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Brothers Emanuel: What Did Rahm, Zeke And Ari's Mother Put In The Breakfast Cereal?

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Random House
Random House

When the brothers were 6, 2 and 4, they marched unsupervised around the neighborhood, across streets and beneath underpasses. In family arguments, they were encouraged to curse to make their point. They battled at home (“we shed blood almost every day,” the oldest would later write) and were spanked periodically by a mother whose angry outbursts would lead her to yell “I hate all of you equally.” They were unabashedly compared and contrasted: the grades of the most academic of the three hung on the fridge as a message to the two who weren’t quite as much so.

In other words, their parents broke every “rule” in this century’s parenting book, yet somehow their sons “survived just fine,” the oldest says.

Okay, that’s a bit of an understatement. The boys in question are the Emanuel brothers, and they did more than “fine”. Ezekial, (known as Zeke), the firstborn and owner of that super report card, is now one of the country’s most respected voices on bioethics and healthcare; Rahm, the quietest and smallest, is now the mayor of Chicago and former White House Chief of Staff; and Ariel (known as Ari), always mischievous, is now one of Hollywood’s most powerful talent agents. “Brothers Emanuel: A Memoir of an American Family” is Zeke’s new book, and it explores the roles played by parents and parenting, nature and nurture and culture and history, in creating the men -- and the parents -- that children become.

A mythology has grown up about the Emanuels. The New York Times Magazine proclaimed that “Emanuel Freres are a triumvirate for the 90's.” Ten years later the Daily Beast dubbed them “the Jewish Kennedys.” And columnist Maureen Dowd famously asked about them: “What did your mother put in the breakfast cereal?”

So what WAS in the breakfast cereal? (Or, perhaps, the eggs, since Zeke says hot breakfasts were the norm during his childhood.) What did Benjamin and Marsha Emanuel teach their boys. What are the lessons in their parenting to be learned by subsequent generations?

Zeke spends much of his book exploring that question, and concludes that, long before the era when we started giving types of parents different names -- helicopters and free-range and attachment -- his mother and father practiced “jazz parenting.” He writes:

Just as in music, their noisy riffs and improvisations were all played with certain rules. Our home may have seemed chaotic, but amid the arguing and the tussling no one was permitted to practice prejudice, cruelty or stupidity. Every comment received due consideration, no matter who said it, standards may have been loose when it came to wrestling and swearing but they were quite strict when it came to values like loyalty and integrity. All that we received depended on us upholding these values, and if we ever failed, we felt the loss acutely.

Yes, his mother and father's mix of high expectations and low micromanaging put the sons in situations that would trigger a visit from Child Protective Services nowadays, Zeke admitted when we spoke. (His description of himself as a first grader bringing a 4-year-old Rahm home from school on the Chicago public bus system comes to mind.) But it also gave them “a lot of freedom,” he said. “We had freedom to be creative. Freedom to say what we think. We travelled as a family and were exposed to different cultures. My father was physically affectionate, freed from what was the norm back then.”

It was nurture, then, not nature?

Not exactly. The brothers also have a sister, Shoshana, born with cerebral palsy, and adopted by the family when she was eight days old. Though raised under the same roof, hers has been a quieter life, not one of accolades and headlines, which both muddies and clarifies the alchemy of genetics and environment. “There’s nature, there’s nurture and there’s luck,” Zeke says.

What about the next generation, his children and nieces and nephews? Every child is the student of his own parents and we tend to do things exactly the way they did -- or exactly the opposite. Either way, they are our model.

But when your parents are credited with somehow raising a “triumverate,” what message do you pass onto your own kids? Many a child, after all, has stumbled in the shadow of successful parents.

“All three of us brothers take parenting extremely seriously,” Zeke, who has three daughters, said. “I have been careful to make it clear to my kids that they have to succeed --- and they have to do so on their own. They don’t use parental or uncle family ties."

“I also make it clear,” he continued, “that none of us are some ideal of perfection. I am far from a flawless character. I make lots of mistakes and I make sure they hear about them.” Zeke's girls all know about, and some also have inherited, the family tendency toward dyslexia and ADHD. They know that Zeke flunked multivariable calculus during his first semester at Amherst, but managed to make it to Harvard Medical School anyway.

There is a family tree at the end of "Brothers Emanuel" that ends with symbols for the next generation (each brother has three children) but does not include their names. There are no photos of his now-grown daughters in the book, and they will not be giving interviews during Zeke’s book tour.

“Their story is theirs, not mine,” he says, in what is, ultimately the message of his book. “Parents give you a start, but you do the rest yourself.”