News & Politics

Brothers: Rahm Emanuel and His Family

Rahm, Zeke, and Ari Emanuel have become very successful in different fields—politics, medicine, and Hollywood. But it’s hard not to notice the similarities among the brothers. They’re all intense, pugnacious, and in perpetual motion.

From the May 2008 issue of Washingtonian 

The joke among the Emanuel brothers is that Zeke, the eldest, is bringing the family down.

That would be Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, 50, chair of the department of bioethics at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center. Zeke is an oncologist with a master’s from Oxford, an MD from Harvard, a PhD in political philosophy from Harvard, and a 27-page CV that includes fellowships, professorships, books, and numerous awards and honors.

“Ari and I tell Zeke: ‘You haven’t done squat for the family,’ ” says Rahm, the middle brother.

That’s because Zeke hasn’t had a TV character based on him, as have Rahm Emanuel, the Illinois congressman and former Bill Clinton adviser who was said to be part inspiration for White House aide Josh Lyman on The West Wing, and Hollywood agent Ari Emanuel, the model for lovably trash-talking agent Ari Gold on HBO’s Entourage.

But part of being one of the hyperkinetic Emanuel brothers is being relentlessly competitive. So Zeke points out that the charge against him is not entirely true. The eldest brother notes that he was a participant in a British reality TV show during his Oxford days. “They loved to hate me there because I was the American on the team, the loud American.”

Loud, like his brothers. And impatient, intense, and successful. Three hard-driving superachievers in one family is kind of like having the Eiffel Tower, Washington Monument, and Statue of Liberty all in one town. People often ask their parents, Benjamin and Marsha Emanuel, what was in the water in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette, where the family lived. Benjamin, an Israeli immigrant who still has a heavy accent, says there was no magic to their child rearing. He and his wife just paid a lot of attention to their kids.

“If you figure it out, let me know,” says Marsha, who at age 74 still works as a psychiatric social worker. “I honestly don’t know. I do know there was a lot of love and affection and treating them all like they were intelligent babies.”

The three brothers, less than four years apart, have risen to prominence in three different fields—medicine, politics, Hollywood. But it’s hard not to notice similarities: the wiry frame and dark hair (in varying degrees of volume and gray), the big personalities, the headstrong nature that lands each of them in the headlines and with their share of enemies.

Rahm, 48, is the best known—at least on the East Coast. Now the fourth-highest-ranking Democrat in the House, the three-term congressman gets much of the credit for his party’s success in the 2006 elections, when he raised lots of cash—sometimes by threatening candidates and browbeating colleagues—as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Appointed to that post in 2005, he rattled House Republicans who recognized that for the first time in a while “there was a killer at the helm of the Democratic Party,” says Rahm biographer Naftali Bendavid. “He really, really, really wants to win—whatever it is—and he’ll go to extraordinary lengths to do it.”

The stories of his ruthlessness, honed in the rough world of Chicago politics, are legendary: sending a dead fish to an associate with whom he’d had a falling-out; plunging a steak knife into a restaurant table as he denounced political adversaries; flashing his right middle finger, especially disarming because the finger was severed by a meat slicer when Rahm was a high-school student working at an Arby’s.

Rahm, who was President Clinton’s political director and an original member of the 1992 Little Rock “war room,” admits he’s driven in part by a fear of failure. “You’d bring shame to the family,” he says, only partly joking, in his Capitol hideaway office that’s filled with family photos. “I always tell the staff failure is not an option. You never give in, and you never give up.”

Zeke, who commutes to Washington from his home in Chicago every week, says that his staff jokes that it’s a good thing he’s in the office just three days a week. A pioneer in the field of end-of-life care who’s been an NIH chief for the past decade, Zeke has been a passionate voice for healthcare reform. He’s been so outspoken that he’s had to issue caveats making clear that he speaks for himself only and not as a government official.

“We don’t accept the current circumstances as somehow given,” Zeke says of the brothers. “We’re always challenging. We want to know, ‘Can it be better? Let’s make it better.’ It often comes across as we don’t respect authority a lot.”

Ariel, or Ari, the youngest at 47, has held up his end. He broke off from International Creative Management to start the Endeavor Agency in Beverly Hills and has turned it into one of Hollywood’s most successful talent agencies. Ari’s clients include Larry David, Aaron Sorkin, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Martin Scorsese. He called on Hollywood to blacklist Mel Gibson after the actor’s drunken, anti-Semitic tirade in 2006. He denounced Disney chief Michael Eisner after the mogul tried to prevent distribution of Fahrenheit 9/11, made by Ari’s client Michael Moore.

“It’s not what you’re supposed to do as an agent,” says Rahm, suggesting that his brother has more soul than the TV character based on him.

In the family room of the middle-class suburban home where the boys grew up and where their parents still live is a wall of black-and-white photos of relatives, most of whom never made it to America. One of the photos is of their father’s brother, Emanuel, who was killed in the 1936 Arab insurrection in Palestine. Benjamin’s parents changed the family’s last name from Auerbach to Emanuel in their son’s honor. In the middle of the wall, in a frame, is a crocheted money belt that the boys’ great-grandmother wore when she emigrated from Russia.

“There’s nothing subtle in Jewish families,” Rahm says. “It was my parents’ way of reminding us of our fortune of being here, the sense that it’s a privilege and an honor to be in this country, and that that can’t be wasted.”

Rahm says his parents also gave their children two seemingly contradictory thoughts—“one is to always challenge authority; the other is to always respect it.”

Their father, a pediatrician who moved to the States from Israel in 1959, devoted himself to public-health matters in Chicago, helping to get lead paint removed from houses, treating poor immigrants for free. As a young doctor trying to build a practice, he quit the American Medical Association over its position on national healthcare. “Not exactly the brightest move in 1962 when you’re trying to raise three kids,” says Rahm.

Their mother was a civil-rights activist in the early 1960s. She ran the north-side branch office of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, and occasionally, if she didn’t expect violence, took the boys to civil-rights marches with her.

“Early on, she wasn’t present in our lives,” says Rahm. “She was in jail.”

There was always extended family living with them—“nerve-racking for me but extremely helpful for the children,” says their mother. It was a loud household where the parents encouraged reading and debate, held monthly meetings at which anyone could say anything, and gave each son 15 minutes of “only child” time each day.

The Emanuels taught the boys to swim by the time they were 18 months old, made them all take ballet lessons, and had no qualms about pulling them out of school for trips all over the world.

Rahm describes dinner-table conversations, which often included his large and opinionated grandfather, a six-foot-four meat cutter from Moldavia, as political free-for-alls. “You had to get ready for dinner conversations at our house,” the congressman says. “You didn’t just come down to dinner and say, ‘How was your day?’ You either came ready or you got shut out.”


Once their grandfather threw their mother out of the house—her house—because of a dinner-table fight over Henry Wallace, who had split from the Democratic Party in 1948. There are other topics that still provoke such disagreement—one of them is the meaning of the Vietnam movie The Deer Hunter—that they’re verboten within the family.

As kids, the three boys shared a bedroom, spent summers together in Israel, wrestled, played football in the family room. “A lot of competition, a lot of bloodshed, plenty of fights,” says Zeke.

The boys were so rambunctious that the Emanuels were asked to vacate a second-floor apartment they lived in. “We were the vilder chaiah of the block,” Zeke says, using the Yiddish term for “wild animal.” “My parents had to run around and look for a first-floor apartment.”

Zeke was the straight-A student, the brainy kid so interested in science that his grandfather brought home a cow heart and lung from his meat business for his grandson to dissect. It was “predetermined,” Zeke says, that he would follow his father’s path to medicine.

Ari was the daredevil, an athletic kid with both severe dyslexia—an almost total inability to read, says Zeke—and ADHD, requiring tutoring and near-weekly trips to the principal’s office by their mother. “Teachers said I’d never graduate high school, let alone college,” Ari, who attended Macalester College in Minnesota, has said.

Rahm was an average student and, surprising for a politician known for his ferocity, the peacemaker in the family. “As a young kid, he was very quiet,” says Zeke.

Rahm also was a serious student of ballet—another wrinkle at odds with his “Rahmbo” image. He pirouetted around the house, was offered a scholarship to the Joffrey School of Ballet, and attended Sarah Lawrence College, which had a dance program. He would still take ballet lessons now, he says, if his schedule weren’t so erratic. Instead, his eight-year-old daughter, Leah, does. And Rahm squeezes in a yoga lesson at 10 pm when he can.

When Rahm was 14, his parents adopted a newborn girl after the baby’s mother showed up at the hospital where Dr. Emanuel worked as head of pediatrics, wanting to give the girl away.

Shoshana, who now has two children of her own—one of whom lives with Benjamin and Marsha—has not had the sterling success of her brothers. Zeke says all three, who were like older uncles to Shoshana when she was growing up, now have an “episodic” relationship with her, and he wonders about the genesis of her life’s troubles: “It’s a good question as to how much is environment, following three such brothers, and how much is genetic. It’s hard to know.” Marsha Emanuel says her daughter is extremely proud of her brothers “but keeps her distance.”

Though Zeke spends his days in a hospital, Rahm in the Capitol, and Ari a sleek Beverly Hills office designed by architect Neil Denari, Rahm sees a lot of similarities in their work. “The three professions all have something to do with shaping the world we live in,” he says. There’s also some overlap.

Zeke, working with a Stanford economist, has come up with a plan for healthcare reform and has advised a number of politicians and presidential contenders, including John Edwards and staff members for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. He and Rahm frequently argue about healthcare policy. Zeke mimics Rahm’s end of the conversation: “You want to change the whole healthcare system, and I can’t even get SCHIP [State Children’s Health Insurance Program] passed with dedicated funding? What kind of idiot are you?”

Zeke and Ari have collaborated on a TV script that was picked up by HBO. Titled Patient 2344, it’s a drama about healthcare dilemmas that arise at a hospital of the future.

Ari is involved in politics. Though neither Zeke nor Rahm has supported a particular candidate in the primaries—Rahm has allegiances to both Obama, a close friend and fellow Chicagoan, and Clinton, whose husband was his former boss—Ari has been a passionate Obama supporter.

He raised a lot of Hollywood money for Obama, holding a $2,300-a-plate dinner at his home, and in February posted an editorial on a Democratic blog saying that superdelegates like his brother Rahm shouldn’t be allowed to determine the Democratic nominee. “I love my brother, and I trust my brother,” he wrote. “But I gave up letting my brother dictate my life since he determined whether he got the top or bottom bunk in our bedroom back in Chicago.” (Ari says Rahm got the top bunk.)

Earlier this year, Ari campaigned with Obama in New Hampshire along with his client Larry David of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm fame. On the Monday night before the primary there, Ari invited Zeke’s daughter Gabrielle, a student at Dartmouth, to have dinner with him, David, and columnist Arianna Huffington, who were campaigning on the college campus. Zeke tells the story:

“Ari was introducing everyone and says to Gaby, ‘This is Larry David.’ She says, ‘Who are you? What do you do?’ He says, ‘Well, I was the writer and creative force behind Seinfeld.’ She says, ‘And what was Seinfeld?’ ”

Zeke explains that he’s never had a television in his home. “I think it’s one of the greatest things I ever did,” says Zeke, whose wife is also a physician.

Neither Zeke nor Rahm—both fathers of three, as is Ari—are regular Entourage watchers. But both have checked it out to see Ari Gold, the manic barracuda of an agent patterned after their brother and played by Jeremy Piven. Rahm caught the HBO show once when he was in a hotel room and then called his brother. “I said, ‘Hey Ari, I saw Entourage.’ He said, ‘What did you think?’ I said, ‘I like that guy more than I like you.’ ”

Actually, the TV Ari is enough like the real-life one—in one episode the characters sat in Ari Emanuel’s $2,000 courtside seats at a Lakers game, and the Endeavor agent really has been known to say, “Let’s hug it out”—that Benjamin Emanuel says he tunes in regularly just to find out what his youngest son is up to.

Rahm once joked to the New York Times that when their wives married them, each got not only her spouse but “the other two shmegegges” as well. The brothers remain close and make sure their paths cross frequently, even though one is on the West Coast and the other two commute between Illinois and Washington.

Zeke and Rahm both have homes in the Chicago area and crash with friends during their workweek in Washington: Rahm stays with pollster Stan Greenberg and his wife, Connecticut congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, in the basement apartment of their Capitol Hill home; Zeke stays with Georgetown University philosophy professor Henry Richardson and his wife in Cleveland Park. Ari lives in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles in a large house with pool, guesthouse, and sports court that he and his wife bought for $10 million three years ago.

Zeke and Rahm have dinner together in Washington about once a month, and their two families sometimes have Shabbat dinner at Rahm’s weekend cottage in Michigan. Zeke was with Rahm in his DCCC office on election night 2006, watching the returns and hugging in celebration as CNN announced that the Democrats had retaken the House. More recently, Zeke has helped Rahm’s scheduler as she’s battled breast cancer.

When his client Martin Scorsese was being feted at the Kennedy Center Honors last year, Ari took Rahm as his guest—and the congressman balked the whole time about having to wear a tux on a Sunday. Rahm in turn introduced his younger brother last November when Washington’s Lab School honored Ari at its annual Learning Disabled Achievers Award ceremony.

The brothers talk by phone several times a week if not daily. “They don’t need a psychiatrist,” Benjamin Emanuel says of his sons. “They talk to each other.” The conversations between any two of them tend to be short, clipped, almost clairvoyant exchanges. “No real verbs or adjectives or connecting words,” Rahm says. But plenty of banter and argument over just about anything. “We argue ‘Is it light out or dark out?’ ” says Ari.

Their spouses can’t always tell Ari and Rahm apart on the phone. Their voices are very similar.

So is their choice of words.



Swearing seems to be in the Emanuel DNA, though Zeke admits he doesn’t hold a candle to his brothers. Rahm and Ari are both known for rarely completing a sentence without an expletive. “Rahm curses all the time, which is jarring for a member of Congress,” says Bendavid, author of The Thumpin’, which chronicled Rahm’s role in the Democrats’ 2006 victory. “It’s part of the in-your-face persona.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently joked that she had figured out a way to pay for the economic stimulus package: “Put a quarter in a jar every time Rahm uses a swear word.”

In fact, Ari’s three boys have tried to get their father to kick the habit by charging him $5 an expletive—per kid. “They almost have their college tuition paid for,” he jokes.

Rahm says it’s not something they learned from their parents. On the other hand, he adds, “I grew up in a house where, if your father didn’t say you were a schmuck, it meant you weren’t really loved.”

Marsha Emanuel groans when asked about her sons’ foul language and says it started at an early age. “Ben and I made a decision—I guess it was a wrong one—not to interfere,” she explains. “We hoped it would go away.” She notes that while she tolerated the cursing, she made it clear that if they ever made fun of people for their religion, ethnicity, or the way they looked, “they were in deep, deep trouble.”

Over the Thanksgiving break just after the midterm election, the three brothers went out for breakfast in Chicago and then to a bathhouse their grandfather used to take them to. They talked about where they were in their lives. “At this stage, everyone has an accomplishment under their belt and a fair amount of recognition,” says Zeke. “The burning sense of ‘Am I going to do anything?’ has receded. The issue of ‘What’s next?’ is probably more relevant to us.”

Whatever is next—Rahm is in line to be Speaker of the House, but, with two Democrats in front of him, he may not have the patience to wait it out—the three will continue to argue, poke at one another, compete for the top bunk. It’s no coincidence that they all chose different fields.

Zeke says their relationship is mellower now: “A decade ago it was much more jostling. Now there’s more bonhomie between us. Lots of argument and disagreement in a very friendly but competitive way.”

For all the rivalry, there is clear admiration and devotion. “If I had to be in some extreme circumstances, there are very few people in the world I’d rather do it with than my brothers,” says Zeke, who keeps a framed photo of the three of them with their father on his desk at NIH.

When Rahm introduced Ari at the Lab School last November, he choked up as he told the audience about the Ari he knows, the scrappy kid who “beat the crap” out of a neighborhood boy who, mistaking a suntanned Rahm for an African-American, took away his bike and made a racist remark.

Rahm says he feels “unbelievable pride” in his brothers.

“We can say whatever we want to each other, me and Ari and Zeke. But you touch one of them,” he says, conveying the message in classic Emanuel fashion, “and I’ll break your neck.”

This article is from the May 2008 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from the issue, click here

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Susan Baer

Susan Baer is a former Washingtonian editor and Baltimore Sun correspondent who has also written for CNN and the Washington Post. She can be reached at [email protected].