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The Good Jew

Alan Cumming’s character on The Good Wife—the marvelously nuanced political operative Eli Gold—captures the future face of careful, largely deracinated Jewish-American politicians

Rachel Shteir
June 01, 2011
Alan Cumming as Eli Gold on the Good Wife season finale.(Jeffrey Neira/CBS)
Alan Cumming as Eli Gold on the Good Wife season finale.(Jeffrey Neira/CBS)

From its pilot onward, the brilliant, much-talked about CBS show The Good Wife—which wrapped its second season last week—captured the zeitgeist of American politics, tracking the psychic damage of powerful men long before Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Arnold Schwarzenegger became best known as alleged sexual predators. Much praise has been heaped on the marvelous Julianna Margulies, who plays the title role. But the show is equally brilliant at hinting at the future of Jewish politicians, showing the tangled issues they face, and giving us a model already visible in the careers of Rahm Emanuel and Congressman Anthony Wiener. Meet the first post-Jewish Jewish politician on TV.

It is no accident that Alan Cumming, a Scottish actor known for his transgressive roles, plays Eli Gold, the Jewish campaign manager for Peter Florrick, a disgraced and philandering state attorney played by Chris Noth. Instead of nebbishness, egg creams, and saccharine references to over-protective Jewish mothers, Cumming presents wit, restraint, and a dash of theatricality.

With his boyish face, round black eyes, and shock of straight hair streaked with gray, Cumming evokes an aging Shakespearean imp more than a stand-up comic, unlike so many Jewish characters on sitcoms and procedurals. The show’s writers, Robert and Michelle King, also complicate a Hollywood cliché, that of the power-loving, tantrum-throwing Jew who says what WASPs think but are too polite to utter. Sure, Gold (supposedly inspired by Emanuel) does lose his cool in a way that recalls Entourage’s Ari Gold (played by Jeremy Piven and inspired by Rahm Emanuel’s brother Ari), but that’s just the surface. Whereas Piven-as-Ari-Gold played a cartoon tyrant for laughs, Cumming-as-Eli-Gold is always calculating the impact of his actions, and he lets you see his machinations and his doubts.

The show also exposes, in our world of post-political correctness, both how Eli exploits his Jewishness and how others hold it against him. Take, for example, his first appearance in Season 1, after Peter, just home from prison following a corruption scandal, needs a fixer to find out who is following him. Eli Gold’s name comes up, and objections are quick to follow.

“Eli Gold is a thug,” Peter’s adviser Kaya Poole, an Ann Coulter look-alike played by Francie Swift, warns as she, Peter, and a third adviser scramble around the kitchen, failing to figure out which appliance is beeping. Peter’s son, Zach (Graham Phillips), interrupts: He wants to show his dad a doctored photo of the politician and his naked mistress that turned up on the Internet. Maybe a thug is needed after all.

When Eli walks into Peter’s kitchen wearing a sharp double-breasted suit, it becomes clear that his thuggery consists of using everything in his means against his rivals, including implying that they are anti-Semitic.

“What do you know about me?” Gold asks.

Peter replies, “You’re a classically trained pianist. And you require Saturdays off.”

“Who told you about Saturdays, shiksa Bambi over there?” Gold snaps, gesturing at Kaya before he neatly solves the mystery of the beeping appliance. He’s competent, calculating, and cool. He’s everything Anthony Weiner dreams about at night.

Yet many of Gold’s take-downs also display the pensive quality of someone who has spent a lot of time on the outside. The show’s writers give Cumming the best lines, but he often delivers them woodenly, as if he was reluctant to confront the real world. That, and the fact that he looks surprised when confronted with each new assault, is one counterbalancing quality to what might otherwise dissolve into stock villainy. “Oh, dear God,” he says when a call girl surfaces to further jeopardize Peter’s political career, as if he had not seen a thousand times worse.

Then too, the show also seems to be making a point that whether Gold wins or loses, he is mostly alone. He is mostly placed at Peter’s home or at campaign headquarters, obsessively browsing the Internet. Except for one or two private moments, and a scene or two bantering with his teenaged daughter, who wants to go to Israel and who speaks to him with the easy contempt of twentysomethings, Gold often stands on the sidelines, aloof.

If that’s unflinching, so is The Good Wife’s take on Eli’s romantic life. Unlike the Boomer generation of TV Jews, for whom love interests descended into harangues against Jewish women or celebrations of non-Jewish goddesses, Eli’s one crush so far reveals a lot about his solitary state. She is Natalie Flores (America Ferrera), an illegal immigrant, graduate student in economics, and a nanny employed by Peter’s opponent, Wendy Scott-Carr. The thwarted romance, neither maudlin nor frat-boyish, suggests not just the impossibility of Eli’s private life when held up against his public persona, but also that he might prefer it that way, impossibly complicated and full of contradictions.

Eli first meets Natalie as he is trying to use her to score political points. Then, feeling guilty, Gold helps Natalie apply for citizenship. He is snared between his crush and his desire to crush his political rival. It is delicious, hilarious, and tender.

If Gold’s romances stumble when he tries to exploit politics for his personal gain, his politics fail when he tries to exploit his Jewishness for political gain. The Season 2 episode “Breaking Fast,” for example, which takes place during Yom Kippur, revolves around Gold trying to woo a Jewish donor who considers Peter too pro-Palestinian. A reconciliatory dinner is scheduled, and tensions run high, but Gold navigates the choppy waters as unflappably as ever. Emanuel, Weiner, and their fellow young Jewish leaders should tune in.

Rachel Shteir, a professor at the Theatre School of DePaul University, is the author of three books, including, most recently, The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting. She is working on a biography of Betty Friedan for Yale Jewish Lives.

Rachel Shteir, a professor at the Theatre School of DePaul University, is the author of three books, including, most recently, The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting. She is working on a biography of Betty Friedan for Yale Jewish Lives.