In a time so ancient that no one under 40 remembers it, the greatest taboo subject in both literature and life used to be sex.
That taboo is long gone, of course. But those concerned that we live in an age where nothing is too scandalous to mention need not worry, because one subject remains that no one in polite company will ever bring up: money.
People who will readily share their sexual proclivities in a public forum would never dream of mentioning what they earn, or how much their home or their portfolio is worth — until, of course, they suddenly discover that their home and portfolio are worth nothing at all. And even then you will only hear about it from someone else.
For Jews, the taboo on discussing money in public is even stricter: 20 centuries of being forbidden from owning land, joining craft guilds, or studying in universities left Jews with few options for livelihood except running businesses. And 20 centuries of debilitating lies associated with Jews and their money have made Jews to this day afraid of even hinting in public that they, like everyone else in the entire world, devote considerable time to figuring out how best to preserve their property. The recent exposure of unprecedented alleged investment fraud by Bernie Madoff, whom every news article has felt obligated to identify as Jewish, at first wreaked terror in the hearts of American Jews simply by reawakening the ancient fear that by now is surely burned into our genes. But when it became clear that a significant portion of Madoff’s fraud involved bilking Jewish charities, schools, and communal organizations out of tens of millions of dollars, the taboo was dropped for him at last. Because as horrified as we are of discussing money in front of a non-Jewish public, we have centuries of experience discussing it among ourselves.
The Yiddish literary giant Sholem Aleichem (pseudonym of Sholem Rabinovitsh, 1859-1916) knew something about how financial fortunes rise and fall. The author was raised in an impoverished family in Ukraine, and one of his first attempts at supporting himself came at the age of 17, when he found a job tutoring the 13-year-old daughter of a wealthy Jewish businessman. Their eventual elopement threw the businessman into despair, but the young aspiring writer managed to win back his father-in-law’s affections just before the man’s death — and just in time to inherit the man’s vast fortune. This windfall gave Sholem Aleichem the financial security to devote himself entirely to his writing, until he lost the entire fortune on the Kiev stock exchange, and spent the rest of his life evading his creditors. Sholem Aleichem was a man whom Madoff would have hoodwinked just as he did everyone else. But at least we would have gotten a good story out of it.
Sholem Aleichem’s fiction doesn’t shy away from the enormous taboo subject of money. In the same way that non-Jewish authors of the period nearly always powered their plots with the taboo undercurrent of sexual desire, Sholem Aleichem’s fiction (and that of many other Yiddish writers) was driven instead almost entirely by the equally taboo undercurrent of money — the ongoing drama, among people who had no safety net of inherited property, of the struggle to thrive, and the trauma lurking between wealth and chance.
The opening episode of Sholem Aleichem’s most famous fiction, Tevye the Dairyman, is entitled “Jackpot,” or as one translation has it, “Tevye Strikes it Rich.” In the story, the author launches his most famous character by letting Tevye describe how he, a starving laborer, helped a few rich ladies find their way out of the woods and was rewarded with riches beyond his imagination — specifically, with enough money to buy a cow. But the title of the series’ second story is probably best translated as “Bankrupt” (or as one translation calls it, “Tevye Blows a Small Fortune”), and it is here that the author unleashes the anxieties of his readers.
Tevye’s losses are precipitated in a fashion that, to today’s American Jewish readers, would be sickeningly familiar. When word gets out that Tevye has “won the jackpot” in his encounter with the rich women in the previous episode, everyone begins clamoring to “invest” with him. Tevye is wise enough to resist until, as he puts it, “God sends me a relative” — a ninth cousin three times removed, or something of the sort. Menachem-Mendl, naturally, is an “investor,” and begins talking about stocks and options in a way that Tevye can’t possibly understand, except for the part where Menachem-Mendl promises him that he can turn 100 rubles into 1,000, magically, and that Tevye would be a fool to forfeit this opportunity. Tevye agrees to give Menachem-Mendl his last hundred rubles in order to enter a “partnership” with him — “I put in the money, and Menachem-Mendl put in the brains” — and split the profits. Is it even necessary to describe what happens next?
It is important to note that Menachem-Mendl is no Bernie Madoff. Madoff’s real analogues in Jewish history lie with other criminals, like the 20th-century American Jewish thrill-killers Leopold and Loeb — people whose attraction to evil approaches pathology. But the tragedy of Menachem-Mendl is more like that of Madoff’s victims. Menachem-Mendl’s only crime is the far-reaching grasp of his own gullibility, his unwarranted optimism. In a novel devoted entirely to Menachem-Mendl (told through hilarious letters exchanged between the “investor” and his long-suffering wife), Sholem Aleichem makes it clear that Menachem-Mendl is what was once known as a “luftmentsh,” a person whose big dreams are unrelated to reality. His letters are full of unbounded hope, even as each of them describes his ultimate failure at various ethereal money-making schemes — such as his attempt at selling “Londons,” a vague reference to currency exchange, which he describes to his wife as “a very refined substance” in that “you can’t see it.” Marxist critics naturally had a field day with this character, reading him as an example of capitalism’s worthlessness. But a more interesting interpretation came from the American Yiddish critic Y.Y. Trunk. Trunk saw in Menachem-Mendl’s delusional optimism a parallel with the Jews’ endless faith in their God and their future redemption, with Menachem-Mendl’s wife playing the role of the non-Jewish power structure that consistently squelches such dreams.
It is this delusional optimism that should resonate the most with Bernie Madoff’s Jewish victims today. In the encounter between Tevye and Menachem-Mendl, Sholem Aleichem demonstrates how much of financial disaster originates from the simple fact of trust — and trust within a family, at that. Despite the blind Jewish fear of discussing money among a non-Jewish public, American Jews’ discussions and investments with those they regard as family reveal an equally blind optimism. The Jewish trust in those who are considered “relatives” is itself a byproduct of a well-warranted distrust of strangers, revealing an innate, unjustified, almost religious optimism that always longs to attach itself to something, no matter how absurd that something might be. The thoroughness with which Jewish communal organizations were devastated by the Madoff scam reflects less a problem of greed than a problem of trust.
If one wanted to learn something from this tragedy (a dubious exercise at best), the obvious lessons are that things that sound too good to be true usually are, and that even one’s own relatives ought never to be unconditionally trusted. But these two lessons are precisely the opposite of what Jewish tradition has always taught. In the Jewish faith, one is expected to accept, beyond reason and despite all contrary evidence, the eternity of Israel’s contract with God, and the role of Israel, as a collective, as God’s dwelling place on earth. This ancient religious optimism lingers even among secular people today, though it is transformed into terms like security and community. The old hope rarely dies.
Even without the lingering effects of religious belief, the truth is that no one can live a life of meaning without ever trusting others. And perhaps the most palatable lesson to be drawn from this disaster is the one that Tevye adopts after realizing what he has lost:
“So what? [Should I abandon] faith? Hope? Just the opposite: the more troubles, the more faith, the bigger the pauper, the greater his hopes. And here’s the proof… But it seems to me that I’ve already talked enough for one day, and I’d better go and tend to my business.”
We’d better do the same.
(Dara Horn’s third novel, “All Other Nights,” about Jewish spies in the American Civil War, will be published in April by W.W. Norton. This column originally appeared on JBooks.com, the online Jewish book community.)