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I wrote this review on April Fool’s Day, but I’m not kidding about how engaging, funny, and reassuring this book really is.
I listened to “The Brothers Emanuel” because I wanted to know how Benjamin M. Emanuel and his wife, Marsha Smulevitz Emanuel, raised three wildly successful, prominent men working in such divergent fields.
I expected well educated, wealthy “helicopter” parents with strict rules and high expectations, almost unrealistic expectations. Think Amy Chua (“The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”) in the late 1950’s and early ‘60’s, with green kitchen appliances, a gold shag wall-to-wall carpet, and copper jello molds hanging on vinyl wallpaper.
What I got was Clark and Ellen Griswold (National Lampoon’s “Vacation”, 1983), complete with a road trip with an elderly relative. Ezekiel (Zeke) Emanuel’s grandmother survived the trip, but the car’s radiator did not. Zeke, Rahm (current mayor of Chicago), and Ariel (Ari) chewed furiously, with their father stopping periodically to block the terminally leaking radiator with Wrigley’s gum.
I didn’t expect that dad Dr. Benjamin was part of an organization the British said were terrorists (Israel’s Irgun, but let’s not forget that British declared Benjamin Franklin and George Washington terrorists). I didn’t expect that mom Marsha was arrested multiple times for civil disobedience. Ari and Zeke spent some time in some jail cells, too. If Rahm did, I don’t remember it in the book.
Zeke Emanuel’s book is real history. He vividly remembers hearing Martin Luther King, Jr. speak, from the perspective of the child he was. Zeke talks about being taunted and beaten up because he was a “k***”, a word that I had forgotten even existed. He reminds us that people who supported racial equality were called “n**** lovers”. Hearing him say the “N” word (Zeke Emanuel narrates the book) was jarring, but true to the era. I’m seven years younger than Zeke and I was raised in Illinois, and I remember people saying that.
I was reassured by the book because the parents Emanuel made mistakes. Marsha had long, silent streaks which wounded and scared, and scarred her sons. Benjamin once ran after Ari, who had repeatedly changed television channels to wrestling (in pre-remote land, this was a big deal). Benjamin was probably intent on physically hurting Ari until Zeke and Rahm diverted him. Collectively, Benjamin and Marsha decided Zeke, Rahm and Ari should go to Israel for the summer. In 1967. Right after the 6 Day War. I heard this and thought to myself, “You sent your kids to a f***** war zone??!!”
I am absolutely certain there is much more to “The Brothers Emanuel” than this book, and I hope that one of the brothers will continue the story.
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Any additional comments?
My late wife worked for Zeke in the 1990's when he was at Harvard and her description of him as very smart, very driven, very capable, and oblivious to his effect on others ring through the entire book. While Zeke did write the book, it is still too focused on his accomplishments and life and too little on that of his brothers.
IMHO, there is also too much blame heaped on his mother, who faced a very difficult chore of bringing up 3 ADHD boys in a small apartment in Chicago while her husband's mother lived with and despised her, and her husband worked long hours. Zeke could use a little more empathy.
I also would have liked to learn more about Rahm's and Ari's childhood. It appears that they were shaped quite differently by the family. Why? How did Ari's dyslexia affect him positively (rather than negatively as he is described as a pugnacious, fighter most of the time)?
Overall, the book is a good read and entertaining. But, it could have been much more is Zeke had taken the time to interview Rahm and Ari and then write about events from their viewpoints also.