Except for an entirely missable reference in the first sentence, it’s possible to read Daphne Merkin’s take on the Madoff affair without realizing that it was her brother, J. Ezra, who was the principal conduit between moneyed Orthodox Manhattanites and the giant Ponzi scheme Madoff was running out of his Midtown digs. Which on some level is understandable, given that her whole point is that women are virtually absent from the world of high finance, relegated to elegant set pieces that enhance the status of the men to whom they’re attached and lubricate the social machinery needed for their advancement.
Money, it goes without saying, is still a men’s club of the most secretive kind. The fact that until very recently men have been the sole breadwinners is not enough to explain this profound separation of the sexes when it comes to lucre, whether shining or filthy. It goes back, I think, to that basic conflict we have about what sort of valuation to put on money in a society besotted with the rewards it brings — the ever more recherché permutations of luxury and connoisseurship, life lived at an ever more padded remove from the daily grind. Are the deals and negotiations that swirl around it too dirty for the gentler sex — or too potentially empowering? Then, too, there is a reflexive enfeebling of women, an equation with children that takes place at an almost organic level — both being seen as emotionally unreliable and ill-equipped to handle the brute facts of life.
I have also been thinking about Michael Gold’s book, Jews Without Money, and the world of Jewish immigrants — "greenhorns," as they were derisively called. It conjured up, the ragamuffinish dark-eyed children scampering around the crowded streets of the Lower East Side, the women bent over sewing machines in sweat shops, the men peddling goods or fixing watches. Many of them were engaged in gainful labor with merchandise, or s’choira, as my grandfather called it — something you could actually see and feel as opposed to something that lent itself to numerical crunching. We are long past such concrete equations, long past the notion that goods and services can hold their own against the making of money off money, endless piles of paper, derivatives, credit default swaps, puts, off-shore accounts and funds of funds.
Though this is, to my knowledge, the first public comment from any Merkin since the Madoff scheme imploded, those seeking some insight into the family psychology, some clue as to how J. Ezra could have led all those Jewish investors astray, will be disappointed. For that, Daphne’s infamous essay on spanking might provide more scintilating reading.