The Madoff scandal plays to an ugly stereotype. But maybe there's a silver lining for his cultural cohort.
Bernie Madoff gave off fumes of quiet but deep confidence that can be immensely seductive. I have never met Madoff, but I have met men of his physical and psychological type: smallish, unathletic in build, wearing expensive yet unflashy clothes, nothing dazzling about them. They manage to seem substantial in an unthreatening, even avuncular way. They appear to be in possession of a deep secret: they have gotten in on the ground floor, they know how the game is played; should they choose, they could put you on to a few good things. They have deciphered the magic of money; they feel no need to brag about it, but clearly they have everything under control. Except, of course, they don't, not really, because one of the things we have learned from the recent economic meltdown is that nobody does.
An archeologist of human character could scrutinize and analyze Bernie Madoff for decades without getting at what must be the complex layers of response he must have felt as his monumental stock-market fraud played out. Imagine the delirious delight he must have taken in his global deception, the panic he must have felt when he first heard the whir in the air of axes about to fall, the terror commingled with relief he now must feel knowing he is permanently established as one of the world's major frauds, up their with Sacha Stavisky, whose worthless bond scheme nearly brought down the French Third Republic. A great novelist of the kind the world does not now house may perhaps one day be able delve below this rocky psychic ground to read the soul of a man as complexly twisted as Bernie Madoff.
For the rest of us, the best we can do is examine the shards that such diggings from the Madoff affair have thus far brought aboveground. Not least prominent among them is the effect of Bernie Madoff's colossal swindle of his coreligionists, the Jews. Madoff soaked the rich, but he seems to have specialized in soaking the Jewish rich. The spectacle presented by a Jew swindling Jews is itself flush with interest.
The first thought that must have gone through the minds of most American Jews as Madoff's financial machinations were revealed had to have been: this can't be good for the Jews. Jews of a certain generation—Madoff's and my own—even now are always on the qui vive for anti-Semitism. ("How come there are no Jews in the front four of the Green Bay Packers?" ought to be the punch line for a joke not yet written illustrating this psychological condition.) According to the never-dying anti-Semitic stereotype, Jews are above all financially astute, with a highly flexible sense of ethics, sharpies, operators par excellence. Bernie Madoff, alas, plays to this stereotype to perfection.
Jews are still tribal enough to think of their coreligionists vaguely as family, and that Madoff bilked his own family, so to say, takes, one supposes, some of the anti-Semitic stigma off, making Madoff a truly equal-opportunity son of a bitch. This epithet, I promise you, is a euphemism for the way many Jews feel about Madoff's cheating any number of Jewish charitable institutions out of their endowments—Hadassah, Yeshiva University, Elie Wiesel's Foundation for Humanity—putting some of them out of business. In a nice reversal of Robin Hood, Madoff robbed from the poor and gave to himself.
Might the cloud the Madoff affair has cast among the Jews have not a silver but perhaps a zinc lining? One wonders, for example, what effect Uncle Bernie's (as I have come to think of him) amazing caper will have on the attempt at WASP-ification of well-to-do Jews in America. American Jews, the scholar and wit Milton Himmelfarb said, "earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans." But with the passing decades of prosperity many Jews have also begun to live like Episcopalians, or at least as they imagine Episcopalians live.
Many years ago the sociologist E. Digby Baltzel distinguished among the Protestant sects by noting that a Methodist was a Baptist with shoes, a Presbyterian a Methodist who has gone to college, and an Episcopalian a Presbyterian who lives on his investments. That portion of wealthy Jews who have come to live on their investments began more and more to model their leisure and financial lives on those of old-line Episcopalians, with the added benefit of having Sunday mornings free.
Long locked out of the WASP social and commercial institu-tions—the tonier country clubs, the major Ivy League universities, the white-shoe legal and banking firms, large corporations, elegant suburbs—well-to-do Jews in America, where possible, formed their own counterpart institutions, apart from the Ivy League schools. A younger generation has now taken to giving their children WASPy first names, so that today one runs into such comic nomenclatural pairings as Tyler Ginsberg, Mackenzie Rosenthal, Hunter Fefferman, Kelly Rabinowicz and other such preposterosities.
So it is, too, with Jewish country clubs. Madoff's own club, the Palm Beach Country Club, whose members proved such ripe pickings for Uncle Bernie, is a bit exceptional in not carrying a WASPish name, like that of so many Jewish clubs I know in Chicago—Bryn Mawr, Briarwood, Ravisloe, Twin Orchard, Green Acres, everything but Goyesque Pines—in imitation of the names of long-established WASP country clubs.
As part of the country-club drift of well-to-do Jews, of their general Episcopalianization, golf has become a great mania—mishegoss, in the good Yiddish word—for so many Jewish men of my generation. Among many of those who have scored financially, the leading idea of Valhalla is a condominium on a golf course in a dull place with a warm climate. I have one acquaintance who, having rung the success bell resoundingly, is said to belong to 10 different clubs around the country, so that he can play golf no matter where he finds himself.
Another acquaintance, off on a fund-raising trip to Houston for a Jewish institution he heads, discovered upon his arrival on a Wednesday afternoon that almost all his potential wealthy contributors were out on the links. When he remarked on this to one of the few men he was able to reach, the man told him that the former leader of the Jewish community in Houston once told him, "You know, Barry [you have to imagine a southern accent here], our people shouldn't golf."
There is something deeply trivial about golf that is unseemly for Jews, who have traditionally been accustomed to taking themselves seriously. Whacking away at a little ball, hoping, at the end of four hours' effort, to arrive at the finish a stroke or two fewer than the previous time one wasted a morning at this game—no, no, no, I'm sorry, but this is all wrong for Jews. Our grandfathers and great-grandfathers didn't undergo pogroms and the struggle to evade conscription in the tsar's army to come to America for their descendants to put on peach-colored pants, spiked Nike shoes and chemises Lacoste to appear on the first tee promptly at 8 a.m. A Jew should be studying, arguing, thinking, working, making money, contemplating why God has put him through so many trials. A phrase like "dogleg to the left" should never pass his lips. If Madoff's depredations will bring a few Jews in off the links, perhaps that is not entirely a bad thing.
Madoff's handiwork might also not have been altogether without purpose if it eliminates a number of the trust funds wealthy Jewish parents, usually acting on the advice of savvy lawyers looking for tax loopholes, have conferred upon their children. The few young Jewish men I have known who have trust funds, making life all too easy, have somehow along the way lost both their Jewishness and, by not working for a living, their edge. It is one thing to live on your investments; it is quite another to live on the investments of money you yourself never earned. "Money is funny," Gertrude Stein said, and the lady knew whereof she spoke.
Reading the scores of thousands of words written about the Madoff affair, I cannot help wondering if I wouldn't myself have been susceptible to having been cheated by Bernie Madoff. I can all too easily imagine a wealthy friend putting me onto a good thing by arranging for Madoff Securities to take my money under its large protective wing, then sitting back, noting the impressive gains on my monthly statements, until one morning waking to learn that I had been had and was now tapped out. One of the only reasons this didn't happen, I suspect, is that, over a long and undaring life, I neglected to accumulate the $4 million that Uncle Bernie required as an ante to get into the game.
My father used to say that it is good to be cheated every once in a while. Being cheated, he held, teaches humility, reminds you that you aren't as smart as you thought you were; it's good for the mental hygiene. John D. Rockefeller Sr.'s father used to claim that he cheated his sons every chance he got; it smartened them up, with results we all know. Will Bernie Madoff's duping so many people of their money, Jews prominent among them, smarten them up?
A few weeks ago I spoke over the phone with a Hungary-born historian, a man who, as befits a scholar from an older culture, fancies himself taking long views. He suggested that I write a book about the efflorescence of the Jews in 20th-century America. The book would tote up their remarkable contributions to science, scholarship, the arts, journalism, entertainment, commerce, education. "It is a big subject," he said, "and calls for a big book. But you know of course that the end is already written. The story of the Jews in America is now over."
He didn't say it straight out, because he didn't have to, but what was implied is that American Jews have lost the great energy that made them such a force in American life. They will never again, if he is correct, equal their earlier achievements. There have been too many Tylers, Mackenzies, Hunters and Kellys, too much intermarriage, too many doglegs (both left and right), too many inept scions walking around frivolously spending trust-fund money. As they become ever more assimilated, American Jews, my friend the historian was saying, will no longer constitute a distinctive group with a distinguished role to play in American life.
Which brings us back to Bernie Madoff, who has performed the valuable—if very expensive—service of demonstrating to his coreligionists, among others, that the waters of life are not as pacific as they seem. Sharks are down there, and barracudas, and other scarifying species, some of them selling impressive-sounding financial security, but really waiting to eat you alive. Tyler and Mackenzie, Hunter and Kelly had better learn now that life isn't going to be a smooth swim, going with the current all the way home. If you don't believe it, ask Uncle Bernie.
Epstein is the author, most recently, of “Fred Astaire” (Yale University Press).