My longest and last conversation with Ivanka Trump took place in the summer of 1996, on a public bus in the south of France. Fellow campers at a language camp in Nice, we spent that quick ride back to our dorms discussing Ivanka’s portrayals, over time, in People magazine, a periodical I routinely devoured. She seemed smart and self-aware, willing to lightly joke about the outfits she’d worn in each issue. She was also already, at age 14, impossibly glamorous.
Her talking to me at all was a kindness. Ivanka and her East Coast friends who joined her that summer, with their shared history, sophisticated air, advanced language skills, and seemingly bottomless supply of designer handbags, stood firmly at the top of the camp’s social hierarchy. While I, a Midwestern French-language beginner on my own, sporting acne and a diverse collection of beaded hemp necklaces, found myself distinctly at the bottom. Most of Ivanka’s friends ignored me all summer, but she and I chatted several times. When I asked her, nervously, to take a photo beside me, proof to take back to Chicago that I really had met and shared space with a famous New York City socialite fashion model, she warmly agreed. She was a nice, friendly, human person, at an age when it is easy to be otherwise.
Despite our differences in popularity, looks, metabolic rates, and, eventually, political ideologies, Ivanka and I found ourselves together that summer because we shared the main requirement for attendance to any expensive, exclusive experience crafted for American teens in Europe. Like her, I come from family wealth.
I grew up in the Jewish 1%, the lucky beneficiary of a hard-working ancestor, my great-grandfather Nathan Cummings who started out as an immigrant peddler, selling shoes door to door. He ended his life as a business giant, a lauded philanthropist, and founder of the Sara Lee Corporation.
Nathan died when I was 4, but his name and likeness haunted my childhood. I passed a metal bust of him, looking brooding and dapper, on my way into and out of synagogue each Sunday. His name graced hospital wards and Jewish institutions around Chicago, as well as the charitable foundation where my extended family still attends meetings in New York City. On my first visit to Jerusalem, in my early teens, my parents insisted on photographing me under the large, gleaming letters declaring a wing at the Israel Museum to have been paid for by him. Wherever we went, there he was.
“Are we rich?” I remember asking my father, at age 6 or 7, as we walked together through a parking garage. A longer than usual pause followed. “We’re comfortable,” he finally offered. Then he opened up the doors to his burgundy Jaguar, and we both stepped inside.
My father’s reticence was not unique. When it comes to discussing class, Americans of all stripes notoriously prefer avoidance over dialogue. For wealthy Jews, though, our internal and public silence surrounding our money and its tether to power serves a specific, and many believe, critical imperative: safety. For centuries, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories have centered on themes of extraordinary, disproportionate amounts of Jewish affluence and influence. Even acknowledging that such a thing as Jewish wealth exists can, particularly for older generations, feel like playing into the hands of the enemy.
I want to explain, as best I can, what dynastic power feels like on the inside, how easily, in families like mine, inherited money and the access it brings can lead to an inflated, dangerous sense of superiority. Being a visual artist myself, a maker of things, I’d like to start, naturally enough, with physical objects. Specifically, tables. When I think about the rooms inhabited by my mother’s family, the side my wealth comes from, I think of enormous tables. Tables made of dark, handsome wood and shockingly large, single panes of glass. Round and rectangular tables fashioned to easily accommodate 12, 15, 25 people. Not only the tables we ate at in our formal home dining rooms, but also the tables we met at to give away money, or dined on together at the Standard Club for high holidays, or gathered around in the dim, cavernous rooms of the wealth management wing of our bank to discuss our investments.
It sounds like a small thing, but growing up seated at these tables offers a child, right from the start, a visceral experience of mattering. These kinds of tables confer on their users a sense of formality and, critically, authority. As a kid I saw them mirrored on TV and in films—King Arthur’s table, of course, but also the long, thick surfaces employed by presidents and their cabinets to make the nation’s big decisions. It seemed natural that the most important people, those deserving of attention and praise, should sit at such tables. And there we were.
Tables only provide one example of the kinds of objects moneyed clans use to communicate power. Some years ago, I made a promise to myself to no longer attend family events that include a board table, a dais, a stage, microphones, or a lectern. I still see beloved relations, but in more private, less imposing surroundings. I do this because, for myself, I know how seductive these objects can be, how easily they draw me back into the myth of predestined greatness.
These days, I think a lot about the words spoken around me growing up to describe my great-grandfather’s professional rise. Genius came up a good amount. So did brilliant, diligent, and honorable. A word I cannot remember anyone using was this: luck. No one ever described him as lucky.
There are a couple of reasons for this. First, like any meaningful system, families have origin stories, and in tales about American power, merit wins out over chance, every time. Second, and just as importantly, the word luck doesn’t make cultural or historical sense when you hail from a tribe defined, over centuries, by its relentless exclusion from, and hatred by, the world at large.
It’s true that my family’s ascension into the 1% meant tethers to power, celebrity, and glamor. However, the wealth did not secure my great-grandfather’s entrance to the plum clubs that denied membership to men of his faith. It allowed my mom to attend the most exclusive local elementary school but did nothing to stop her from getting beaten up by her peers for being the only Jew in her class. It has permitted me to travel the world, but could not protect me at the Warsaw airport, in my early 20s, when a man saw me reading a book about the Holocaust and started screaming, loudly, that I should have been one of the ones burned in the ovens, while the other passengers looked on passively.
More broadly, the Jewish community’s success has led us into once unimaginable corners of American influence. In the worlds of business, philanthropy, and politics, we now often sit in the very rooms where critical, far-reaching decisions get made that impact millions of people. And yet, there was Pittsburgh, followed quickly by San Diego, and by the ongoing violence in Crown Heights and elsewhere.
Anti-Semitism is very real. Terrifyingly, it is growing. Like so many American Jews today, I find myself newly afraid for our community. But I also see how our historical and contemporary victimhood snuffs out meaningful discussion about our relationship to capitalism and power. The rhetorical connection between Jewish money and anti-Semitic fantasies, coupled with our high levels of cultural fear, overwhelms our capacity to look critically at the costs of our financial ascension and our belief in accumulating money to make us safe.
For some time now, I’ve been creating a video art series called BOUNTY, which explores the psychological and political complexities of American Jewish wealth. The short videos of BOUNTY employ voice actors, animation, live actors, editing techniques, and sound design to imbue classic, cinematic depictions of family affluence with Jewish content. For example, using footage from Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, I have created a four-minute video collage titled The Age of Lefkowitz. Where Scorsese’s film told Edith Wharton’s classic story of forbidden love between two members of early New York’s premiere class, my version explores an imaginary, early-20th-century world of patrician Jewry. The Age of Lefkowitz focuses on Bunny Lefkowitz, an elderly Jewish doyenne and widow of the late New York magnate, and a closeted gay man, Carl Lefkowitz.
As you might guess from this description, the video works of BOUNTY are funny, but also critical. They portray the Jewish 1% as susceptible to wealth’s allures and pitfalls in a manner similar to any other human beings. The families of BOUNTY, like the families of my childhood, use their riches to assist the needy, but also to dictate and control one another’s behavior, financially rewarding family fealty and punishing rebellion. Affluence becomes a tool to publicly laud accomplishments and financial gifts, and a mechanism to enshrine and deepen intergenerational power. My videos also explore how, specifically for Jews, wealth culture collides and intersects with our experience and identity as victims.
Recently, I shared several links of my BOUNTY video pieces with a trustee of one of America’s Jewish museums, a truly lovely, astute, funny man in his late 60s. He had seen and enjoyed my previous series about Jewish life, sculptures and collages more purely celebratory of our history and rituals. When conversation turned to my new work, his voice altered, gaining a disapproving edge. “I’ve seen the videos,” he said, “and here’s my question: Have you been to Auschwitz?”
This question saddened but did not entirely surprise me. Since I’ve been sharing these videos I’ve experienced similar reactions. Fear, the emotional driver of so much in Jewish life, results in a belief that any content about Jewishness outside of the purely positive, sympathetic, or promotional, can and should not be made public. That we can only be safe by presenting ourselves exclusively through our accomplishments or our suffering, the preferred dual narratives of Jewish public life.
Believe me, I understand that fear. But of all the Jewish contributions to the culture at large, perhaps the most agreed upon and, as it happens, my personal favorite, is our collective bluntness. Jews have a well-earned reputation as initiators of difficult, truthful conversation, of “going there” when other communities can and will not. After all, we invented psychoanalysis, the rigorous excavation of truths traditionally thought better suppressed.
This American moment, when Jewish power and terror coexist in such dizzying abundance, demands that we, as Jews, train our frank gaze on our own discourse about ourselves and money. By allowing anti-Semitic fantasies about wealth and power to silence a more truthful, nuanced narrative, we have failed to honestly confront the costs of our success. Those costs include a dangerous set of cultural beliefs we share right now with the country at large, such as viewing personal riches as a replacement for expertise, be it political or religious, and a confused conflation of wealth with intellectual and ethical superiority. Our reticence to examine our communal relationship to financial power has also permitted unfortunate patterns of accumulation in Jewish philanthropy, a sector where donating only 5% of an institution’s endowment is seen as not only sufficient, but generous.
Perhaps no one exemplifies these dynamics more acutely than Ivanka Trump, my long-ago camp mate. She stands as one of the more public examples of the many individuals we have allowed to represent our community at the highest possible levels, based solely on the “expertise” of inherited fortune. As remarkable riches and power pass from one Jewish generation to the next, the time has come for us to challenge the simplified myth of meritocracy and carefully examine what our wealth has wrought. I believe we can.
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