Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Brothers Emanuel

I had only 500 words to review this charming little book, so quite a lot was left out. The first thing to say is that this is not a book about Rahm specifically, it is a family memoir by his older brother Ezekiel. It contains a series of lovely little anecdotes about their childhood, about their traumas and triumphs, their hopes and dreams. In so far as it is analytical it tries to answer the question of how the three of them grew up to be such high-performing, alpha males.

If you are looking for a penetrating book about Rahm Emanuel, this is not the book for you. But if you want to glean some interesting little details about this life, it is a fun read. You can see the roots of Rahm's politics which come from the activism and left-leaning nature of members of his family. His mother founded a chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality in her neighbourhood and held meetings at her home. She also took her boys along to the many civil rights protests she attended.

Like many Jews of the time who were part of a distrusted minority group in 1960s Chicago, she was attuned to the racial stigmitisation of the era and determined to do something about it. (Indeed Rahm's mother reminds me a little of my aunt June Finer who was a doctor in Chicago around the same time. She joined the Medical Committee for Human Rights, and travelled to the deep south in the 1960s to provide medical support to the civil rights movement there. The story of the doctors who did this (many Jewish) is recounted in the book The Good Doctors.)

But I digress. The point is that Rahm grew up in a politically articulate, and passionate, family. He was not one of those kids who trained to be a lawyer and then thought that it would be a good career move to get into politics. Politics was baked into him at an early age and he has carried this with him through life. And it was never inevitable that he would be a politician, he started out with a great love of ballet--inspired by the lessons that his mother took all three boys to as part of their cultural education.

I also get a sense from the book that Rahm did particularly well at politics because he was so adept at extracting money from donors. Reading an account of their dinner-table debates, with all the swearing and liveliness, one cannot help connect this to the man who freely expresses irritation with those who ask what he sees as silly or bad questions. In this context it is worth remembering that this is a man who comes from a family where a debate about the film "The Deerhunter" ended in a family brawl.

One interesting revelation is that Ezekiel says the brothers are culturally Jewish but do not believe in God. I was surprised by this but after talking about this over lunch with another Jewish relation she insisted this is actually perfectly normal--and that many highly educated Jews feel this way. She told me they adopt Jewish customs and heritage, observe shabbat and happily attend synagogue. But do they believe in a big guy in the sky? Absolutely not, she told me. 

There are no answers in the book to the question of how the son who railed against authority now copes with being in charge. As the memoir moves on to their older years it focuses far more on Ezekiel's journey through life. The politician who once protested with the civil rights movement will now face similar tactics as the unions in Chicago try to fight plans to close many of the under-occupied schools in Chicago. The tactics may be the same but the issues could not be more different. The problem that school closures are tackling is tied to the facts of demography rather than racism, parents have voted with their feet and moved their children from so many of Chicago's schools in the past few decades that too many are expensively half empty.  School closures happen all over the country. The reason so many are now needed in Chicago is that the job has been put off for so long. Rahm's greatest challenge as a politician will be to haul the city's schools from the rut they have been in here since he grew up.


Brothers in arms 

Raising three remarkable children 

Mar 23rd 2013 |From the print edition

Rahmifications of childhood Brothers Emanuel: A Memoir of an American Family. By Ezekiel Emanuel. Random House; 274 pages; $27.

THE youth of the three brothers that is described in “Brothers Emanuel” is interesting because one of them is Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, President Barack Obama’s former chief of staff and a leading figure in Democratic politics. Rahm is the middle sibling. The eldest is Ezekiel, a medical ethicist and vice-provost at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of this memoir. The youngest is Ari, a Hollywood agent and the role model for the character Ari Gold in “Entourage”, an American television series.

They grew up in Chicago in the 1960s—before supervised playdates, constant communication and fears of abduction. They explored their neighbourhood and even spent entire days on the beach alone. The alternative was to allow them to conduct their raids, sneak attacks, skirmishes, mock battles and combat missions indoors. Close in age, their wild play resulted in some bloody wounds including the loss of four teeth and the removal (fortunately temporary) of four fingers from two different brothers. [More...]