Madoff was a crook (and, sadly, Jewish)

Norman W. Pressman is a St. Louis lawyer who has argued before the United States and Missouri Supreme Courts. He is a proud member of the Jewish Community Center Men’s Health Club.

By Norman W. Pressman

Watching Richard Dreyfuss’ portrayal of Bernie Madoff in the recent ABC miniseries “Madoff” was both interesting and unsettling to me as a Jew. Were the constant references to Madoff’s religion and scenes of Jewish cultural activities an essential part of the story or just a way to portray Jews in a bad light?

I’m sorry that I didn’t get to watch “Madoff” with my late father, whose roots were similar to many of our parents. Born in Brooklyn to first-generation Eastern Europeans, a member of the Greatest Generation and an engineer who wrote three books, he saw the aftermath of the Holocaust in Europe as part of a team looking for German scientific equipment after VE day. When he returned home to work in the electronics industry after five years of military service, he experienced a tinge of resistance to his heritage.

Those experiences made him the opposite of the character of Uncle Leo in TV’s “Seinfeld,” who saw an anti-Semite under every rock. My dad was always concerned that some villain would turn out to have Jewish roots and embarrass the entire community. 

When David Berkowitz was arrested as the Son of Sam serial killer, my dad thought it would be terrible for Jews. Later, he was relieved to find out that Berowitz was adopted, as if any of us would be collectively guilty for his crimes in either instance.

My dad passed away before Madoff’s Ponzi scheme was uncovered, but I’m sure he would have been displeased both by Madoff’s actions and the miniseries. Madoff’s scheme initially was an affinity scam in which he targeted Jewish clients of his father-in-law and honed his skills as a scammer. 

Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

After he ran out of Jews, he moved on to Gentiles. It was similar to schemes pulled off by members of different groups. (Think Episcopal ”Bishop” Martin Sigillito, who scammed his “close” friends in St. Louis out of $40 million.)

I’m sure also certain “Joe Sixpacks” watching the show in outstate Missouri or some other predominantly white county in America came away with the idea that all Jews are rich, sneaky crooks.

It’s similar to when Jews (like some of my fellow Jewish Community Center health club members!) see people of color or from other religions (such as Islam) do bad things and say, “Why don’t the (Blacks, Muslims, Irish, Italians, Hispanics — pick one) do something about ‘these people?’ ”

But can a hard-working black family in Ferguson really do something about strong-arm criminals in the next block? Can a Mexican laborer in St. Louis working 12 hours a day and sending money back to his family really do something about the drug cartel in his hometown? Am I responsible for some of the dishonest acts committed by other St. Louis Jews?

I hope my Gentile friends don’t think I’m just another Madoff waiting to scam them. In the meantime, I will redouble my effort to judge each of them by the content of their individual character and not by their family origin.