The DNA of Success: The Life and Fame of the Emanuel Brothers

A new memoir sketches Benjamin and Marsha Emanuel's sons paths to becoming, respectively, a White House official and Chicago mayor, a Hollywood talent agent and a leader in public health policy.

Gerald Eskenazi
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Gerald Eskenazi

“Brothers Emanuel: A Memoir of an American Family,” by Ezekiel  J. Emanuel. Random House, 274 pages, $27

They’re all nuts − that’s the first impression I had as I began reading “Brothers Emanuel: A Memoir of an American Family.” And by all, I didn’t mean merely the brothers: Rahm, Chicago’s mayor, who was a major factor in Bill Clinton’s initial election and later was Barack Obama’s chief of staff; Ari, the aggressive Hollywood agent and model for the lead in the hit HBO television show “Entourage”; and Ezekiel, the book’s author, and an oncologist and bioethicist, and controversial end-of-life advocate. I mean, I thought his mother and father and grandmother and grandfather were nuts, too.

And maybe they are.

Emanuel isn’t even their real surname. It was the given name of the boys’ uncle. The family name was Auerbach. But in 1933, during a clash in Jerusalem involving Arabs and police and protesters, a bullet ricocheted and hit Emanuel Auerbach in the leg. The wound became a severe infection, eventually costing Auerbach his life. The grieving family in his memory changed its name to Emanuel.

Eventually, his brother, Benjamin, who became a doctor − while doing some sort of secret work for the Irgun pre-state underground − moved to the States, married, and fathered a brood of boys known for their brilliance, brashness and knack for making everything around them turbulent.
Consider the book’s dedication:

“To my loyal and wonderful brothers Rahm and Ariel, I love you schmucks!”

The book is maddening in some respects. The author plies us with details that you hope will be important − types of food on the table, games they played − or that maybe offer some insight into what the boys will become. Instead, it turns out often that it’s nothing more than a recitation of daily life growing up in and around Chicago. Even what it was like to take the bus.

Then again, simple dinners at the Emanuel table often turned into loud, invective-filled rants − against injustices by the police, or the government, or the idiocy of one another’s arguments. Their mother, Marsha, an X-ray technician, often left them alone to go marching and protesting against government’s failure to take care of children, of racism or of segregation in housing and education. Perhaps in some way she also was protesting the slights she herself was the victim of because she didn’t go to college: The family money had gone to educate her brother instead.

The book would have been infinitely more interesting reading if Ezekiel had stopped a few times and given us his opinion of how events, or of how family history, had created the people in the book. Instead, there are anecdotes with no analysis, or emotion.

Benjamin, the Emanuel boys’ father, a cheapskate, once took them on an extended car trip and refused to eat in restaurants. Instead, he had a jar of peanut butter. They’d stop on the side of the road, invade someone’s apple orchard, and schmear the apples with the peanut butter for lunch. Well, that’s the way Ezekiel remembers things, at any rate. And a memoir is really one’s history, cherry-picked. “In our home,” Ezekiel writes, “everyone shouted and argued about everything.”

Rants and tantrums

If you’re expecting a full-blown biography of Rahm, the most nationally ‏(and internationally‏) known of the brothers, you won’t get it in this book − that will be another book by him, notes the author. There isn’t even an index. But you do get some hints and insights into how the f-word became part of Rahm’s famous vocabulary, and how his intelligence and ability to work and connive sat well with the two disparate personalities of the engaging Clinton and the administration of the “no-drama Obama.”

Rahm was the middle child, apparently content to get along in school without competing for grades with Ezekiel, the brilliant one in the family. Meanwhile, the youngest, Ari ‏(his character in “Entourage” is Ari Gold‏) apparently was dyslexic and had severe attention deficit disorder. He was an early user of Ritalin. He trained himself to memorize so he could read aloud in class without actually having to read. And when he was frustrated, he was given to rants and tantrums. For his part, Ezekiel, who rarely got any grade below an A, recalls his own incessant knee-tapping.

It’s a great American story in some respects. You know, the immigrant father, the marching mother, the successful kids ‏(there also was an adopted daughter, who came later, but not one word is written about her. It makes you wonder: Does Ezekiel think the adoption was odd, given that there already were three children, or is there some unspoken animosity toward this child?‏)

But this American tale also has one foot in Israel. It had always been the father’s dream to bring the family back there, and for four consecutive summers, in the 1960s, they came to Israel.

The two worlds led Ezekiel to an interesting observation about being Jewish. So much of their experience in America, he writes, has to do with asserting their Jewishness as they grew up in mixed neighborhoods, or mingled with non-Jews. He claims that in America, you prove your Jewishness by being defiant. In Israel, you don’t have to prove a thing.

I for one found that odd. I grew up in a section of Brooklyn, New York, that was so Jewish I just assumed that the world was that way. No one ever uttered a word against Jews that I was aware of. My schools were filled with predominantly Jewish kids − and I walked to school every day from grade school, to junior high, through high school. And when I was ready for college, I went by subway to that most urban of schools, City College of New York, which we smart kids called the Harvard of the Proletariat. So I must admit I found it surprising that even in big-city Chicago, Jews often had to assert their heritage.

You don’t have to look very far to see where the noise that the Emanuels make comes from. Their mother’s father − an immigrant from Russia who, the author claims, stowed away on a ship to America when he was 10 years old − railed against a lot of things. So much so, that he used to bang the table with his large hands, a habit which gave him the nickname of the “Big Bangah.”

Ezekiel does wonder about his mother’s behavior − how, for days at a time, she wouldn’t speak to them when she was angry about a slight or an injustice; how she could send 10-year-old Ezekiel and younger brother Rahm on a bus by themselves; how this woman so concerned for other people’s children could allow the three young boys to go swimming on their own.

Passion for ballet

Rahm’s passion became ballet. Yes, the City of the Big Shoulders − as the poet Carl Sandburg once described Chicago − is being run today by a potty-mouthed, former ballet dancer. He kept at the dance through his teen years. While he eventually gave it up, he never dropped his variegated usage of four-letter words, a habit he developed around the age of 12, and which presumably allowed him to voice his opinion without going into a lot of depth. But make no mistake: He is smart and knowledgeable about the way politics works. Ezekiel describes how an unknown governor from Arkansas sought out Rahm after learning about his fund-raising prowess, and how Rahm helped create a war chest, telling the politician that much of it can come from the American Jewish community − and that brought Bill Clinton’s name and face to the forefront of American politics.

Meanwhile, dyslexic Ari remarkably managed to read scripts and book proposals, and became a renowned agent. And Ezekiel, who originally did not want to become a medical doctor despite his parents’ insistence, was able to join a lab headed by the Nobelist James D. Watson, who helped unlock the secrets of DNA, and eventually became a medical health adviser to the Obama administration. He has played other key roles in medicine as well.

In trying to figure out just how the boys became the remarkable men they turned into − The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wondered what their mother put into their cereal − Ezekiel doesn’t have a simple answer. He does offer this, though, in reflecting on his mother: “The desire for her approval was a powerful motivator. At the deepest level, this anxiety lies behind much of what we have achieved.”

So there you have it − the Jewish mother. Who knew?

But is this just a punchline? Ezekiel only hints at his own feelings about his mother’s obsession with helping the oppressed, about protecting children, even as she often put her own in harm’s way. And at times I wondered whether Ezekiel was knowingly making things up; in fact, he uses a lengthy quote from Mark Twain indicating that autobiography is a selection of facts that force the reader to discern where the truth lies.

The reader will have more questions than answers after finishing this book. Ultimately, was the need to get their mother’s approval, as Ezekiel claims in the closing lines, the whole story? I think Maureen Dowd may have been on to something. But finding out what was put in the boys’ cereal may need an outside observer. Or perhaps a more demanding editor.

Gerald Eskenazi, a retired reporter for The New York Times, lectures on sports, the news media and American culture.

From left: Rahm, Ben, Ari and Ezekiel, in the 1980s.Credit: From the book.
Brothers Emanuel: A Memoir of an American Family.
Ezekiel Emanuel. Recalls his incessant knee tapping.Credit: Candace diCarlo

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