Ezekiel Emanuel had been jotting down family stories for his three daughters when someone who worked for Zeke’s brother Ari, the Hollywood agent, suggested he turn those stories into a book. With his memoir, Brothers Emanuel (Random House, $27), Zeke, 55, answers the question constantly put to the Emanuel brothers (the third one happens to be our mayor, Rahm): What did Mom put in the cereal? The bioethics prof at the University of Pennsylvania who also works for the National Academy of Sciences spoke from New Haven, where he was spending the Sabbath with his Yalie daughter.
While it’s called Brothers Emanuel, the most interesting character is your mother. There’s unquestionable love, but her “emotional storms” governed the house: “The screaming could go on for hours. Other times she would go silent—which was even worse.” We had that. We also had a mother who was incredibly warm, supportive, pushy—hauled us off to demonstrations. There were also frustrations. She did end up having to give up [her] political activism [with the family’s move from Chicago to Wilmette]. She transmuted it when she got to the suburbs. One thing I can tell you: She didn’t baby us.
Chicagoans might read about your mom’s tirades and think, Ah, so that’s where Rahm gets it. [Laughs] Rahm came by it naturally. We all are extremely strong personalities with extremely strong views and willing to argue with each other at the drop of a hat.
While people know Ari through Entourage— I hope you put that in scare quotes. If you think you know everything about Ari through Jeremy Piven, you’re sadly mistaken.
You put Ari’s childhood aggression in the context of his dyslexia and ADHD, and you explain the brothers’ fights as reactions to kids who called Ari and Rahm “nigger” when they got dark in the summer. But one writer says it was common knowledge in Wilmette that Rahm and Ari were bullies and they regularly beat him up, unprovoked. That’s ridiculous. It’s one thing to respond and not be bullied yourself when people are calling you “nigger” or “nigger lover” or “kike.” It’s quite another to go out and just pick a fight. I do not think we went out and picked fights at all.
Rahm didn’t speak as a small kid, which today doesn’t seem conceivable. I know. It’s inconceivable. I used to speak for him. My parents had him assessed because they were worried he was developmentally delayed. [Laughs] But in fact he was just observing the world. And he was fine with letting me be the more dominant personality. When we graduated high school, there’s not a soul in all of the North Shore who would’ve said, “Oh, the Emanuel boys, they’re all gonna succeed.” We were not star standouts, not even by the end of college.
Yet the brothers’ self-confidence was never in question. That’s one of the great things my mom did. I describe her as pushy, not controlling. And my mom gave us a very good sense—my dad in particular: You do what’s right; you don’t follow the lead. And if you do what’s right, we’re gonna stand behind you. That’s something that blossoms in terms of leadership over time.
The infection and partial amputation of Rahm’s finger is well known, but you say that’s the moment he went from relaxed to driven. He also moved out of the house: He gets out of my shadow, he comes to see he has talents and insights, that he’s got this great ability to size people up, that he is really made for politics. There’s no doubt the hospital, the infection, the near-death experience—transformative.
There’s another Emanuel who’s mentioned but not discussed: your sister, Shoshana, whom the family adopted when you were 16. She wants her privacy. She’s not a brother in the public eye, has chosen not to be. I respect that, and I don’t want to violate it. So what am I gonna do? Foist it on her? That would be very unbrotherly.
Near the end of the book, you realize people beyond your sphere see you as loud, pushy, aggressive. [Laughs] I come across to my brothers as loud, pushy, aggressive.
Do you think the Emanuel brothers are better at dealing with issues or people in aggregate than with individuals? If you look at people who work with me and for me—fierce loyalty. They love working for me. They feel my warmth. You’ll find the same of the people who work around Rahm, the people who work around Ari. The individuals who work with us love it.
You guys say to each other, “I love you, asshole.” People have said Rahm may be an asshole but he’s our asshole. Is that how the brothers view one another? Oh, no. We talk five, six, seven, eight times a week to each other. Right after I got divorced, three weeks straight every day Rahm called: “How are you, Zeke?” We’re constantly joshing with each other. We’re also constantly there for each other.
Brothers Emanuel will be out March 26.