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Big Men

Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn are all a certain type: the Jewish Big, narcissistic, entitled, and unapologetic. And society loves to see a Jewish Big fall.

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Jewish Bigs Eliot Spitzer, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and Anthony Weiner. (Collage: Tablet Magazine; Spitzer photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images; Strauss-Kahn photo: Todd Heisler-Pool/Getty Images; Weiner photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

During the Anthony Weiner dirty-tweeting scandal, no one had much to say about the Jewish congressman’s religion. The same was true of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, also Jewish, when he was revealed to be frequenting prostitutes, and IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who’s half-Jewish and half-Catholic, when he was pulled off an airplane and charged with rape. This is odd because it was their faith—their Jewishness—that was responsible, in a way, for their undoing.

Weiner, Spitzer, and Strauss-Kahn are all representative of a certain type of Jewish man: what former Forward editor Seth Lipsky used to call, half-ironically, “Jewish Bigs.” Jewish Bigs are emperors without any clothes—men who believe they are important because someone else, starting around age zero, told them they were. What they are not are the people they believe themselves to be—bold, fearless, supremely intelligent, always, always in the right. It should be stressed, very high up, that this is a small subset of the Jewish community, and that this subset is probably not entirely distinct from other noxious, embarrassing, offensive, or ethically lacking subsets of other communities, religious and otherwise. But all this doesn’t make the phenomenon any less real or less troubling.

There’s more: The Jewish Big is a particularly prominent subset in today’s America. There may be clearly defined subsets of Latvian Bigs or Latino Bigs or even Zoroastrian Bigs, but none of these communities-within-communities has consumed as much airtime as the Jewish Big. Nor are any of these parallel bigs big because of their respective national, religious, or ethnic identities; they just happen to be big and, say, Latvian. Nor are any of them especially susceptible to the sensibilities of elite society, in which a hyper-sensitive and ineffectual feminism is married to a mindless Puritanism. It is the Jewish Big who is uniquely big and vulnerable to a non-Jewish world that doesn’t care for him—not simply because he’s big but because he’s big and Jewish.

The Jewish Big has not always been and will not always be. He is a function of a postwar Jewish culture that is only a few generations from the shtetl. He is the vessel into which the heavily caricatured Jewish mother funnels all her ambitions and anxieties. Usually, happily, these vessels grow up. They transcend their childhood. They become someone. But the sort who ends up as a Jewish Big is unable to transcend, as if by congenital fiat. He believes that all the wonderful things his mother told him about him are true; he never learns that almost all these things are lies or distortions that, ideally, serve to strengthen the undeveloped ego of a 5-year-old who, once grown, will achieve just a few of the things his mother told him he would. He is narcissistic and blind because he doesn’t know that he is not, as it turns out, the Messiah. What he is is a groyser tsuleyger, or big shot, with the crudeness of a bulvan, or dummy—although he knows enough to smooth over those edges when need be, to contain his many angers. He reminds us, just a bit, of Philip Roth’s father figure in Goodbye, Columbus, Ben Patimkin. But he’s nastier. Patimkin dotes on his daughter. The Jewish Big doesn’t know how to dote. Yes, he has his moments, his flashes of gratuitous warmth, but these are moments, exceptions to his personality, which is narrow and single-minded: The Jewish Big only knows how to love himself. The love he doles out to other people is part of the happy diorama he has cobbled together in the service of his success. It is contrived.

What makes the Jewish Big particularly offensive is that he was not supposed to be this way. This is not the place he comes from. Jewish civilization, it bears repeating, is a rich tapestry. That tapestry doesn’t stand apart. It is a majestic force that is very much of this world and is meant to make us more humane, wise, understanding—civilized. But the Jewish Big is less civilized. He has never gazed at one of Chagall’s floating brides or read one of Babel’s Odessa stories. He has forgotten that the synagogue is led by a teacher, whose job it is to force upon us a great, if not always welcome, introspection. This is the etiology of the Jew, and especially the Ashkenazi Jew, but it is as if the Jewish Big has been divorced from his beginnings. Where has he been, this bully, this chump, with his smirk and his sense of entitlement? Has he not been paying attention? Where is the warmth, the ironic wit, the inclination to think and argue and wonder and parse, to tread with care and a modicum of intelligence? The Jewish Big doesn’t know from this.

In Weiner, Spitzer, and Strauss-Kahn can be found all the essential ingredients of this outlier personality. It’s not simply arrogance and brazenness. (Certainly, Bill Clinton is arrogant, as are David Vitter, John Ensign, and John Edwards, and few, if any, politicians have outflanked the Kennedys in raw brazenness.) It’s the arrogance and brazenness coupled with a glaring meanness. (We see manifestations of this unhappy cocktail in other Jewish Bigs whose crimes are not sexual, starting with Bernie Madoff and Jack Abramoff.) This is why it’s so hard for the Jewish Big to apologize for his transgressions—and it’s why the public finds it impossible to accept his apology. He doesn’t believe he’s done anything wrong, and, much more important, he is offended, deeply and personally, by the suggestion that he has. When attacked, his inclination is to explode. Instead of apologizing, he snarls. When he does apologize, he doesn’t mean it, and we know it, and he knows we know it, and this compounds his rage. He is trapped in a vise that is alternately infuriating and mystifying. He does not believe, reasonably enough, that a Messiah can do any wrong. We’d rather not see things this way. It would be much simpler—it would comport with present-day practice—to view the Jewish Big as just another white male oppressing people of color, and, in fact, Strauss-Kahn’s African-born chambermaid and Weiner’s Twitter correspondents, including an African-American woman in Seattle, reaffirm this dichotomy in the public mind. But that would be a mistake. That would be an easy explanation that fits neatly into a liberal theology that views the world through a simple-minded prism of equal parts race, class, and gender.

The unfairness of it all is that the Jewish Big is, in fact, programmed to be “bad” more often than non-Jewish, and especially Gentile, Bigs. That’s because he was born into a people that has no culture of sin. This doesn’t mean he or any other Jews are unfamiliar with the idea of sin. We know all about sin. We just don’t believe that we’re born bad. We have no original sin. This seems absurd and cruel, and it makes people scared of their bodies: What will I do if left to my own devices? (It’s not an accident that it was a Viennese Jew who made the breakthrough observation that sex is an utterly ordinary and central part of the human experience.) So, the Jewish Big believes he has a license that, in fact, he does not have, that no one has. In his narcissism, he confuses an absence of sin culture and an absence of sin. He thinks that because no one ever said that sex is evil, and because everyone always said that he was wonderful and perfect, he can have what he wants. He intuits that that’s not always possible—getting ahead demands that he hew to certain standards—but he doesn’t really feel it. He doesn’t believe it. He is, you might say, less restrained.

Until recently, this lack of restraint was less problematic. That was when America was more forgiving of sexual improprieties and we didn’t learn about them via hand-held device, if at all. Now the Jewish Big’s many crimes and misdemeanors, literal and figurative, are not just unacceptable; they are broadcast everywhere instantly. The dalliance, the hotel tangle, the pathetic display of whatever it was that Weiner was up to—all these things are violations of the spirit of our time, and they cannot be so easily covered up. Even if one’s crimes have not been recorded digitally, as in the cases of Spitzer and Strauss-Kahn, the conversation about those crimes takes place in a digital arena that metastasizes like a communicable disease across multiple latitudes and time zones with a hitherto unknown velocity. The only kind of offender who can escape this sand trap is someone who already enjoys a great well of public affection.

This raises an important and related point: The Jewish Big does not enjoy a great well of public affection. This is due, mostly, to his character, which is lacking. But there’s something else: The fall of the Jewish Big is not entirely his own making. That’s because the Jewish Big is Jewish, and the Christian, non-Jewish public likes Jewish when it’s humorous, charming, wise—Talmudic. But when it’s not those things, when a Jew acts badly, the public is reminded, consciously or otherwise, of the Jew’s otherness, of all the medieval fairy tales that have been swirling through the ether for centuries, about Shylocks and perverts and cheats and spineless men and big-hipped women and bankers and communists and government-occupying Zionists, and that is when a preliminary annoyance or distraction morphs into something uglier.

When Weiner announced that he was resigning from Congress, at a press conference in Brooklyn, he was greeted with an angry round of applause and shouts of “pervert!” There was a ferociousness in that response that was deeply disproportionate. Weiner broke no laws and hadn’t even behaved that badly. His crime: acting crudely and lying about it. How strange that so many people should be so offended by his wrongdoing. Yet they were, because the Jewish Big is not just big but because he’s other. He is suggestive of an anti-Semitic cartoon. He isn’t that cartoon, of course. But he makes other people think that he might be. He reminds them that he is not from this place, even if he is.

Peter Savodnik has written for the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, The New Yorker, Wired, the New York Review of Books, the Washington Post, and Commentary, among other publications.

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Compare Contrast says:

Wonderful Article – but I would submit another wrinkle in the consideration of the glee that most goyim – and indeed many Jews – feel, at the toppling of the Big Jew. When one considers the mainstream liturgy and hashkafa of self-labeling, errr, I mean being labled, the Chosen People; when fringe literature like the Tanya suggest that a goyish soul is on the level of an animal, a Jewish womans soul is not as high as a Jewish mans soul; how honesty and fairness in the marketplace is essential – except when deferring to a rabbi; when one considers that as far back as the Justinian Code anti-semitic laws segregating and compromising Jewish liberties and essential humanitarianism were lifted directly from anti-goyish statutes from the Torah, if not the Talmud; THEN one understands the glee.

There is nothing so sweet to gloat over at the downfall of, as much as a giant who is not only wrong, and bad, but hypocritical in his wrongness and badness, and who had been telling us how bad we were and how holy and good he has been for milennia.

P.S. It was no different for Luther and the then mother church, with its corruption – as now with the pedophile priests and the mephitic defence that the self-referential, self-entitled, mealy mouthed corrupt catholic church speaks of today.

Self-righteousness and self-entitlement married to gross evil and hypocrisy will always be a ripe target. And if your culture enshrines the former, and does not take pains to eliminate the latter, only trouble can ensue – especially – as you so correctly point out in this age of instant, total, pan-global, information.

David says:

These guys were caught because they had political enemies, let their crotches do their thinking, and got caught for being the sleaze-balls they are. To spin this into quasi Jewish victimhood (“it was their faith—their Jewishness—that was responsible, in a way, for their undoing”) is total bull. Was Bill Clinton a Jew? Was Gary Hart a Jew? Was John Edwards? The author is either a moron or this article belongs in the April First edition.

David is right! And they weren’t mere political enemies. Spitzer went after people on substantive charges but used their personal lives to extort confessions or settlements. Accusing some of them of frequenting prostitutes. And they were very, very wealthy victims of his sleazy prosecutorial style. Weiner, well, double crossing every friend in his lies was more the case. DSK? half Catholic, but all Jewish for this article. In Judaism there is no concept of sin? Violating one of the many commandments or laws or rules may not constitute “sin” but conceptually, what’s the difference? This article was bizarre.

If the author really wanted to pursue more thoroughly the topic he introduces, there are a lot of remarkable, philanthropic Jewish Bigs that do amzing, great deeds. In New York City, for example, who built the hospitals, museum wings, concert halls?

Hadassah Goldberg says:

He is the vessel into which the heavily caricatured Jewish mother funnels all her ambitions and anxieties. Usually, happily, these vessels grow up. They transcend their childhood. They become someone. But the sort who ends up as a Jewish Big is unable to transcend, as if by congenital fiat. He believes that all the wonderful things his mother told him about him are true; he never learns that almost all these things are lies or distortions that, ideally, serve to strengthen the undeveloped ego of a 5-year-old who, once grown, will achieve just a few of the things his mother told him he would.

It’s 2011 and supposedly intelligent people are still blaming Jewish mothers for the crimes and indisgressions of their sons. So much for personal responsibility in adults.

I agree with David. It seems, lately, that Tablet keeps employing terrible writers. Offensive ones, to boot! I’m so irked by this article and all its flaws that I don’t know where to begin.

“Weiner broke no laws and hadn’t even behaved that badly. His crime: acting crudely and lying about it.”

Um, I guess? He also sent unsolicited pictures of his schlong to underage women. If that doesn’t qualify as perverted, I don’t know what does.

Phrasing DSK’s attack as a “hotel tangle” is incredibly offensive. This man is guilty of many sexually violent acts. Thank god he was finally caught and brought to court.

I don’t know why the author fails to analyze the culture of sexism that we live in, or the fact that whitemen of power consistently take advantage of said power. This has nothing to do with Judaism.

This article is ridiculous. Did any of these so called representatives of Judaism have nay kind of Jewish background? Better yet, did any of them live their lives as Jews? Spitzer has no Jewish background at all, never had a Bar Mitzvah and has a gentile wife. Maybe she made him do it. Who knows? I don’t but neither does the author. Weiner, a jerk from way back also married to a gentile- an observant Muslim woman probaly with much more integrity than Weiner ever has had. Is Weiner representative of Jews? Hardly. As for Strauss Kahn, the author has found a new ethnicity-half Jewish and half Catholic.
Perhaps the real problem is that Jews grab hold of every public figure with a
drop of Jewish ancestry and idolize him as someone we should adore. How Sarkozy
was idolized when he became French president. Many public figures, in different areas of endeavor have little or nothing to do with Judaism. Let us not worry so
much about them. At the end of the day, they represent only themselves, not us!

Oh, give me a break. I couldn’t even finish reading this. Many people aren’t even aware (or weren’t, until now) that DSK or Spitzer were Jewish. And so what if they are? That has nothing to do with them just being plain stupid and horny. Every time someone Jewish does something doesn’t mean we have to analyze how “Jewish” that action was or that that action had anything to do with Judaism AT ALL. I know it’s a Jewish magazine and all, but come on!

The fact that the author is Jewish doesn’t stop this from being an offensive, stereotyped, ignorant piece of pseudo-journalism. PUHLEEZE!

“Every time someone Jewish does something doesn’t mean we have to analyze how ‘Jewish’ that action was or that that action had anything to do with Judaism at all.”

Right on, Ellie. This may be the dumbest, most offensive piece I’ve ever read in Tablet. Boo.

I second earlier comments – there is no good reason to make much of these men’s “Jewishness.” These men were connected to Judaism as a faith. Their connection is that they seemed to glory in egotistical narcissism.

Excuse my error – These men were NOT connected to Judaism as a faith.

Right On, David! Why would Tablet print such nonsense?

No, the article is not offensive, it’s just one very old concept , to be found in all religions, inhaled throughout generation: women are at the root of all evil, women as mothers above all.

Now that the author has researched the history of the said culprits’ – or rather victims’- mothers, and brought it so vividly and truthfully to light, I’ve become conviced that the only solution would be to get men started into motherhood.
Mazal Tov!

I’m impressed with so much concurrence with David. This is pure bull. A Jew has every right to be as corrupt as any other person. What is Tablet’s problem ? Are you being ignored by more serious writers? David, Ellie and Max, to name a few, appear to be more intelligent than Tablet’s editorial staff. The “shandeh” should be addressed to the lightweights who’ve selected this “essay” not the mythical “Bigs.”

Glad to see in the consensus that I was not imagining things; this is indeed one of the most ridiculous articles I’ve read lately.

Shael Siegel says:

P.Savodnik sounds like the classic antisemite and Tablet publishes this tripe?

Totally brilliant article. The author is struggling to identify something slippery here; it DOES mean something that these men are Jewish, just what is hard to say, however, and the article does a great job of trying to figure it out. (Something we have all been doing in the wake of these events.) Read carefully; he is not at all blaming Jewish mothers. Clearly, it is Jewish women, who are never “bigs”, who are the real victims of these men, both in relationships (the wives) and on the larger scale that it is our Judaism too which gets tarnished by such behavior. (Interesting also that the harshest critics appear to be men, and in many cases their comments are more arrogant and meanspirited than criticial.) Thank you for this articulate, interesting piece.

marooned says:

There is an old joke that suggests we should all look at our own ways of looking at the world. It supposes a professor asking his class in some mythical class of diverse European students, to write an essay on “The Elephant.”

Depending on when the story is set, the different culture groups respond with essays like, “The Elephant and War.”

Now, not to belabor this dated bit of humor, meant to call us each to look at ourself, we can guess what the title of one essay was.

Still, my sense is that, in most of America today, and I hope in much of the world today, the question of whether these men had any “Jewish” identity never occured.

Sadly, stupidity and crassness do not have any particular ethnic origins.

Judy West Hollywood says:

Jewish mothers these days are too busy nurturing daughters to live fulfilling lives to dote on their sons. Let’s lay the mid-twentieth century male Jewish novelists to rest. Now, what about the Coen brothers?

“The unfairness of it all is that the Jewish Big is, in fact, programmed to be “bad” more often than non-Jewish, and especially Gentile, Bigs. That’s because he was born into a people that has no culture of sin.”

This is insanely dumb and offensive. Tablet is really going down the tubes.

Rachel says:

I usually enjoy Tablet’s insightful and fresh writing, but this was unadulterated drivel, chock full of antiquated stereotypes and hackneyed generalities. Offensive and nonsensical.

Lets face it, Antisemitism is a reality. If you are Jewish & grow up knowing this burden, our sensitivity to the exposure the Jewish Big is intensified. To many, Peter Savodnik’s article rubs salt in out wounds.
I fully agree with “ebg says:”. We Jews have a disproportionate number of Nobel prizes, and also ones that shame US.
Sy Fort Lee NJ

Beatrix says:

Jewish mothers have preferred Jewish sons over daughters long before WW2. But isn’t DSK still fighting the charges against him? Why has a Tablet writer decided he’s guilty before the courts have? If he and Diallo had consensual sex, DSK’s wife has reason to be upset with him, but no man made laws have been broken.

We DO NOT have a “disproportionate” number of people who shame us. We are just more sensitive to those who do. There is an enormous difference. Neither the author, nor Sy above understands that.

Peter says:

This article is drek. What a joke. It’s news that some men cheat, and are unethical, mean, etc.?! Trying to put a Jewish gloss on all too human frailties is facile. Tablet, you’re wasting my time publishing this shmuck.

David, please read what I said with care.
I said ” If you are Jewish & grow up knowing this burden, our sensitivity to the exposure TO the Jewish Big is intensified.”
I added the TO. Also I said ” We Jews have a disproportionate number of Nobel prizes, and also ones that shame US.” Again not proportionate , JUST MORE SENSITIVE ! OK !
Sy Fort Lee NJ

This entire article is offensive. Offensive to Jews who happen to have a very oral and ethical code of behavior (lack of original sin notwithstanding); the fact that it is inherent in the upbringing that the “Jewish” boy is told to achieve beyond anything else: and that society even cares that these individuals are Jewish.

The downfall of these men were celebrated because they are egomaniacal asshats, not because they carry some Jewish genes, and that is all. I doubt most people even know or care about the ethnic makeup of these men’s ancestry.

On the other hand, quite frankly their downfall may have even happened quicker than with their gentile counterparts because the people that went after them the most vociferously were other Jews who don’t tolerate such repulsive behavior.

This article is a piece of sh-t that panders to pernicious stereotypes. how did this pile of turd make it through the editing process?

Caplan says:

I didn’t see many articles taking pride in the fall of “Jewish” man in the mainstream media.

What I saw were articles on the right gloating over the fall of liberal Democrats and in one case a Socialist and Frenchman.

The National Review was especilly glee full that the Socialist Strauss Kahn was caught with his pants down.

To be honest I too wasn’t sad that he isn’t going to become the French President.

I was saddened, though, that Eliot Spitzer a talented prosecutor of financial crimes was stupid enough to go to prostitutes when he himself had prosecuted others for the same crime.

We sure needed him as a prosecutor on Wall Street a couple of years ago.

Yetwave says:

Most if not all readers of Tablet are Jewish. The offense anyone takes to this article is an insider’s umbrage to stereotyping. The inclination to deep, critical, often unduly much self examination is, I believe, the reason why the author comes to the conclusions that he does.
Our goyim brethren and cistern point to the ilk to whom Savodnik refers and often base their perception of the rest of us on them, unfortunately. Knowing what factors feed into making others harbor anti-Semitism goes a long way toward fighting it.

Marlena says:

I guess I’m going to unsubscribe. An article like this is gossip.

R. Miller says:

Once again Tablet asked a writer to think of a piece that would be provocative on purpose. . . To elicit 30+ responses like the above in one day. Or, the bigger goal, to have it go viral on the Net. . . Maybe if this fakakta article was prefaced by a tagline where it’s goal was to replicate a classic Friay night Seder dinner were a relative goes “ok, I have this theory. . .discuss” . . .Then, we would know/can say: “oh it’s Tablet’s weekly schtick on. . .”

Otherwise, we give upnhoping that Tablet is substantive and just end up thinking that they went the Rupert Murdoch London tabloid route. . .

Ann Tse says:

Bizarre to call SK part Jewish, part Catholic. His father’s father was Jewish, his father’s mother Catholic. But SK’s mother is Sephardic , and SK himself has always identified himself publicly as a Jew. That’s not “half-Catholic” in my book.

+1 for Ann Tse.

DSK was never Catholic. He was not always a very committed Jew, it changed when he married Anne Sinclair and also when he became mayor of Sarcelles that used to have a 25% Jewish population until the late 90′s.
And everybody in France knew that DSK is Jewish. That was not an issue and he got over 60% in polls against Sarkozy.

Bill Pearlman says:

Its less about them being Jewish I think then idiots.

I come to this late…but what a brilliant post. You expressed something that’s been churning around in my mind. There are plenty of self-serving narcissists out there, but the Jewish male narcissist seems to stand out with prominence. And yes, you are correct…they resemble a stereotype–an unflattering cartoon character.

I don’t know if the Jewish Bigs stand out more because of all the griping about Jews holding power–or if indeed they are disproportionate due to something in their upbringing. But I think you cleared the air for me on this phenomenon.

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Big Men

Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn are all a certain type: the Jewish Big, narcissistic, entitled, and unapologetic. And society loves to see a Jewish Big fall.

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