Craig Blankenhorn/courtesy of HBO
Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer in HBO’s ‘Wizard of Lies.’Craig Blankenhorn/courtesy of HBO
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Why Is HBO’s Bernie Madoff so Un-Jewish?

In ‘Wizard of Lies,’ Robert De Niro plays the Ponzi schemer who bilked many people and institutions out of millions, including Yeshiva University

Mark Oppenheimer
May 18, 2017
Craig Blankenhorn/courtesy of HBO
Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer in HBO's 'Wizard of Lies.'Craig Blankenhorn/courtesy of HBO

Except for Bernie Mac, who died in 2008, and Bernie Sanders, Bernie Madoff was, or rather is, the last famous Bernie. “Bernie” was already on the way out, a version of one of those high-Anglo names—Bernard, Sidney, Murray, Alan—that had been so thoroughly co-opted by aspirational first- and second-generation Jews that it had ceased to be English at all, and had become more Jewish than, say, Adam or Daniel. Bernie Madoff accelerated that process. Sure, there will be other Bernies to come, just as there are still Ramonas (285 last year, according to Social Security data) and Gilberts (213). But “Bernie” will forever have the taint of evil, if not quite as badly as “Adolf,” then still, interestingly, much worse than “Joseph”—Stalin be damned.

And unlike “Olivia” or “Jacob,” both very much back in vogue after long eclipses, “Bernie” will have little chance of a renaissance, precisely because the community with which the name enjoyed the most favor, the Jews, is most embarrassed by Madoff. He is the ultimateshanda far di goyim, the ultimate embarrassment, the perp-walk that our grandmothers most feared, the greatest con artist of all time and an identifiable Jew. Put another way, Bernie Madoff is the most Jewish of criminals: the name, the crime, and the clientele—he invested for Yeshiva University, for Chrissakes! For Hadassah!

Madoff in New York City on December 17, 2008, the day he was placed under house arrest. (Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

Madoff in New York City on December 17, 2008, the day he was placed under house arrest. (Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

Which makes it particularly curious how thoroughly de-Judaized Madoff is in The Wizard of Lies, the new HBO movie, debuting May 20, starring Robert De Niro as the all-time greatest Ponzi schemer. It’s not that De Niro doesn’t play Madoff as Jewish; he does, somehow, signaling in the way that a great actor can that his character is this kind of ethnic and not that kind, e.g., Jewish, not Italian. But by casting De Niro, in particular, director Barry Levinson has given us a Madoff whom we can never fully believe as a Jew, precisely because De Niro is never anything but an Italian (except, I recall, in Meet the Parents, in which his monstrous dad Jack Byrnes is never anything but echt-American, which is to say WASP, CIA agent). And while Michelle Pfeiffer is terrific as his pinched, submissive wife, Ruth Madoff, she’s still Elvira Hancock from Scarface. She’ll never quite fit at the mahjong table.

The Madoff sons don’t seem Jewish, either. And Judaism is never mentioned in the script, or rather it’s mentioned obliquely, once, by my count, in a dream sequence, when a voice from a faceless mob demands to know how Madoff could do this to his own people. The parade of victims who testify at Madoff’s sentencing includes some recognizable Jews, but the scene is notable for the absence of specifically Jewish rage. Madoff was not just a distant stockbroker, but a landsman. He didn’t just invest for Yeshiva University but served as treasurer of its board of directors. The betrayal was nothing if not personal.

I don’t envy Levinson and the rest of his team, the actors included. After all, how difficult it must have been to occupy the demilitarized zone between anti-Semitic caricature and de-Judaized whitewashing. They chose the latter, which may have been prudent, especially since there was no way the film was going to succeed on Jewish terms, for its exquisitely sensitive, and wounded, audience. It is probably too much to expect any movie, even one as fine as this, to untangle Madoff’s twin insults to the collective Jewish psyche, from Montauk to Boca. First, he revealed numerous smart, rich Jews to be utterly credulous and uncareful—put another way, bad with money. And, worse, he proved us to be something less than a family. We Jews know that stab each other in the back, and sometimes in the front, but Madoff gave up our shameful secret to the rest of the world. And that was the real scandal before the gentiles.

Mark Oppenheimer is a Senior Editor at Tablet. He hosts the podcast Unorthodox. He has contributed to Slate and Mother Jones, among many other publications. He is the author, most recently, of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood. He will be hosting a discussion forum about this article on his newsletter, where you can subscribe for free and submit comments.