From ‘Avalon’ to Madoff: What ‘The Wizard of Lies’ reveals about contemporary American Jewish identity

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Back in 1990 director Barry Levinson gave us Avalon, his epic masterpiece on the American Jewish community. In that classic film Levinson skillfully examined the Eastern European Jewish immigrants and their often tumultuous encounter with the complexities of American culture and the assimilation process.  It presented the fraught confrontation of Old World values with the brash and exhilarating world of 1950s America and its fast-paced lifestyle and Suburban sprawl.

We were able to see the generational clash and the shock of the new, but in a way that warmly remembered the struggles and disappointments of the immigrants and showed how their children moved on from the past.

It is this debilitating process which becomes the underlying subject of Levinson’s chilling examination of the Bernie Madoff story.

In The Wizard of Lies we see the pitfalls of “Making It” in America and how the Jewish community has reconfigured itself at the end of a very tumultuous century. The film is currently being screened on the HBO network

Expertly played by Robert De Niro in a dazzling performance that hearkens back to the iconic roles of his 1970s and 80s peak, Madoff is a reckless nihilist whose debased Long Island/Palm Beach 1%-er values mirror the excesses that we continue to see in the disaster that is Donald Trump.

Madoff is a truly nasty piece of work who relentlessly browbeats his family and associates as he remains completely oblivious to what it is that he is actually doing to his clients.

The movie notes the many ways in which Madoff ascended to the very apex of the financial services industry and became the idol of not only his investors, but of the institutional system itself.

He was held in awe by SEC and NASDAQ officials as a pioneering leader who helped to craft the laws regulating the industry.  This idol-worship blinded regulators to the malfeasance that he perpetrated under their collective watch.

His insider knowledge of the system helped him commit his shocking fraud which parasitically shifted massive amounts of money from one place to the other as he eventually ran out of cash to continue to “generate” unrealistic returns for his clients.

While massively enriching himself and his unsuspecting family, Madoff was bilking his clients out of their life savings, eventually leaving many of them penniless.

Central to the story is the 2008 Wall Street collapse which was the beginning of the end of his demonic Ponzi scheme.

We will recall the process which began with the vile Ronald Reagan and ended with George W. Bush that sought to empower a feckless financial services industry at the expense of the internal coherence and stability of our economic system.

Prior to this collapse the movie shows us the Madoff world in full debauchery: expensive houses, vacations, lavish social gatherings, the very best shopping sprees, and the fast lane of American elite society.

The Wizard of Lies, brilliantly written by Sam Levinson, Sam Baum, and John Burnham Schwartz, is based on New York Times reporter Diana Henriques’ book (she also plays herself in the movie), and is structured using her prison-house interviews with Madoff as the framework of a series of intense flashbacks which present the sorry tale in revealing fragments; a similar structure to the one used in Avalon.

The film poster for “Avalon.”

Levinson’s presentation focuses on the most basic human elements of the story which reminds us of the Avalon immigrants and their own complex dealings with the American economic system and the pluralistic social universe of their new homeland.

After many decades of engagement with America, Jews like Madoff felt entitled to game the system in a way that displayed a shocking lack of basic moral values.

Exploitation became the key to Madoff’s scheme to enrich himself by bilking the unsuspecting investors.

But as De Niro/Madoff says in the movie, those investors – including prominent Jewish figures like Elie Wiesel and many religious charities – chose not to examine the suspiciously secretive way in which Madoff worked, and never questioned why it was that their returns were consistent as the market continued to fluctuate so wildly.

The Wizard of Lies is an implicit indictment not only of the American economic system, which has since the 1980s become an out-of-control train careening from one crisis to another, but also a critical examination of the debased mores of the 1% with a strong Jewish component in the social process.

The Krichinsky family in Avalon famously sits down to a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with the full Turkey and trimmings, while the Madoffs entertain lavishly on the ritzy Long Island shore with Steak, Lobster, and Champagne.

The physical contrast between the humble Baltimore row houses in Avalon with the often obscene wealth of Madoffworld could not be more telling as we process the dramatic changes in the American Jewish community over the course of time.

Avalon sought to question the base materialism of the new generation by juxtaposing it to the thrift and humility of the immigrants.

The Wizard of Lies shows us the process completed in a way that removes the moral values of the Old Country and replaces them with degenerate greed and smug elitism; a process that manifests a revolutionary shift in values.

The Madoffs live high on the proverbial hog and have forgotten the most basic elements of life and of the essential dignity of the human being.

The film poster for “Wizard of Lies”

Bernie Madoff is a man who only sees his own well-being and remains oblivious to the pain he is causing others.  He surrounds himself with yes-men and sycophants who cater to his every wish and desire.  In one of the movie’s critical scenes he is shown tyrannically berating a group of workers setting up a meal at one of his lavish social affairs, showing no respect for their essential human dignity.

Madoff saw human beings as inert instruments to exclusively serve him and his interests.  He showed no respect or consideration to his own family and to those who trusted him as their financial counselor.

The cruelty that he exhibited to his wife and children is often harrowing and truly unspeakable; their suffering is the manifestation of an inhumanity that represents evil in its most primal manifestation.

We have seen a similar narcissism and megalomania in Donald Trump whose own financial malfeasance also speaks to the explosion of ego and a blatant disregard of socio-political norms.

The connection between Madoff, a very uncaring Jew who thought nothing of using his elevated financial status to exploit his own community, and the larger institutional Jewish world is an important element in the story. The Madoff scandal prompted much soul-searching and hand-wringing in the Jewish world, as we see in a 2009 article by Jonathan Tobin from Commentary magazine. A 2008 New York Times piece by Robin Pogrebin quotes numerous rabbis and Jewish leaders attacking Madoff as a “shanda,” which is a Yiddish word that means “shame” or “disgrace.”

But the current Jewish embrace of Trump and his degenerate values shows that perceived financial self-interest continues to overshadow morality and ethics. In spite of the rise of Alt-Right Trumpworld Anti-Semitism and the numerous ethical violations coming from the White House, the institutional Jewish community continues to strongly back the president.

The Madoff personality-type remains central to contemporary Jewish identity.  We have seen the ascendance of an Ashkenazi Jewish culture which has rejected the values of Religious Humanism and adopted a cynical, alienated stance that is deeply rooted in selfishness, materialism, and cruelty.

The Jewish community today is all about getting the upper hand and stomping out the little guy.  Our leadership presents a smug superiority which revels in its economic success and assumes that wealth engenders honorific status and socio-political control.

The Wizard of Lies presents indelible scenes of the elites in their native habitat, reveling in their luxurious lifestyle which in turn has served to eviscerate their humanity.

In this toxic context there is little if any room for the most elementary religious concerns, as it is money and the things it can buy that have become the central defining factor in American Jewish life.

We have seen how this nefarious process works in David Brooks’ New York Times column “The Orthodox Surge”. Five years after the Wall Street collapse and in the looming shadow of Madoff, Brooks vigorously applauds Orthodox Jewish materialistic values and the lavish lifestyles that he saw in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Midwood. Brooks does not once refer to Madoff and his shenanigans, but he does proudly mention his tour guide Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, an individual who is at the forefront of Republican-Conservative Jewish politics and who is a committed enemy of the Sephardic tradition. We should recall that Madoff was beloved in the Modern Orthodox community where he was seen as a veritable Messiah. As Elie Wiesel put it: “We thought he was God, we trusted everything in his hands.”

It is of course said that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, and we have seen how Jews continue to engage in dubious financial behavior.

The 2016 Platinum Partners scandal extends the Madoff legacy to the present and speaks to a continuing culture of excess and corruption inside the Jewish community, which is so expertly detailed by Levinson in “The Wizard of Lies” with its many scenes of revelry and carnival-esque celebrations.

As we saw in Avalon, there was a dark side to the rampant assimilation and its attendant materialism: The abandonment of traditional values as understood within the framework of Religious Humanism produced an internal corruption that has led to the rot of The Wizard of Lies and a system that lionizes degenerates like Bernie Madoff and Donald Trump.

And so it is that we continue to see the collateral human damage that has been generated by a socio-economic system that famously produces people like Bernie Madoff.

In the masterful Wizard of Lies, a deeply striking work of historical reconstruction, we are able to process how all this works: the cheating, the arrogance, the cruel barbarity, and the materialistic excess all function as markers of a debasement of humanity that has untethered contemporary Jewish culture from its most important ethical values.  It is a transformational motion picture which forces us to confront the demons among us.

It is thus critical that we again look carefully at the life of Bernie Madoff and rethink what is happening in our Jewish community before it is too late.

Our lives truly hang in the balance.

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Bernie’s character never revealed even an inch of empathy. When told his sister-in-law was worried about her life-savings due to market situation on cusp of 2008 debacle, and Bernie was asked if she should invest in his project, he simply said, “sure.” He was not bombastic like Trump, but rather… Read more »

“who is at the forefront of Republican-Conservative Jewish politics and who is a committed enemy of the Sephardic tradition”

What a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
So it’s come to that.

What one may wonder about is what on earth has the humble immigration story of Ashkenazi Jewish people got to do with a modern-day American embezzler of and in the ruling class (of course using his Eskenazi contacts within that ruling class, among many others of all possible persuasions and… Read more »

Thanks for this crystal clear synopsis of Bernie Madoff’s syndrome. Seeing other people as mere objects has always been the main disease of the very rich, such as are often found in the tops of the biggest banks and their controlled industrial corporations. What’s the difference between Madoff’s approach and… Read more »