Cringing at Madoff, and Counting Cabinet Jews

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published December 24, 2008, issue of January 02, 2009.
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Let’s say it’s the day the Earth stands still, or UFOs have landed all over the place and disgorged mean-spirited aliens. You are alone in a strange city, devastation is everywhere, and all you have in your possession is a local telephone book. You try 911, but there’s no answer. What’s your next move?

Here is my hunch: Your next move is to look up someone with the same last name as yours, and if you don’t find any such listing, to look under Cohen or Levin or Rosenberg — which is to say, as “West Side Story” so bluntly puts it, “one of your own kind.”

It doesn’t have to be so dramatic a setting. You are lost in an unfamiliar area, you must ring someone’s buzzer in a large apartment building to ask for help, or perhaps knock on the door of a house. Will you feel a tad more relaxed if there’s a mezuzah on the door post of the house, if among the names on the array of buzzers there’s a Finkelstein?

Whatever else Jews are to each other, we are, at some level and in some sense, family, each other’s safe houses. Or so it has seemed.

Enter Bernard Madoff (and his abettors). No matter how widespread the devastation he has wrought, his early marks were Jews: Jewish people, Jewish institutions, Jewish philanthropies, Jewish celebrities. This isn’t a case of a teen stealing a pack of chewing gum from the faceless supermarket or a book from Barnes & Noble, rationalizing that they’d never miss his paltry theft; this was grand thievery, from people Madoff knew for sure would be ruined when his Ponzi scheme came undone, as it was one day bound to. Let none say this man was a philanthropist; his love of others (which is what “philanthropy” means) was at best a cover story, now uncovered. No, in fact he is a misanthrope. And his misanthropy raises the irksome question of how safe our safe houses are, how reliable the handshake is, how open the circle of solidarity can dare to be.

There’s a story I sometimes tell, the story of what happened when we returned from the cemetery after burying my father-in-law. We did a quick count and realized there were only nine males in the room, this at a time when and in a home where the idea of counting women was simply not available. Without hesitation, I went across the street to the candy store, which had a Jewish name — Meyer’s Candy & Sundries or some such — and told the owner, whom I did not know, that we were sitting shiva across the street and needed a 10th for the minyan. With no hesitation at all, he replied, “Give me a minute to lock up and I’ll be right with you.”

Suppose the store had been Madoff & Sons. Would I have asked Mr. Madoff? If I had, and he’d come, would I not have wondered whether he could actually be counted as part of the required community? Or would I, not knowing of his perfidy, have invited him and only later learned that in my innocence I’d caused our Kaddish to be befouled? But the whole point of safe houses is that you don’t have to check references, or at least shouldn’t have to, before using them.

It’s possible, I admit, that this whole notion of safe houses and Jewish names and even Jewish solidarity is a vestige of times now nearly gone. “Is it good for the Jews?” may be a snicker-causing formulation to Gen X-ers and entirely incomprehensible to Gen Y-ers. When they read of Madoff, they react with secular disgust but not with embarrassment nor a twinge of fear that the entire sorry saga is fodder for the antisemites. Not for them the constant, instinctive awareness of who in the room is Jewish, the tickled consciousness when, after being introduced to Murphy and Madison and Benson and Drysdale, you’re shaking hands with Shapiro.

So: There were more Jews on the 1938 Detroit Tigers, when Hank Greenberg was the only Jew on the team, than there are in Barack Obama’s Cabinet.

Is that good news or bad news? It used to be said of Bill Clinton that he was the first president who didn’t count Jews, meaning that he felt no need not to appoint “too many” Jews — Summers, Rubin, Reich, Kantor, Glickman, Albright. My sense is that it’s safe to say Obama is comfortable enough in his relationship with Jews not to fear appointing “too few” to his Cabinet. There are those who will be disconcerted by the Cabinet’s Jew-lessness. They should take comfort from the composition of the White House staff, arguably the more consequential of the two: Rahm Emanuel, chief of staff; Lawrence Summers, head of the National Economic Council; David Axelrod, senior adviser to the president.

And there are those who will say that to be disconcerted — that is, to count Jews, to be aware of who and how many — is preposterous, ultimately an invitation to an us/them consciousness that is inherently divisive.

The fact is that we’re not required to choose between “it’s all in the family” and “there is no family.” It’s okay to feel a measure of relief that Blagojevich is not Jewish and a measure of embarrassment that Madoff is. A measure. It’s okay to care that there always be a Jew on the Supreme Court, as long as you care much more for the judicial philosophy of the nominee. It’s okay to have the concept of safe houses; it’s better, much better, never to need them.

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