The ghosts of Rachel Menken, Don Draper’s season one paramour/breathtakingly classy department store heiress (not to mention the only woman, apart from his wives, who has ever actually broken up with Don) had been gathering thick and fast on the astral plain in the run-up to the premiere of Mad Men’s Season 7 swan song Sunday night. The show’s creator Matthew Weiner naturally brought her up in a recent discussion with New York Magazine’s Matt Zoller Seitz at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, comparing her story of assimilation to Don Draper’s, noting that both characters were “one generation away from living without plumbing.” She also, naturally, was a major topic of conversation between the showrunner and Tablet literary editor David Samuels in last week’s Q&A (it’s a tremendously quotable interview, but you should really read it yourself.) And then there she was, early in the episode last night, waltzing into Don’s dream in little more than a fur coat and a pair of heels, to tell him “you missed your flight,” whatever that means in the deep dark world of Weinerian symbolism.
This is Mad Men, so I wasn’t exactly expecting that all this Rachelmania presaged some sort of happy ending for Don and his lost love, in which they leave everything behind and retire to Boca to play mah-jongg on the beach for the rest of the 1970s. But I didn’t exactly predict that all these ghostly portents were indicating the presence of an actual ghost.
Because, yes, ladies and gentleman, as of April 5, 2015—or April 5, 1970, if you want to be very literal about it—Rachel Menken has died. She had leukemia (not breast cancer, as my sister and I intoned in unison as soon as we heard the news, because what else could an otherwise healthy Jewish woman in her late thirties-early forties have possibly died of, except maybe ovarian cancer?) She is survived by her husband Tilden Katz, their two children, and of course her sister Barbara, who was faced with the task of greeting the uninvited Don Draper at the shiva.
Because yes, last night on Mad Men, there was a shiva. Not a sort of manicured, really-we’re-just-eating-after-the-funeral kind of brunch shiva, but a real, honest-to-god, Orthodox shiva. The mirrors were covered. The men hadn’t shaved. The mourners were shoeless, and the all-male minyan was rocking and chanting in a murmur of heavily accented Ashkenazi Hebrew that sounds nothing like the kind I learned after school in bat mitzvah class and everything like the foreign language my grandfather very occasionally muttered during moments of deep prayer. It was exactly the kind of un-Western, non-American, shtetl reminder of the sort that, in Matthew Weiner’s estimation, feels like “wiping the lipstick off your face when your grandmother kisses you. It embarrasses Jews to see that.”
And yet, the fascinating thing about the scene was how little it seemed to embarrass Don Draper, or even surprise him. This is a man who appeared not to know a single Jew in the first season until he met Rachel, who chuckled along with Pete and Roger’s casually anti-Semitic jibes, who had to read Exodus before he could offer so much as an idea to the Israeli tourism board 10 short years earlier, but when sister Barbara offered up a tense explanation of what he was witnessing, he gently cut her off: “I’ve lived in New York a long time.” He knew what he was seeing. He knew to bring cake.
It was a perfect scene and a perfect encapsulation of what has always been the secret Jewish subtext of Mad Men: yes, it’s the story of Don, and yes, it’s the story of America in the 1960s, but it’s also the story of how American Jews became just like anybody else—anybody white, that is. It’s been fascinating to watch unfold over the past seven years. I’m just sorry Rachel had to die for us to get there.