 million viewers -- 20 million less than "Dancing With the Stars" -- it's on an obscure basic cable channel, but, lucky for me, it's just been renewed for a second season.
On its surface, the show is about the world of advertising in 1960s Manhattan. It recreates that world with fealty and style, but only in service to a larger story about American culture and human nature. In other words, "Mad Men" is about what really happened when Ozzie went to work, or when Darrin and Samantha from "Bewitched" went into the bedroom.
At the center of the series is Don Draper, a creative exec at a mid-level firm. Don is played by actor Jon Hamm, whose talent and darkly handsome features provide an answer to one of the most pressing questions of our time: Who will be the next George Clooney?
Don has a blonde homemaker wife named Betty (January Jones), a couple of mistresses, and a secret past. After watching a few episodes, I was certain Don Draper's dark secret would be his Jewishness. After all, though he cleverly navigates his way through a perfectly recreated WASP world of Manhattan advertising, he never quite fits in. In the pilot episode, he meets Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff), a beautiful, strong-willed Jewish woman who runs her family's department store. She tries to crack the Draper wall.
"I know what it's like to feel disconnected," she says. Then they sleep together.
So when I met Weiner at his production office near downtown, one of my first questions was, "Is Don Draper a Jew?"
"Everybody asks me that," he 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 that's what he gets from Rachel. That's what they like about each other."
And the accuracy of their relationship -- which is just a subplot -- in its emotional, social and historical details is why fans like me love the show.
"I am telling a story about people, and there is a nostalgia in it for people our age," Weiner explained. "When you know the end of the story, every detail on the way there is rich with irony and filled with insight. You watch 'Titanic,' and you know the end of the story. But what's amazing about it is, well, how did you get there?"
Weiner is on the fit side of 5-foot-9, hyper-articulate, funny and self-aware. His office features a threadbare couch, a paper-covered desk, liquor bottles, set props, a poster of his beautiful lead actress, and one of those '60s-era toys, the Whee-Lo. Is it at all surprising that most Hollywood writers' offices could double as a 12-year-old boy's fantasy of an office?
Weiner is 42, too young to have absorbed firsthand the scotch-and-cigarette world he writes about with such accuracy. He was born in Baltimore, but came of age in Hancock Park, attending Harvard Prep School then Wesleyan University. His father wasn't an ad man -- he was chairman of the department of neurology at USC.
What led him to write about 1960's Manhattan? "I have an answer, but its not a good answer," he said. "All I can say is 'Catcher in the Rye' was the first book I ever finished, and the whole time it made me obsessed with New York. I identified with this person about phonies and crummy people, but there were also Lunt and Fontanne and meeting someone at the clock at Grand Central."
Weiner's maternal grandfather was in the fur business in Manhattan.
"At some level he started my fascination with this period," Weiner said. "I wore his sharkskin suits and skinny ties even when I was in high school."
When the actor who plays Rachel Menken's father appeared on set in costume, he looked and sounded so much like his grandfather that Weiner choked up.
Almost eight years ago, Weiner was writing for the TV show "Becker" when he finished the spec script for "Mad Men." "When I wrote this pilot, all I was thinking was I wanted to write 'Playhouse 90.' I wanted to write a socially conscious ironic entertainment where the audience has no idea what's going to happen at any moment."
The script found its way to David Chase, who was impressed enough with it to bring Weiner on to the writing staff of "The Sopranos."
"The Sopranos was the trailblazer," Weiner said. "Something that was good and makes money. It was a model for concise storytelling, so dramatic."
Hesh, the Jewish mobster in The Sopranos, is an obvious precurser to Draper's lover Rachel Menken. Both are strong and successful in worlds where they don't really belong.
"I was kind of irritated that there were these reviews of 'Mad Men' and no mention of this Rachel Menken character," Weiner said. " I've been watching TV my whole life, and that is a new thing, for someone to come out and say she's Jewish. It shouldn't be a big deal but it was."
Although HBO passed on "Mad Men," -- "I think they have an agenda that I don't understand," Weiner said -- AMC picked it up and agreed to let Weiner call all the shots, a deal that Chase advised his protégé was too good to mess up.
So "Mad Men" is, to a great extent, Weiner's singular vision, funneled through the efforts of wildly talented actors and staff.
And that vision, it turns out, owes much to his Jewishness and not a little to ... Tikva Slomovic.
"She was a survivor," recalled Weiner of his Bible teacher at Temple Beth Am's Hebrew school. "She was very beautiful. She was one of the greatest teachers I've ever had in my life. She taught the Bible and she really taught me what was going on."
The Torah as literature amazed Weiner with its compact storytelling and its moral ambiguity. This past Rosh Hashanah, Weiner gave a drash at Temple Israel of Hollywood, where he and his architect wife, Linda Brettler, send their four sons to day school. During our interview, he launched into an analysis of Hagar's abandonment of Ishmael.
"It's not a story about some guy who was really good this year and did some great deeds and gets inscribed for 20 years of good life -- that's what it should be," he said. "At the moment when Hagar was supposed to be a good mother to him, she was not. One of these things about the Bible when you actually get into it is, it's so adult, and it's so related to our experience."
In "Mad Men," he said, he is reaching for the same powerful way of telling a story. "I am interested in ambiguity," he said. "That's very dramatic to me. I really love it.
"All of these stories involve tremendous moral tales. That was my real thing -- to say, instead of treating this like some golden era, let's look at these people and say they had the same problems. And I know it's heightened, and I know there's smoking and drinking and sexism, but I don't see anything different right now."
Biblical tropes become Jewish tropes, and Jewish experience becomes the American experience, and these themes course through the show's characters and plots, giving the stories depth and resonance. Weiner, like many great Jewish TV and film writers, tells of outsiders and insiders, of prejudice and acceptance, of people, like Hagar, making tough moral choices in an imperfect world.
"We're all telling the same story over and over again," Weiner said. "I'm interested in telling the story of what kind of person succeeds in the U.S., and it is the outsider, it is someone who is unattached that we value. To succeed in the U.S., one of the deals is you will have to become a white man, and what that means is you will have to give something huge up, which we've all done willingly, and that is very painful. And that is the story. You can reinvent yourself, it will be tolerated, but you are losing something that you don't think you value, but it's going to hurt you, because you can't escape yourself."
In short, Don Draper is not a Jew -- but Matthew Weiner sure is.
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