Oh brother! Zeke Emanuel talks up his sibs Rahm and Ari at JCCSF

“If we had been born 20 years earlier,” Ezekiel “Zeke” Emanuel told a crowd of 200 at the JCC of San Francisco, “you probably never would have heard of us.”

By “us,” Emanuel was referring to himself and his two younger brothers, one of whom most Americans certainly have heard of: Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago and President Barack Obama’s former chief of staff.

The other brother, the youngest, is Ari Emanuel, one of Hollywood’s most powerful talent agents. And Zeke Emanuel, born in 1957, is himself a nationally known bioethicist, national health policy analyst and columnist for the New York Times.

The eldest Emanuel brother was in San Francisco on April 22 to talk about his life and his recently published book “Emanuel: A Memoir of an American Family.”

Zeke Emanuel

On the JCC stage, Emanuel explored how having Israeli-Jewish roots, a family commitment to social justice and fraternal competition helped forge the brothers’ success. In a Chicago accent underlaid with New York tones, Emanuel said that their success didn’t develop until after college.

He also attributed much of it to luck, to being alive at the right time — in an era when Obama could be elected president (and select Rahm as his chief of staff), and in an era when he could excel in a previously nonexistent field, bioethics.

“When we graduated high school, we were no great shakes,” he said. “No one who saw us would say, ‘Oh, those Emanuel brothers. They’re really going to succeed.”

So what happened?

Emanuel attributed the brothers’ success to a toughness inherited from their parents, especially their Jerusalem-born father, Benjamin, who was a member of the Irgun, a Zionist military group in pre-state Israel, in the 1940s. He emigrated from Israel to the United States in 1953 “with $25 in his pocket.”

His mother, Martha, was heavily involved in U.S. social movements, first taking up the cause of civil rights and then protesting against the Vietnam War. Emanuel recalled attending demonstrations as a boy.

They were also toughened by growing up in a rough section of Chicago, where they faced anti-Semitic epithets and were bullied for having black friends, Emanuel said. Also, they constantly fought with each other. With their fists. “When there wasn’t blood spilled in a night, it was an unusual night,” Emanuel said.

As they grew into young men, they learned how to keep out of each other’s way, in large part by selecting different professional paths in three separate parts of the country.

They still have conflicts — especially when Zeke and Rahm argue about health care policy — but now they temper those episodes with shared support, what Zeke calls “combative collegiality.” It’s an approach reflected in his book dedication, which reads “I love you schmucks.”

Zeke seems brash, referring to himself as the smartest of the three, but can be self-effacing, as well. In his talk, he called himself a “nerd” and “the family welfare case” because he labored for years in a relatively low-paying government health position.

He also told a funny story about how, when he was a boy, his grandfather brought home a cow’s heart and lungs for him to dissect. When he finished, Zeke stored the organs in the freezer next to the steaks so he could thaw them out any time for re-examination.

During their frequent phone calls — Zeke and Rahm talk four to five times a week — they often wind up screaming at each other, Zeke said. But he also told the audience that the brothers have a softer side, noting that they all enjoy housework, and that Rahm especially enjoys doing the dishes. (In the days before Obama’s inauguration, Zeke spied Rahm with the phone in one hand, discussing the finer points of the soon-to-be-proposed stimulus bill, while sweeping the kitchen floor with the other.)

Work ultimately is what drives and defines the Emanuel brothers, Zeke said, and he doesn’t see any of them easing off the ambition throttle anytime soon.

“I don’t think any of us is going to retire,” he told the audience. “And we certainly won’t be lying on a beach somewhere with a margarita in our hand.”