O ye of little faith.
I told you.
Didn’t I tell you, in my last piece about Mad Men, on these very pages, that things were about to get very, very Jewish all up in Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce? (Is Pryce still on the door, by the way? Do they have rules about that?) That 1968 was the year that America would truly realize you didn’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Rye Bread (but it helps)?
When the show started, the world of Mad Men (if not the real world of advertising in its totality at the time) was a WASP bastion: all dry martinis, Brooks Brothers ties, and utter emotional denial. When Rachel Mencken, the Jewish department-store heiress and first in a long line of Don’s intellectual brunettes, dropped in for what seemed like a fairly routine pitch meeting, the partners acted as though they were greeting some sort of fearsome alien queen, setting out deli, mentioning they were pitching to the Israeli tourism board, all to make some sort of odd and unnecessary point about inclusiveness that only made them look extra anti-Semitic. Season 2 saw the debut of the lovely Jane, who discreetly exchanged the “Siegel” for “Sterling” as soon as she got the chance, followed in quick succession by Jimmy and Bobbie Barrett, the Jerry Lewis-style comedian and his tough-cookie wife and manager (who Don also slept with, because a. she is female and b. once you go Jewish, it’s a whole new youish), and of course, the inimitable Dr. Faye Miller, so admiring of Don’s punim, so effortlessly insightful about his inner state, and thus so ultimately expendable.
Still, it wasn’t until last season that we got Michael Ginsburg, the whiz-kid copywriter. With his thick “regional” accent, Yiddish-accented Old Country father who likes farmers’ cheese and has a dimly remembered tragic early childhood in a concentration camp, Ginsburg is the first Jewish character on Mad Men who isn’t, on some level, trying to hide it. Roger Sterling, ever the gentleman, may have taken it upon himself last season to make sure their client Mohawk Airlines could deal with “working with a Jew,” but the times, they are a changin.’
Season 6 opens in January 1968, roughly nine months after “Ginzo” was hired, and suddenly the world of SCDP and environs looks like that summer at Camp Ramah where everybody became a hippie. Roger—of all people—is in psychoanalysis! Indian food causes gastrointestinal distress! Everybody has started dressing like a Dave Berg character from “The Lighter Side of …” in Mad Magazine! Even Betty Hofstadt Draper Francis, such the epitome of the shiksa goddess that she essentially obviates the term, has gotten chunky and gone brunette.
The cultural reasons for this are manifold and have been discussed here and elsewhere by me and others, so I’ll let you draw your own conclusions; suffice it to say, it was about this time in the ’60s that the Jews were ready for America and America was ready for them. What does strike me, however, is how fast it happened. Scarcely 20 years before the season opener, the Jews of Europe … well, we know where they were, or perhaps more aptly, where they weren’t. In 1960, the only Jew at Sterling Cooper was the one who worked in the mail room; last season, Stan Rizzo derisively hurls the portfolio of “Ginsburg” not because the name itself is an inherent disqualifier, but to warn Peggy away from hiring someone who might be more talented than she. (Peggy herself is happily living in sin with the radical journalist Abe Drexler, who isn’t exactly a Presbyterian.)
The dizzying ascent to commonplace ubiquity puts me in mind of another marginalized group who have, perhaps, at last reached their moment. A little more than 20 years ago, when I was a kid, there were basically only three templates for a gay character on TV or in the movies: drag queen, serial killer, or plague victim. The latter, which became more and more prevalent throughout the late 1980s and early ’90s, invariably appeared on “very special episodes.” I remember how they looked, their faces ashen with makeup and carefully applied sarcoma lesions, gazing up at their mournful, currently healthy but ultimately doomed lovers, with eyes as limpid and bottomless as Anne Frank’s on the cover of The Diary of a Young Girl. The message too seemed to be the same; that to be a male homosexual was to be no less condemned to certain, unavoidable death than a young Jewish girl in Nazi-occupied Europe. Is that how it works? Your people endure an unbearable, foundational catastrophe, then 20, 25 years later everybody finally rubs their eyes and says, “Oh, wait, those people we were so freaked out by? They’re actually great!” and then you get your own sitcoms and everybody starts slipping your slang into their conversation (Harry Crane with his gonifs; Michelle Malkin used the word fierce in relation to Margaret Thatcher the other day). You become culturally ubiquitous, and all that had to happen was for untold numbers of you to die horrible deaths. Sort of like a break-up diet!
I don’t know who the next group to come to the forefront of American culture will be, but I sincerely hope they don’t have to suffer quite so much in order to convince the rest of us that they’re human beings with plenty to offer. In the meantime, I’ll eagerly await Mad Men’s first gay Jew—I hear Salvatore Romano is dating a nice accountant. Next year, at the Stonewall.