Childhood tales help cement legend of three powerful brothers

Childhood tales help cement legend of three powerful brothers

The brothers Emanuel — Zeke the doctor, Rahm the politician and Ari the Hollywood agent — are known for their hard-charging personalities and success in their respective fields.

But Ezekiel, the eldest, gives a glimpse of their childhoods in 1960s Chicago in his book Brothers Emanuel: A Memoir of An American Family.

He describes the rough-and-tumble lifestyle of three energetic boys: fights at school and with one another (including Rahm locking Ari, the youngest brother, in a closet). 

He also writes that because of their close quarters — sleeping in the same room and spending four summers together in Israel — the “bond we formed growing up together is unbreakable.”

“We can confide in one another knowing we will receive much more than the generic advice a friend or acquaintance might offer,” he writes. “No one is more critical of me than my brothers, but no one is more supportive and loyal.”

The book focuses almost exclusively on their childhoods, but any parent looking to it for tips on how to raise an uber-successful overachiever might want to look elsewhere.

Emanuel almost admits as much in his post-script, where the bioethicist offers a scientific breakdown of what makes the brothers a success: “As a scientist I know genes exert real influence not just on our physical and social characteristics, but also in how nurture ultimately impacts us, often by changing how our genes are expressed. Ultimately, it is not either nature or nurture. It is them working together.”

The three boys had some unusual aspects to their childhood, thanks to their mother Marsha, who was politically active and took her young sons to rallies and protests. The boys also spent four summers in Israel and traveled throughout Europe.

Emanuel credits the DNA of their father for the brothers’ energetic side. Ben Emanuel was a doctor who often worked 14 hours a day “and yet he never seemed to tire,” he writes. “He also remained slim and physically fit long into middle age, without any formal — or informal — exercise routine.”

The overall image Emanuel gives of their childhood reveals the boys were taught a strong work ethic, became politically involved at a young age, were sent to good schools and traveled often.

They were also told to stick together. 

Emanuel writes of visitors coming to their house: “The underlying message was that if you were not skilled at the thrust and parry of kitchen table debate, there was something wrong with you. Emanuels did not have to accommodate to the world. The world had to accommodate to them.”

Political junkies will enjoy the tidbits about young Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago mayor and former congressman who served as White House chief of staff to President Obama.

As a child, the politician famed for his foul language and take-no-prisoners style “barely spoke at all.” Rahm’s silence worried his parents so much they took him to a doctor.

But the middle brother made up for it later in life.

“Rahm’s use of swearwords began in earnest when he was twelve or thirteen,” Zeke writes. “By the time he was in high school, he was fluent in both English and Yiddish cursing and could have held his own in the Navy or at a construction site.”

The politician-in-the-making also loved babies, was the family peacemaker and was politically active as a child, once refusing to the mow the law because he wouldn’t work on a non-union job site.

Rahm was also “keenly sensitive to any slights based on his height, age, or masculinity,” Zeke reveals. Without giving any more details, he writes that his brother took a growth-promoting drug as a teenager and grew 6 inches.

Zeke also talks about youngest brother Ari, who was famously the inspiration for Jeremy Piven’s hard-charging, foul-mouthed agent Ari Gold in the show “Entourage.”

Zeke describes Ari as a fighter who was an entrepreneur from a young age. He sold slices of the cheesecake his mom packed in his lunch and employed other boys as laborers in yard work while keeping a cut of the profits for himself.

He calls Ari the best looking of the three and gives a revealing anecdote in which his brother as a toddler, complete with a pacifier in his mouth, greeted a friend of their mother’s by asking: “Onna fight?”

Because the book concentrates on the brothers’ childhoods, there are things it leaves out. For example, in 2009, Zeke, who served as a healthcare adviser to Obama, was vilified by conservatives who charged him with promoting so-called death panels.

Zeke went on a media offensive to defend his name, telling Time magazine: “It is incredible how much one’s reputation can be besmirched and taken out of context.”

Another subject barely mentioned: their adoptive sister Shoshana. She is not a public figure and came into the family when the boys were teens.

Will the book enhance the legend of the Emanuel brothers, who have been the subjects of multiple newspaper profiles and legendary tales? Probably not much: the stories about the boys are charming without being too revealing and cute without being too embarrassing.

Thus, the memoir contains no dirt, nor should one expect there to be. The Emanuel brothers stick together.


“Brothers Emanuel: A Memoir of an American Family”

By Ezekiel J. Emanuel

Random House, March 2013

288 pages, $27.00