One brother served as President Barack Obama’s chief of staff and is now mayor of Chicago. Another is a bioethicist and White House health advisor. The third is a Hollywood power agent.
How do three such accomplished men come from one family? That’s the question at the center of Brothers Emanuel, a lovely memoir from the eldest brother, Ezekiel (the bioethicist). Certainly their parents had their hands full with three rough-and-tumble boys (indeed, there did seem to be an inordinate number of episodes in which one or more of the boys had a near brush with injury after bouncing off a bed).
But Benjamin and Marsha Emanuel also had high expectations for their sons. Benjamin, an Israeli immigrant, was a respected Chicago pediatrician who met Marsha, a radiology technician, at a Chicago hospital. They moved to Tel Aviv, where Benjamin offered medical care to five far-flung kibbutzes, before settling back in Chicago to raise their boys. Deeply involved in the civil rights movement, they regularly hosted community meetings in their living room, where the boys would listen from behind the sofa.
“Undoubtedly this experience of eavesdropping on activists helped instill in us both a moral sensibility and the desire to do something about a problem whenever we could,” Emanuel writes. “It is not hard to see Rahm’s devotion to improving Chicago Public Schools and my work on universal health-care coverage as outgrowths of witnessing these meetings in our house.”
The Emanuels also set up a “children’s study” where the brothers could do their homework and learn the art of strategy through cutthroat games of chess with dad. “Winning became so important that we each deliberately sought out the particular hobbies, sports and career interests that fit our abilities and in which we could excel,” Emanuel explains. “Life was about competition, and if you couldn’t finish at the top in one pursuit, you found the game where your talent allowed you to win.”
But adversity helped shape them, too. Emanuel recalls a summer when he and a friend biked over to the local country club to apply for a summer caddy job, only to be turned down because he was Jewish.
Brothers Emanuel is a clear-eyed, candid memoir that is unique and yet quintessentially American. It’s the story of young boys who were given a fair shot, took a few hits along the way, and made something of themselves.