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Q&A: ‘Mad Men’ creator Matthew Weiner talks ‘other-ness’ and Jewish identity on eve of finale

“Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner with Jon Hamm during season 2. (Carin Baer/AMC)
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This weekend, America will say goodbye to the cultural phenomenon that is “Mad Men.” Over seven seasons, the series — which airs its last episode Sunday on AMC — traces the United States’ transition from the staid, tradition-bound Eisenhower years to the freewheeling exuberance and social upheaval of the 1960s. It’s about the rise of meritocracy in the workplace and the decline of the WASP establishment. It’s about outsiders seeking a way in, grasping for a gauzy version of the American Dream while blotting out their grimy pasts.

In other words, it’s a story about the Jewish American experience, even though creator Matthew Weiner insists that it has never been a Jewish show.

That may be true, but there are too many writerly winks and nudges, too many frissons of recognition, for the inclusion of Jews to be an afterthought. Like the scene from the first season in which department-store heiress Rachel Menken tells Don Draper that she would never consider living in Israel, but she’s glad the country exists. Or the time that Michael Ginsberg, the copywriter who was born in a concentration camp, receives a blessing, in Hebrew, from his father after telling him he got the job at the ad agency. (“Such a country!” you can imagine him thinking.)

For Jewish Americans who struggle with their identity — the viewers whose grandparents spoke Yiddish, whose parents lit candles on Shabbat but never joined a synagogue, who married non-Jewish spouses and haven’t been to Israel but send their kids to Hebrew school — the series spoke to them in a way that other TV programs haven’t. As it turns out, that was a deliberate choice on Weiner’s part. Weiner, who was raised in Los Angeles, wanted to tell a story about other-ness. “Getting to say that about Jews was fresh — to me,” he says. “And it’s a part of my life. Having grown up in a community with restricted country clubs and a lot of sophisticated anti-Semitism, I felt proud that I got to actually say that. And a little bit defiant.”

Last week, Weiner talked about how he chose to portray New York Jewish life in the 1960s. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

What were you trying to say about Jewish identity and how it changed?

Well, there is a fluidity to it. On the one hand, I’m saying it’s inescapable, you should be who you are. I’m saying that about Don, I’m saying that about everybody. On the other hand, I’m saying Roger’s wife, Jane Siegel, is Jewish, and it’s really inconsequential. And this is the guy who clearly has biases and belongs to restricted country clubs. But I love the idea that for her, it’s not a big deal. And for Rachel, it’s completely defining. It’s the separateness of how you see yourself, whether it’s inside you or you’re being reminded of it every day. And I think that there are moments of tolerance. I think that despite anti-Semitism, that the Israeli victories in the late Sixties were very inspiring to the American public. And those characters like Moshe Dayan were completely heroic. For being outnumbered, for being smarter, for winning against all odds.

You had to make choices throughout the season about how Jews should be portrayed, right? With a shtetl accent, without a shtetl accent…

That was a really tough one.

About being proud of their heritage, or ignoring it. Pushy, or just trying to hide. What went into your thinking about that?

There are truths that people who came from Eastern Europe had Eastern European accents. And we all would like to think that we’re beyond that, and it’s embarrassing to us, it’s kind of like dirty laundry or something. My grandparents were extremely embarrassed by their accents and did not teach my parents any of the five languages that they spoke besides English. And did not want to appear foreign, wanted to be Yankees. I have one grandmother of my four grandparents, who was born in the United States like a week after they got here. And she had a lot of pride and credibility because she was born in the United States. So when you start making a decision to represent people, and you have Ginsberg’s father, who’s a Holocaust survivor, who is from Poland, you’re gonna have him talk like Lawrence of Arabia? Or pretend like there’s no accents at all? Accents in general have been so wiped out in America that even finding people to sound like they’re from the South is tough.

Was it tough to cast that character?

It was tough to cast that character because this man is in the prime of his life. So you’re trying to find someone who’s in their 40s who has that vitality and also talks the way someone who learned English as a second language would do it. His relationship with his religion, what’s left of it – he’s not wearing a yarmulke, but he doesn’t go to work on Saturday. He knows how to bless his son. But it’s kind of an ad hoc version of it. I wanted to tell the way these two things are going on at the same time, all the time. And the sort of cultural diaspora that’s going on in the United States between those who remain Orthodox, those who reject religion completely in favor of American ideals, those who were getting the Christmas trees, those who have socialist ethics and don’t believe in religion at all – there’s a whole generation that rejected every aspect of Jewish religion, even if they married another Jewish person, and just said, “This is not part of the modern world.” So I wanted to capture all of that. It’s something that I knew well, and I thought it fit so well.

And I think that we did a pretty good job on that, of showing there are class differences, there are education differences, there are philosophical differences, and slowly you’re coming to a generation that doesn’t have to deal with any of that.

That generation being Rachel’s generation and Michael’s generation?

No, no. That would be the next generation.

Her kids.

Her kids, and Jane Siegel. I was always interested in having Jews be part of the fabric of New York City, but they definitely were not part of the fabric of that ad agency. That was a conscious decision as we showed in the show, to bring Jews in. And that was also part of the story of advertising. That subversive attitude, humorous attitude — you are living in someone else’s world. Certainly the creative revolution had to do with what I would call a Jewish sense of humor being introduced into advertising that America already loved.

Was advertising truly an all-WASP bastion? And if it was all WASP, what made it start to change? Was there a tipping point?

I am not enough of an expert on this to really be specific, but it was segregated for a long time. But there’s a lot of quintessential ad campaigns early on, where Jewish sensibility and Jewish writers, some of them female, started having an impact. And I think that by 1969, people are looking for Jewish creatives.

I think boutique agencies breaking off also started to bring Jews into the picture. These these were white agencies, populated by white people, using all of the typical philosophies that are used to exclude people. Which is, “I’m not comfortable around them; they’re selling to a minority,” and the irony being, of course, that a lot of the entertainment that the ads are sitting in is being written by Jewish comedy writers.

At the beginning of the 1960s, you have someone having to go to the mailroom to find a Jewish employee and then all of a sudden, it’s okay, we want Jews. We want Jews in our ad agency.

There are agencies that have Jewish people at them who don’t even think of it that way. And they start succeeding. Now, does that mean that Y&R starts hiring Jews? Or J. Walter Thompson? At some point yeah, they do, because they have to be competitive. It starts becoming more of a meritocracy. And that’s what I believe it is. A tolerable meritocracy. Where white minorities are gonna be part of it. And, honestly, some people took a chance. There are people who despite their background and their environment are not racist and not bigoted and are interested in merit and they made it all possible.

The humor was a big part of it. Humorous advertising became a vogue. The comedy writers said, “Think Yiddish, talk British.” That was a sense of humor that of all America enjoyed. And you know, people like Danny Thomas, Bob Hope, they have a lot of Jewish writers. And then you have Jewish comedians, who whether they changed their name or not – Jack Benny, George Burns – there’s so many of them. There’s an assimilation of show business going on. But at the same time it is, I think, an outsider’s sense of humor. And that was a big part of success in advertising from 1965 on.

At the same time that Jews were assimilating, there would have been intrafamily clashes, right? Like between Ginsberg and his father, between maybe Jane Siegel and her parents. The parents staying in the city, their better-educated children moving to the suburbs, marrying non-Jews, not attending synagogue, becoming less religious. And yet the series didn’t show a lot of these clashes.

I think that Rachel Menken’s meeting with Don about what Israel means to her is a complete symbol of that. And her father coming into the agency and saying, “It reminds me of a czarist ministry” and her saying, “Luckily I don’t know what that is.”
You’ve heard the expression, “Lace-curtain Irish?” The first time I heard that I was like, “Wow! I can’t believe we don’t have an expression like that!” (Laughs). And one of the other writers said, “Yes, we do. It’s, “Who do you think you are?’ (laughs).

We’re speaking in terrible generalizations. And there’s so many exceptions to all of these things. But if you look at the story of “The Jazz Singer,” for example, this road of assimilation never goes away. We’re seeing it right now with the trans community. You’re seeing every side of, “What are you trying to be? The thing that you hate? Your own thing? Are you you better than everybody else now? Are you just trying to be normal?”

Two of the most poignant scenes in the entire series involved Michael Ginsburg. The one was when he was telling Peggy…

He’s a Martian.

And he was born in a concentration camp. And then the second was when his father put his hands on his son’s shoulders and prayed aloud.

He blessed him. That is a traditional Friday night blessing of like, ‘You’re my kid.’ And it’s something you get at your bar mitzvah. The rabbi does it. It’s a priestly blessing for your kid.

And to me, it said that they had just gone through the most abhorrent case of genocide, they were rebuilding their lives, and it was possible because the United States really felt like a place of opportunity. If you had smarts, and you worked hard, you could overcome this horrendous thing that had just ripped your existence away. And I wondered if that’s what you were trying to get at.

I think that’s definitely part of it. It’s also part of it that you can’t escape who you are. Ginsberg lies to Peggy and says he has no one to tell. He doesn’t have a family. And there’s his father, who is very proud of him, who’s trying to construct a family out of the disaster that happened. I feel like a lot of the characters are doing the same thing, where they’re kind of clinging to what looks like a normal experience. And I wanted it to be touching, because he’s giving him a fatherly expression of love, and the kid is completely not interested in it, and embarrassed by it, because he just wants to be a Yankee.

Why was it so important for Michael Ginsberg, who basically went nuts, to be Jewish?

He’s a reflection of the movement to have Jews behind the scenes in the creative department. And then what kind of Jew he was, what kind of person he is, was just me trying to represent the kind of people that went into this field at that time. Most of the people who are in advertising are Ivy League people. Even in 1968. With big beards and Army jackets, whether they’re Jewish or not, they’re coming out of Columbia and Harvard and Dartmouth. I mean, so much of the story is about class, too. So he is cut from a certain kind of creative genius. I wanted him to be a little bit like Don, because I think it gives you unique skills for advertising, acknowledging that you’re an outsider, and using that outsider status to look at how people function and what they want.

Some of it involves not being part of the ruling class. And being a C student. Being someone who is not conventionally an achiever. So, he is cut from that cloth. And I also was really influenced by Art Spiegelman’s book “Maus.” Which I think is a masterpiece. I just found there was so much truth in the way that the son was trying to break away from the father, and the father’s kind of secret life that he didn’t really want to share with his kid, and this pain that they’re hiding and the kind of coldness that goes along with being a survivor. It’s only been 20 years since the end of World War II. And people, like the soldiers who were in World War II, or Korea, or World War I, who saw all kinds of things, and a lot of the immigrants who came to the United States, they were expected to just fold themselves into society, and go get a job and eat hamburgers and buy a house and get married. So that was why it was fun to have someone like Ginsberg.

Of all the Jewish characters in “Mad Men,” who’s your favorite?

I was very, very attached to Rachel. I was very proud of having a character on TV who is Jewish, and who says they’re Jewish, and not just has a Jewish last name and comes out in, like, Season 7 or something.

It was important for me that Jewish women in particular be represented in a slightly more positive light than they traditionally are. I felt that they got beat up on very easily. I wanted to make sure that there was an honest and non-disparaging representation.

I have two older sisters and I’m married to a Jewish woman. I really wanted to make sure that they were presented as something beautiful, not being sexually repressed, or cloying, or money hungry, or all of the other negative stereotypes. Because that’s not my experience. For Jane Siegel to come in, be this incredibly beautiful woman, incredibly middle class, and happens to be Jewish. But she’s not MY generation. She’s definitely the generation before. She still knows some Yiddish, and she knows that she’s in a world of strangers sometimes.

Rachel is sort of gonna be the closest to my heart. She reminded me of what I imagined the women of my parents’ generation were like. She felt related to me.

Is “Mad Men” a Jewish show? Is the entire arc of this series a story about Jews?

No. No, it’d be great if I could say it was and take a victory lap for that. It’s not. It’s a story about the 20th century and about a certain group of people who are mostly white, what we could consider to be the population that entertainment has focused on the most, and then showing that it’s made up of all different kinds of people who are aspiring to fit that image. You aren’t what you were born as. There are certain things that have nothing to do with who you are or where you’re born. And the United States is extremely tolerant of people completely transforming themselves.

Israel now is such a flashpoint for controversy, and in the show it’s this exotic place that no one really knows much about. I’m wondering how that was reflective about how Jewish people in general felt about Israel at that time.

That was me making a guess from the people that I grew up with. And also sort of representing how it felt to be growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Israel is always a source of controversy. On the other hand, Lyndon Johnson — they asked him why he supported Israel and he said, because it was right. From before I did the show, I wanted to do one of the episodes about what I said was America’s love affair with Israel. And how, despite the fact that there might have been cultural ingrained anti-Semitism, and the way the ruling class treated Jews, and Jewish mobility being limited in so many ways, after the Holocaust I think there was a fascination with Jews.

Are there any story lines involving the Jewish characters and Jewish life in general that you wish you had developed?

No. We had 92 hours of the show. I got to do everything I wanted to do. If anything, I frequently would see things through a Jewish prism and change them. Because I did not want it to be the focus of the show. I did not want it to be overrepresentative, to make it suggest that Jews were not a minority. Some of the writing staff is Jewish and a lot of them are from New York and I didn’t want to ever treat it like it was seen from that point of view.

How did you work to make that not happen?

My main characters are not Jewish. We got to tell so many stories. I was glad that Jews were a part of that story. And I am close to that story. And I was proud that it was not something that was particularly commonly told outside of something that was just a “Jewish story.” So, Don reading “Portnoy’s Complaint” is because it’s a bestseller. Not because Don is obsessed with Jews. But the fact that that book is a bestseller among a population that is way larger than the Jewish population, is interesting to me.

I wanted the characters to be seen as “other.” Because I think sometimes it’s forgotten. You know, for any of us who had to stand up and explain to our elementary school class what Hanukkah was in the late ‘70s. And, you know, that’s the story of the show for everybody. For all the characters.