Oracle’s Ellison top Jewish billionaire on Forbes list

Oracle founder Larry Ellison is top ranked among Jewish individuals, appearing sixth on the Forbes magazine’s annual list of world billionaires, with $36 billion.

Ellison held the same ranking last year, but with $28 billion.

Casino and hotel magnate Sheldon Adelson, with $24.9 billion, moved up to No. 14 from 78. Adelson and his family have donated at least $20 million to a Super PAC supporting GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich. Adelson also is a major giver to Birthright Israel.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was the next Jewish person, at No. 20, with $22 billion — like Ellison, $8 billion richer than last year — followed by George Soros at 22nd, up from No. 35 with $20 billion.

Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page were tied for No. 24, with $18.7 billion each.

Other Jews to make the top 100 included Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, at No. 35 with $15.5 billion; Brazilian banking and investment mogul Joseph Safra, at No. 52 with $13.8 billion; Russian steel magnate Roman Abramovich, at No. 68 with $12.1 billion; and U.S. businessman Ronald Perelman, at No. 69 with $12 billion.

Thirteen Israelis made the list, down from 16 last year. Eyal and Idan Ofer became the two newest Israelis on the list, inheriting their fortunes from their father, shipping magnate Sammy Ofer, Israel’s richest man, who died last June after coming in at No. 79 last year with $10.3 billion. Idan Ofer entered the list at No. 161, with $6.2 billion; and Eyal Ofer was No. 173, with $5.8 billion.

Carnival Cruise CEO Micky Arison dropped from No. 62 to No. 223, with $4.7 billion, just months after one of his cruise ships sank near Italy.

Mexican telecom businessman Carlos Slim Helu and his family topped the list, with $69 billion.

Sam Zell is one tough Jew

Happily for them, most of the old-time Los Angeles anti-Semites who used to hang out at the downtown California Club are either dead or too old to care that a Jew is on the verge of
owning the L.A. Times.

Not just any Jew. Sam Zell looks as though he’s one tough Jew, probably even tougher than the old California Clubbers who stole the water from the Owens Valley and got rich in sneaky San Fernando Valley land deals.

Zell, a billionaire Chicago real estate developer, is the apparent winner in the battle for control of the Tribune Co., owner of the Times, the Chicago Tribune, several other newspapers, television stations, etc. The deal heavily burdens the company with debt and makes the employees his partner in the enterprise through creation of an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP).

Another Jew, David Geffen, is waiting in the wings, hoping to be either Zell’s joint-venture partner or to buy the Times from him.

However it turns out, we’ll probably have a Jew in charge of the Times, which was once one of old Los Angeles’ most famous WASP institutions. What a great day for old L.A. Jews with long memories of country clubs and downtown clubs that banned them; restrictive covenants that kept them out of certain fancy neighborhoods; anti-Semitic fraternities and sororities at USC and UCLA and law firms that never seemed able to find a place for a smart Jewish attorney. They also may have memories of the old Times, which, while not anti-Semitic, was a perfect reflection of the conservative Republican WASP culture of Los Angeles’ upper classes.

This culture would have had no room for Zell, a University of Michigan alum with a bachelor’s degree in 1963, a law degree in 1966 and a membership in Alpha Epsilon Pi, a Jewish fraternity.

I’ve never met Zell. But I got some insight from a story by Chicago Tribune reporters Michael Oneal and David Greising that noted, “Zell is known for his explosive, often profane outbursts, but colleagues say he is typically calm, focused and to the point.”

Then I watched a video of him being interviewed by the business editors and reporters of the Tribune. He was unlike any Times boss I ever met. He wore a striped sport shirt without tie or T-shirt and the kind of blue sport coat you’d buy at Target and wear with jeans. In fact, he likes jeans — and motorcycles.

In the video, he smiled a bit and talked about his Tribune deal in a relaxed, confident manner, not at all intimidated by the reporters. Why should he be? He’s a billionaire. They’re just reporters.

The most revealing moment in the interview came when one of the reporters asked Zell why he put together the deal.

“Because nobody has ever done it before,” he said. “The true test of an entrepreneur is someone who spends his life constantly testing his limits. The definition of an idiot is someone who has reached his goals.”

The deal, he said, “isn’t going to change my lifestyle, no matter what happens.” Then, in a moment that should be pondered by Tribune employees across the country, he said to the reporters, “It’s likely to change yours significantly.”

Did he mean they’d make a lot of money from their ESOP? Or will they see their retirement dollars fly away, Enron fashion? Or maybe, they’ll get laid off.

Zell’s family fled Poland the day before the Nazis invaded. An article in Dividend Alumni magazine, a publication of the University of Michigan’s business school, tells how Zell’s father, Bernard Zell, a grain broker, led his wife and young daughter on an 18-month journey across the Soviet Union to Japan and arrived in the United States in 1941. Sam was born that year.

“There’s this Yiddish word, derechertz, and it means respect,” Zell told Dividend Alumni writer James Tobin. “My father and mother, particularly my father, brought us up with the premise that respect was non-negotiable. Love was optional. I’m not saying this in a bad way. It was: ‘I want you to love me. But you have to respect me.’
“My dad was very, very strong and very confident. I had to be very confident and strong to succeed in his shadow.” said his net worth is $4.5 billion. He began by buying a bunch of magazines, including Playboy, after his yeshiva classes in Chicago, taking them back to the suburbs on the train and selling them at a big markup to fellow students at his suburban school. In college, he got into property ownership and development. He could spot what was undervalued and make money from it. Thus he is perfect for the newspaper business, considered by Wall Street to be in terminal decline.

Many of us can relate to the Zell story, although ours probably does not have a billion- dollar outcome. The story is our heritage — fleeing from terror, making a difficult journey to the New World, struggling against all odds.

This was not the story told by most of those at the top levels of the Times when I got there in 1970. I was invited to luncheons for dignitaries in the most exclusive executive dining room. Everyone ate slowly and talked quietly. Silences were broken by the clink of expensive silverware. Nobody asked the dignitaries rude questions. I learned to eat slowly and not talk with my hands.

But the old Times was disappearing. Jews moved into top positions. As the years went on, one of our publishers was Dave Laventhol. We had a Jewish managing editor, a Jewish national editor and many other Jewish editors and reporters.

More than that, the grand lady of the Times, Dorothy Chandler, who was a daughter of a Long Beach merchant family and not part of the L.A. establishment, had made friends with Westside Jews. She was building the Music Center and figured that the culture-loving Jewish community would help finance the place. She helped Jews join the L.A. mainstream.

A Battle With No Winners

The High Holy Day period that just ended is, for most Jews, a time of solitary reflection, aptly called the Days of Awe for its mood of confrontation with the Eternal. For some of us, though, it’s also a season for family togetherness, a cozy time to snuggle up with the ones you love most.

That, at least, is what billionaire investor Ronald Perelman seemed to be telling the judge in New York family court last month, just before he stormed out of the courtroom for the umpteenth time in what has to be the ugliest custody war in America.

Perelman and his third wife, Patricia Duff, are locked in an epic battle over the moral upbringing of their daughter Caleigh. Perelman contends that Duff, who converted to Judaism when she married him, is not fully abiding by their prenuptial agreement to rear Caleigh as an observant Jew. He wants certain guarantees from the judge, like keeping Caleigh with him until after Yom Kippur ends at sundown.

Duff insists she is giving the child a genuinely Jewish upbringing, even if it doesn’t meet Perelman’s expectations of Orthodoxy. She claims Perelman is simply seeking control, which wouldn’t be out of character. Both say they just want what’s best for the child. They’ve been at it for three years. Caleigh is almost five.

Religious custody fights are one of the rawest nerves in American marital law. They touch every religion, cutting to the very core of parental love and loss. In one landmark 1938 case in Amarillo, Texas, a mother contested the father’s sole custody on grounds that he was a Jehovah’s Witness. She claimed he wouldn’t let the child salute the flag or celebrate Christmas. The judge agreed, and ordered the child placed in an orphanage.

That decision was overturned on appeal. Thanks to it and others like it, courts now tend to let parents pass their values to their children unhindered. Most states give the last word to the parent who wins custody. The only limit is the child’s safety. One mother in Mississippi in 1977 had her custody challenged after she joined a snake-handling church. An appeals court judge ruled in her favor, saying there wasn’t much evidence the child would get bitten.

Even a prenuptial agreement won’t limit parents’ religious choices in most states. An influential 1989 Pennsylvania decision held that enforcing a religious prenuptial would violate “the First Amendment principle that parents be free to doubt, question and change their beliefs.” Courts now routinely permit parents nationwide to bring the kids to Mass en route to Hebrew school, or take them out for Chinese food after yeshiva. There are boundaries, though; in 1997, a Massachusetts court barred a born-again Christian father from teaching his children that their mother, an Orthodox Jew, was doomed to hell.

The exception is New York. Courts there routinely enforce prenuptial agreements, even when the parent’s beliefs have changed. That’s the core of Perelman’s case.

Looked at in the abstract, the Perelman-Duff case echoes some of the most painful dilemmas in modern Jewish life. Perelman, a prodigious giver to Orthodox Jewish causes, claims he’s fighting for his daughter’s Jewish soul. His lawyers suggest that Duff, despite her Orthodox conversion, never became fully Jewish. Duff, once a prominent Democratic fund-raiser, counters that civil courts shouldn’t be allowed to dictate a Jew’s level of religious observance, implicitly raising images of Israel’s religious pluralism battles.

But that’s in the abstract. When you get to specifics, this case is a one-of-a-kind doozy. Legal observers can’t remember a New York custody dispute this nasty or expensive. It’s already taken up most of Caleigh’s young life, and seems certain to scar the rest of it. Duff has been through 23 lawyers, by one count.

Perelman, 55, is one of the world’s richest men, with a fortune estimated between $4 billion and $6 billion. Associates describe him as domineering, acquisitive and “crudely charming.”

Raised in a Conservative home in Philadelphia, he’s become known for his passionate, if eccentric, devotion to Orthodoxy. He’s reputedly one of the biggest donors to Lubavitch. He’s also been known to throw parties featuring live actors posing as nude statues. Last winter, he reportedly flew a planeload of yeshiva students down to the Caribbean island of St. Bart’s, so he could have a minyan for Sabbath while reveling in the legendary topless paradise.

Duff, 45, is one of the most celebrated femmes fatales on the Washington-Hollywood glamour circuit. She’s been, by turns, a congressional aide and an aspiring actress. She reputedly introduced Gary Hart to Donna Rice. Even hostile interviewers feel compelled to comment on her beauty.

Duff and Perelman met in 1992. She was married, at the time, to movie executive Mike Medavoy, her third husband. He was married to gossip columnist Claudia Cohen, his second wife. They were wed in early 1995, a few weeks after their daughter — her first child, his sixth — was born. They separated 20 months later. They’ve been in and out of court ever since.

Religion is only half of their battle. They have a separate dispute raging over child support. Perelman pays $12,000 a month for Caleigh’s care, in addition to a reported $1.5 million a year in alimony. She wants the child support raised to $132,000 a month. She claims that since Perelman is a billionaire, while she is only a multimillionaire — she got about $20 million in the divorce settlement — she needs a little extra to give the tot a home life comparable to those visits with Dad.

Perelman dismisses the demands. He noted in one court session last spring that he fed Caleigh on $3 a day. That prompted a local tabloid to dub him “New York’s Cheapest Billionaire.”

In the end, if the Perelman-Duff battle teaches us anything it’s that you can have too much money. Both sides have spent endlessly on lawyers and publicists to ruin each other’s reputations. Perelman has accused Duff of taking Caleigh to an Easter egg hunt and baking cookies on Passover. Duff has accused Perelman of insisting Caleigh come for visits even when he wasn’t there. Court-appointed psychologists have testified that they’re both suspicious, self-centered tyrants. Nobody wins, least of all the child.

How the judge will rule is anybody’s guess. Some wags are suggesting the best path to follow would be the Amarillo precedent: send the poor kid to an orphanage.

Or better still, one legal expert suggests, send the parents.

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal. Gene Lichtenstein is on vacation.