October 11, 2007
Is Don Draper Jewish?
(Page 2 - Previous Page)"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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