As we progress ever further into the hall of mirrors that is the Madoff case, the sights become ever more confusing, the stories more sordid and more fascinating. Nobody, apparently, is what he seems.
First there was Bernie, the genial, friendly and thoroughly decent Jewish uncle-type who turned out to be a thief so cold-blooded he would bankrupt his own sister. Then there was J. Ezra Merkin, the Orthodox scion renowned for his brilliance, financial savvy, and intimidating air of superiority, whose investing genius turned out to consist of using his connections and erudition to raise massive sums of money, which he then turned over to managers whose financial methods and moral bankruptcy he was apparently unable to grasp.
And now we are finding that more and more of the sheep may, in fact, have been wolves. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that federal investigators are now looking into the possibility that several of Madoff’s biggest victims may, in fact, have been in on the fraud. Yes, they include some big Jewish donors – Jeffry Picower, Stanley Chais, Carl Shapiro, and Noel Levine, as well as a few others. (We already reported that deceased Madoff pal Norman Levy may have been in on things, as well.) Chais was one of the conduits for Hollywood money that ended up as Madoff smoke, including that of Eric Roth, scribe of “Forrest Gump” and “Benjamin Button,” and a board member for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Shapiro, along with son-in-law Robert Jaffe (who is also being investigated) was one of the main routes to Madoff at the now-infamous Palm Beach Country Club. Levine was a major donor of photographs to the Israel Museum.
Meanwhile, Merkin, in what passes for gallantry amid this mess, announced that he would not accept the post of chairman at the Fifth Avenue Synagogue, where he has just finished up his term as president. He made the announcement at the meeting where he was scheduled to be installed, to reportedly warm applause. One might ask why he didn’t quietly step aside earlier in the process and thus save his shul from public embarrassment, but perhaps that’s nitpicking. Meanwhile, he has plenty else on his mind: New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is in the process of liquidating what is left of Merkin’s hedge funds.
People will be drawing moral lessons from this whole Madoff affair ad infinitum, and ad nauseum, for years. For now, we’ll stick with the most relevant: Money is just money. Having a lot of it doesn’t mean you’re a genius or a villain. Giving a lot of it away to charity doesn’t mean you’re a saint or a leader of the Jewish people — or even necessarily a mensch. It just means you’re rich.