Tuesday, April 03, 2012

The puzzle of Mad Men's new old Jew.

The more I think about it the more puzzling I find the old Jewish man who was introduced last Sunday night on Mad Men. The things we know about Ginsberg Sr. so far just don't add up. One the one hand, he's presented as an immigrant. We hear a a heavy accent and see that his first instinct upon hearing some good news is to bentch Ginsberg Jr. with the priestly blessing. But just when did the old man arrive in America? And how old is he?

The accented but perfectly serviceable English suggest he came over when he was in his early 20s. Had he been any younger the accent would have been less pronounced, the English would have been more confident, and the nostalgia for old Hebrew blessings would probably not have been present. Any older and the English would have been shabbier; also his interest in baseball, represented by the remark about Pete Fox, probably would not have developed. Older immigrants usually don't pick up English or baseball.

So let's say Papa Ginsberg arrived as a 21 year old.  How old is he now?

Judging from his appearance - straight back, broad shoulders - and twenty-something son, I'd say he's between 50 and 55 (Though he might be even younger; working class men show their age more quickly). The episode is set in 1966 meaning Papa Ginsberg landed in America somewhere between 1932 and 1937. The mild mourning for Pete Fox - who played alongside Hank Greenberg, the most famous Jewish player of the era - also supports this dating. A young man, new to America and eager to assimilate, would have taken admiring notice of the Jewish superstar and encountered his teammates. Under those circumstances, the death of Pete Fox would have been noted by an old man, nostalgic for his youth and feeling his mortality. "I can't believe how old I'm getting. That Pete Fox, who I remember from when I first got here, is dead already." If I'm right, this mood also tells us why Papa Ginsberg reached for an old Hebrew blessing when his son announced his new job and the end of childhood this represented.

So far so good, but one problem: It was virtually impossible for a Russian or Polish Jew to reach America in the 30s. The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the the Immigration Act of 1924 severely restricted immigration from Eastern Europe. Those restrictions dramatically slowed the influx of Jews and were not relaxed until 1964. In the 30s, almost every Jew who was lucky enough to leave Poland or Russia went to Israel, not America. How did our guy end up in Brooklyn?

Like Ginsberg Jr, my parents and their friends were born in America, during the early 40s. None of their parents emigrated in the 30s. All of them - including my own grandparents - were born in America, or emigrated as children before 1924.

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Anonymous said...

My father came to the us from Poland in 1939, the very week Poland was invaded. He was able to enter the US by being sponsored by an aunt and uncle who had come here in the 1920s or so. But I believe u are mistaken; I don't know numbers, but I do know there were Jews who
Made it through even in the late 1930s as my father was one if them - abd he's told us of others who got out on his boat

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