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01.03.10

The Jewish Kennedys

Think the Emanuel brothers—Rahm, Ari, and Zeke—are power players? Wait till you meet their ambitious, ridiculously precocious kids. Rebecca Dana on the political dynasty’s next generation.

This spring, the next great American dynasty will take a spiritual vacation. No, the Kennedys aren’t off to Hyannis Port. The Bushes aren’t whacking brush somewhere in Central Texas. The Roosevelts aren’t in Oyster Bay.

The Emanuel boys are heading to Israel.

Ari and Rahm Emanuel are returning to the land of their forefathers—and their actual father, Benjamin—to celebrate the bar mitzvahs of their eldest sons, Noah and Zach. That’s two more Emanuel men coming of age. And if you think the current generation is insufferably driven and accomplished (all three, including older brother Zeke, being titans in Hollywood, government, and medicine), just wait till you see the mensches in the wings.

For example, there’s Rebekah Emanuel, Zeke’s oldest. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude, near the tippy top of her 2007 Yale class, with 29-straight As, she has been visiting developing nations, studying there and aiding the infirm. She has been awarded some of the nation’s most prestigious prizes and fellowships: the Simon, the Mitchell, the Fox, the Sewell, the Jerome Medalie Endowment (which she used to work at a hospice in Uganda), and the Haas Prize for Fundamental Humanity.

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Benjamin & Marsha: Timothy Devine; Ariel: Kevin Winter / Getty Images

Oh, she’s also a gifted sculptor.

Rebekah and her sisters and cousins—most still under 18—have already demonstrated enough collective precocity to suggest they’ll be outshining their parents in a decade or two. From their hard-charging patriarch Benjamin (a former member of the Irgun, a militant Zionist group) on down, the Emanuels are poised to become one of the great families in American life: a sprawling but tight-knit group of overachievers—the Jewish Kennedys.

“Oh come on, this is an exaggeration,” said Benjamin Emanuel, reached at his suburban Chicago home on New Year’s Eve. “We are better than the Kennedys.”

Just about anyone who knows the three generations of Emanuels in private life exudes admiration.

“Right now, this is a horizontal admiration, not yet a vertical one,” said Rabbi Jack Moline, spiritual leader of the Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, Virginia, the synagogue attended by Rahm Emanuel’s family. “Ben and Marsha [Ben’s wife] are not in the public eye as well. The offspring I know are wonderful kids. But most of them are well below the age of stellar accomplishment.”

For now.

“Oh come on, this is an exaggeration,” said family patriarch Benjamin Emanuel. “We are better than the Kennedys.”

Each of the three public Emanuel men has three children of his own: four boys and five girls in total. The oldest are the daughters of Zeke, the senior adviser for health policy to the director of the Office of Management and Budget.  The young women were raised in Boston and then Chicago, near their grandparents. Rebekah has spent her post-collegiate years working with the Ugandan parliament to deal with gender-based crimes, studying how conflict-related bereavement impacts family members’ political activism in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and investigating ways to improve care for the terminally ill in New Delhi. She has been outspoken in her support for the people of Darfur.
 
Gabrielle (Dartmouth ’10) is a former varsity horseback rider. She wrote a book about AIDS and other illnesses in Uganda, to which Rebekah contributed, and has recently been working with the homeless communities in New Hampshire and Boston. Natalia (Yale ’12) is already an accomplished actor, appearing this summer in a Fringe Festival production of Peace Warriors, a “sexy play about academics and Middle East politics,” according to The Washington Post. She is also active in the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project. The young women were raised without television.

Rebekah Emanuel declined an interview request over email. “The thing is, as I’m sure you’ll understand, I am in this funny spot of really being a private person and, recently, there has been plenty of media all of a sudden. I like to lead my life in the day-to-day happenings, joys, and challenges. It is important to me to remain simply a private person.”

Rahm has one son and two daughters: Zacharias, Ilana, and Leah, all under 13. He is a doting father, with an office so full of family photographs it struck filmmaker Karen Price, who made HouseQuake, a documentary about the 2006 elections, as “unusual,” even for an elected official. “You walk in and that’s what you notice: pictures of his kids everywhere. That’s obviously central to who he is,” she says. Rahm touted his paternal instincts as a way of recruiting Democratic congressional candidates, most famously in the case of Heath Shuler, the former Washington Redskins quarterback who had qualms about running for office because he had young children. Back in 2006, for two weeks Rahm called Shuler every time he spent time with his own kids: “Heath, we’re going to soccer practice, then a recital.” “Heath, I think I’m going to eat lunch with my kids today.” And so on. Shuler relented and is now the congressman for North Carolina’s 11th District.

Rahm’s noodgery mirrored his own fears about uprooting his family. Despite an exploding career in Democratic politics, he resisted moving to Washington, keeping his family in Chicago as long as possible and sending his children to Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School, the same Jewish elementary school he attended as a child. Rahm finally made the move earlier this year when he became White House chief of staff. It was new, but it was not their first trip to Washington. On Election Night in 2006, Rahm brought his whole family to DCCC headquarters in Washington. “All night, Zach would run up to him and say: ‘Somebody told me to tell you that Congressman So-and-So is up three points,’” said a longtime family associate who was with the Emanuels that night. “He clearly had no idea what he was saying.”

Ari, the CEO of William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, has three young sons: Noah, Ezra, and Leo. The boys are known to many in Hollywood because, in addition to being a major macher’s son, they also work at the private parties Emanuel hosts at his home, serving food and chatting up guests. Ari, who is dyslexic, has been a prominent speaker on the subject of learning disabilities, both as they’ve affected himself and his sons. He is by all accounts a doting father, helping his kids with their grammar homework and sitting on the sidelines at flag-football games in Los Angeles.

The pères Emanuel were raised in a observant Jewish home in Wilmette, a suburb of Chicago. Their father was born in Jerusalem in 1927, the son of Russian émigrés who fled the pogroms. He made his way West in the 1950s, ultimately developing a leading pediatrics practice in Illinois. Marsha, his wife, is a psychiatric social worker, a civil-rights activist who brought her young sons along to rallies and marches in the 1960s and, on occasion, landed in jail.

The parents—essentially Jewish versions of Joseph Kennedy and his wife Rose Fitzgerald—were bright and caring, driven but indulgent of their children’s creative whims, according to Rahm biographer Naftali Bendavid. When Ari—the youngest, future founder of the Endeavor talent agency, and model for Ari Gold on HBO’s Entourage—wanted to build an igloo with his brothers, Marsha gave over all her pots and pans for freezing blocks of ice. When Rahm—the middle child, future engineer of the Democrats’ 2006 takeover of Congress and President Obama’s chief of staff—wanted to get serious about ballet, Marsha drove him to class. When Zeke—the eldest, future bioethicist at the National Institutes of Health and leading voice for health-care reform—wanted to dissect cow parts, he got cow parts. (The Emanuels also adopted a daughter Shoshana, who now has children of her own, and who has a complex relationship with the rest of the family.)

The family’s dinner-table battles, which often included Marsha’s towering 6’4” father, a Moldovian meat-cutter, are legendary. The Emanuel boys seem to have carried this tradition—and other trappings of cozy Jewish family life—into adulthood.

“They take synagogue seriously. They take their Jewish life very seriously,” said Rabbi Asher Lopatin, head of the Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel congregation in greater Chicago, the synagogue Rahm and his family attended before moving to Washington in 2009. “They’re very dedicated about giving their kids the breadth of opportunities of education in America.”

Did they attend services often?

“I can’t say every Shabbat,” he said, “but they were regular attendees. They had a lot of good friends at the synagogue and in the broader Jewish community here.”

Members of every generation of the family—Benjamin, Ari, Rahm, Zeke, Rebekah, and Gabrielle—either declined to comment at length for this story or did not respond to interview requests. The Emanuel brothers are fiercely protective of their children’s privacy, and efforts to speak to members of their close circle all met with stony silence.

Benjamin Emanuel gently batted away any further questions about his children and grandchildren. “Talk to Rebekah,” he said.

Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.