Monday, April 23, 2012
Mad Men- Far Away Places
So Ginzberg is from Mars-- a concentration camp. Shades of Night and Fog, the classic French Holocaust documentary, in which Auschwitz is called another planet. Ginzo makes sense of his bizarre origins and his survivor's guilt by not just making it foreign, but other worldly. The far away place in his life is his own origins, and that far away place is something he doesn't really understand. In many ways, his past is "the unmasterable past" that Charlie Maier wrote about as he traced the Historikerstreit (a series of debates and discussions regarding German interpretations of the Holocaust). I'm a Modern European historian (with a focus on women, hence why I consider myself a women's historian as well), and I teach the Holocaust. It is something I emphasize to my students that crucial components of the event are almost impossible for us to understand. And it seems it is for Ginzberg as well. Too young to really remember, his youth becomes a far away place that he others even more than it already is. This episode defies a quick understanding, more so than most episodes of Mad Men. Dealing with space, place, and time and how changing the space contorts time and self. In the blurry space of an acid trip, Jane Sterling reverts to Jane Siegel, a Yiddish-speaking Jew. And Roger finds the clarity in his blurry space to realize his second marriage is over. Jane and Ginzo bring me to an observation dating to season. The Jews of Mad Men are not just Ashkenazic Jews but Ashkenazic Jews from Eastern Europe. Rachel Mencken's father references Tsarist ministries. Jimmy Barrett was drawn out of the insult comic tradition of Borscht Belt performers (Eastern European Jews), and his wife Bobbie mentions having been a dancer in the chorus, again a more common occupation for a girl from the Eastern European Jewish world than those from Western Europe. We can assume Jane's cousin Danny had the same family background as Jane. Faye Miller dropped Yiddish in her conversation. Ginzo's family could have come from any place in Nazi-controlled Europe, but he was raised by someone who obviously came from Eastern Europe, judging by his post-Yiddish ethnolect of English. And Abe's interest in radical politics connects him to the radical tradition of Eastern European Jewish workers, who flocked to labor unions and socialist organizations. Why are all of the Jews of Mad Men from an Eastern European world? Maybe because their story is more akin to Don Draper's. For all intents and purposes, Draper is the center of the show. His story-- unwanted and unloved illegitimate child of a prostitute and her client who grew up poor and mistreated only to excel and prosper-- mimics the story of these Eastern European Jews. Between 1881 and 1914, millions of Jews fled Russia in the wake of the May Laws, a series of laws designed to impoverish and isolate Russian Jews even more than they already were. Kicked out of many communities, restricted in education and employment, Jews left Russia in droves. Many more fled violence that came from government-promoted pogroms. These Jews tended to be poor, they were generally unassimilated, and they saw themselves as unwanted outsiders. They were, after all, fleeing policies that stipulated just that. Once in the states, most of these Jews at least partially acculturated to middle class American ways, but many did hold on to some aspects of the Old World or their old identities-- speaking Yiddish in the Jewish community or in certain organizations (or reading the Yiddish press or attending the Yiddish theater). Maybe they held on to old food ways and dishes. America offered an opportunity to be, as Jake in Hester Street said, a Person. And by and large, they took that opportunity and prospered, even as many of them maintained some element and shared memories of the Old World with their ever-more Americanized children and grandchildren. Sound familiar? Don Draper was the unwanted son of a whore, raised by his father and his wife in a poor and violent household where he experienced abuse. Eager to escape his past, he took a dead man's name and fled when the opportunity presented itself. He reinvented himself and prospered in the ad game. But he remembers his past, no matter how much he tries to forget it. And he carries with him elements of his Old World-- plumbing and violence. His far away place is also his childhood, and he can't escape it any more than Ginzo can.