The Emanuels

04.04.13

America’s Power Brothers: Ezekiel Emanuel on the Famous Three

The eldest of the famous Emanuel brothers, Zeke, dishes about what it was like growing up with a future mayor and Hollywood superagent. He tells Lloyd Grove about his “nurturing” brother Rahm, fighting off bullies in Chicago, and why he disdains “bowtie Jews.”

Ezekiel Emanuel has been an arrogant jackass, intellectual bully, and ill-mannered lout—that’s just the portrait he paints of himself in Brothers Emanuel, his coming-of-age memoir of growing up the eldest sibling of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Hollywood superagent Ari Emanuel.

“Thankfully, age ends up accomplishing it,” the 55-year-old Zeke tells me when I ask if he’s managed to smooth out the rough edges. “I greatly appreciate the people over time who have helped me through that … very close friends who have pointed out when I’m behaving stupidly. We’re all on a continuous journey to try and fix our mistakes and flaws. And, believe me, I’ve got plenty of them.”

This, to put it mildly, is a shocking admission coming from a member of a family not celebrated for its humility. The 53-year-old Rahm, a famously foul-mouthed, sharp-elbowed politician, first captured the public imagination as a thirty-something staffer for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, when he made the flamboyant gesture of sending a dead fish to an uncooperative pollster. The 52-year-old Ari, a famously foul-mouthed, sharp-elbowed entertainment executive, is best known for having inspired the over-the-top Ari Gold character in HBO’s Entourage. (Their adopted sister, Shoshana, 39, who has struggled with cerebral palsy among other troubles, is barely mentioned in the book. “She wants to be private and I’m trying to respect that,” Zeke explains.)

Zeke, the self-styled “quiet, intelligent Emanuel,” is more in synch with “The Emanuel Way,” as he calls it, when he dedicates his book to his brothers by writing: “I love you schmucks!”

Or when he stoutly defends Ari’s purported reaction—many would say “overreaction”—to a recent book-promoting television interview with the brothers for NBC’s Rock Center program, conducted by that most reasonable of news anchors, Brian Williams. Unhappy with some of Williams’s questions, Ari reportedly complained to NBC Universal chief Steve Burke and instructed his lawyer to send a saber-rattling letter.

“Let’s just say that what was aired was very, very good—but in what was recorded, some of the questions seemed to us very inappropriate,” Zeke says.

But how can there be such a thing as an “inappropriate” question, especially since Zeke writes fondly about the Emanuel clan’s no-holds-barred dinner-table discussions?

“Look, it’s no-holds-barred as long as it sticks to substance and fact,” he says. As for the conflict involving Williams, “It wasn’t just Brian and Ari,” Zeke says. “I’m not going to go into details … Let’s just say that what ended up on the cutting room floor was a good idea. It was probably a good thing for Brian Williams, my brother, and the country.” (Sources at NBC News say Ari’s fevered machinations had no impact on what was—and wasn’t—broadcast.)

"You don’t see Rahm as the nurturing type?” Zeke asks. “I think a lot of people are surprised by the portrayal of Rahm both as the quiet kid and the peacemaker of the family.”

Rahm, meanwhile, was a ballet dancer in his youth who traded pliés for politics—a field in which he distinguished himself as a top adviser in Bill Clinton’s White House, as a three-term congressman from Chicago, and as President Obama’s chief of staff before being elected mayor of Chicago in February 2011. Lately Hizzoner has been having a tough time with a teachers' strike and school closings that have damaged his approval ratings, to say nothing of gang-perpetrated shooting deaths of children in majority-black neighborhoods.

“Of course it’s tough on him,” Rahm’s big brother says. “No one wants to be the mayor having to call and console the mother or the father of a child who’s been murdered. That’s horrible, and Rahm takes those things to heart. He’s a father of children.” Zeke adds: “But if you know anything about Rahm, you know that when things get tough, he gets tougher and makes sure he achieves what’s necessary to solve problems.”

In Brothers Emanuel, Zeke writes that as a little boy, Rahm loved nothing more than running over to the neighbor’s house and “feeding the baby”—surprising, to say the least. “You don’t see Rahm as the nurturing type?” Zeke asks. “I think a lot of people are surprised by the portrayal of Rahm both as the quiet kid and the peacemaker of the family.”

Given the sensitive nature of a political career in the hair-trigger, multimedia environment of negative attacks, did Zeke allow Rahm to vet his memoir?

“No. Are you kidding? No way!” the author replies. “I have to get all my digs in.”

All of which is helpful publicity for the least famous Emanuel brother hawking a book. Not that Zeke is a slacker. He was always the academic superstar of the family—his straight-A report cards taped to the refrigerator by their parents to prod his less-diligent siblings—and today he is a Harvard-trained medical researcher and ethicist, a non-practicing oncologist, a vice provost and professor at the University of Pennsylvania and, if that’s not enough, one of the architects of Obamacare as a policy adviser to the Office of Management and Budget.

There was even a moment, back in the early 1980s, when Zeke was a television star, although “I still don’t own a TV,” he says, and his renown was restricted to Great Britain when he was studying biochemistry at Oxford University.

brothers-emanuel-book-cover
Brothers Emanuel: A Memoir of an American Family By Ezekiel J. Emanuel 288 pages. Random House. $27. ()

“Let’s be clear. I was the most famous Emanuel,” Zeke says about his appearance on the BBC’s Now Get Out of That, a precursor to Survivor featuring rival teams attempting difficult tasks in the great outdoors—in this case Oxford vs. Cambridge. It was, for good or ill, a pioneering reality show. “I was the guy the British loved to hate,” Zeke says. Fleet Street commentary at the time described him as the “pushy Yank” who became a celebrity out of sheer force of personality. “I was the star of that show only because I was the most colorful American against seven Brits.”

The Emanuel boys’ hard-charging parents—Chicago native Marsha, a descendant of Russian immigrants, and Israeli-born pediatrician Benjamin, a former member of the Irgun, the Zionist paramilitary organization—instilled the values of hard work, excellence, Jewish identity, independent thinking, and pride, maybe even a touch of hubris. But Zeke dismisses the notion, advanced three years ago in a Daily Beast article, that the Emanuels are “the Jewish Kennedys.”

“We categorically deny such an idiotic view,” he says.

Instead, Zeke was steeped in the analytical, philosophical, and practical aspects of Jewishness—as opposed to the spiritual and religious—studying with a private tutor and spending summers in Israel. He and his brothers also became combat-ready, as was necessary, in Chicago’s ethnically diverse, tribal street life.

“It’s not clear to me that many of the kids who called us ‘kikes’ understood what it was,” Zeke says. “Many of them had never met a Jew before or just didn’t know.” More than once, Zeke, his brothers and their antagonists ended up rolling around on the pavement. “We were aware you had to stand up to bullies, and when you stood up to bullies they backed down. That’s something our parents, and particularly our [maternal] grandfather, instilled in us,” he says. “And it wasn’t just being called kikes. We were also called ‘nigger lovers’ because we had a lot of black friends who used to come to visit the house, and we used to go to the West Side of Chicago to visit the house-cleaner once a month and have Sunday dinner there.”

In his book, Zeke—whose Jewish identity once lost him a caddying job at a restricted Chicago-area country club—is especially disdainful of a class of people he calls “bowtie Jews.”

“They’re people who are embarrassed and hide it and aspire to be members” of the WASP clique. “It’s very strange in 21st-century America. Jews are well accepted and being Jewish is not a barrier. If anything, they’re well integrated into all the professions and politics.”

Zeke, meanwhile, is the divorced father of three high-achieving daughters. He says the 29- and 26-year-olds have read Brothers Emanuel twice through, while the almost-23-year-old—taking after her dad, no doubt—has quibbled with some of the content. “The youngest told me, ‘All the characters ring true, and you needed a good editing job, Dad.’ To which I responded that my best editor—her—was unavailable.”