September 20, 2018

Confessions of a Day Trader

I write this because, as one young lady who took my course in American Studies at CalState  Fullerton, back in the 1970s,  told me without too much exaggeration: “You are the honest-est person I have ever met.” She was not BS-ing me because I was a permissive grader, and her grade was already in.  “Crazy-honest”—and given to excessive  self-revelation—I still am.

Financially, the most foolish day of my life was in early 2000 when I decided to “invest” in the stock market. I never had much cared about money—in this way only, I was like the (mythical?) Love Children of the 1960s. But I had some money, really for the first time, and it seemed like a good idea to “invest.” I really wanted to turn my money over to an investment counselor and leave the worries to him. I had one, a friend-of-a-friend,  lined up, but for convoluted (mostly personal) reasons, it did not turn out. I decided to do it myself.

I became a day trader—a very bad idea for a smart but impulsive person like me. I’ve seen statistics that 80-90 percent of day traders belly up in a year or two. Not me. I just lost 80-90 percent of my money.

I’ve made some back since, and continue to dabble. My experience this summer, however, should be a cautionary tale for any novice out there unless you’re moral constitution is lots steelier than mine. My problem was—and is—not that I cannot discern trends. I can. The problem is the lack of resolve to act on them, patiently but decisively, in the right way.

I’ve known for at least a month that the market was headed for, as they say on the Street, “a correction” of at least 5-10 percent down. Many talking heads on cable finance news shows said so, but I knew it in my gut.

So I  bought a 3-X  Short ETF, which means that it goes up three times when the S&P Average goes down.  For a while, I waited patiently—and lost money, as the market continued to go up.

Then came August,. I still lost money for a few days, but began to recoup. Yesterday was the moment of truth. As I expected, the terrible news about the North Korean nuclear crisis, and the war of bombastic words on both sides, initially depressed the market in the morning. But then it began to rally around 11:00 Am Pacific Time. I sensed an inflection point—and sold out to take my profit. 

By day’s end, I felt cautiously vindicated because the market had continued to rally until the close, and—if I had not liquidated my position—I would have lost almost all my profit.

I should have known better: in my gut—which told me to stay short until this October—I did indeed know better. Today, the market really tanked. If I had stayed the course—stayed short—I would have made quintuple what I made yesterday. I guess I deserve such frustrating humiliation for sins I committed in a earlier life. That’s Jewish Karma—but that’s NOT Entertainment!

Be forewarned by this fool’s experience.

Yet I also assure you that—when I write about history and politics—you can trust my judgment, within limits. I’m not a sucker across-the-board, just on Wall Street. I wish you better luck.

Harold Brackman is a historian in Los Angeles.

Obama says ‘not true’ that Wall Street regulation too lax

President Barack Obama on Monday defended his efforts to rein in Wall Street, telling Americans that his administration cracked down effectively on banks and trading firms after the financial crisis of 2007-2009.

“I want to emphasize this because it is popular in the media and the political discourse, both on the left and the right, to suggest that the crisis happened and nothing happened. That is not true,” Obama told reporters, flanked by Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and other top regulators.

Obama said regulators appear set by the end of the year to have achieved most of the goals he set out for the financial system in 2008, when he first took office, although he noted there was still work to do on rules for hedge funds and asset managers in what he called the “shadow banking system.”

“One of our projects is to make sure that we are covering some of those potential gaps,” he said. “We may need at some point help from Congress to do that.”

Regulators also need to complete rules on executive compensation to make sure Wall Street is “less incentivized to take big reckless risks that could end up harming our financial sector,” he said.

Obama told reporters the Republican-controlled Congress has tried to weaken regulations established after the financial crisis and “starve” regulators with budget cuts.

Wall Street’s big short: President Donald J. Trump

Add the juggernaut that is Donald J. Trump to the list of what-ifs that is worrying Wall Street.

A growing realization that the unpredictable New York real estate developer is in a position to win the Republican nomination and then battle Hillary Clinton for the White House in November's election has caused some investors to sell U.S. stocks. They fear having such a wild-card president could trigger trade wars, hurt the economy and add a lot of market volatility.

“As the market rarely feasts on lack of predictability – Trump represents a nightmare for investors this year,” said hedge fund manager Douglas Kass of Seabreeze Partners Management Inc, who said last week that he was adding to his existing short bet on the U.S. stock market in part because of Trump's increasingly strong position in the race. 

Trump's statements on business and Wall Street don't neatly fit into one ideological worldview, but if anything, they are seen as isolationist in a globally connected world. He can also suddenly pick on businesses over various issues, such as his call for a boycott of Apple Inc’s <AAPL.O> products after the tech giant refused to help the FBI unlock the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters. 

“The election this year is the height of uncertainty,” said Phil Orlando, a senior portfolio manager and chief equity strategist at Federated Investors in New York, which manages $351 billion. He said political concerns – personified by Trump's emergence as a frontrunner – are one of the main reasons why he began reducing equity exposure in mid-January. 

There are, of course, plenty of other factors having an impact on U.S. financial markets. U.S. stocks rallied on Tuesday after strong U.S. factory and construction data suggested the economy was regaining momentum. That was even as investors contemplated expectations thatTrump would do very well in 11 states holding Republican primary or caucus elections on this Super Tuesday. 

 

LITTLE POLICY SUBSTANCE

Trump’s rhetoric mixes populist criticism of immigration policy, Wall Street behavior, and other countries' trade policies, while also citing support for business-friendly efforts such as lower taxation. The lack of detail from Trump about his policies and how he would implement them is a particular worry for investors. 

“Trump has been light on policy substance so it’s very difficult for the markets to handicap,” said Dave Lafferty, chief market strategist at Natixis Global Asset Management, which manages $870.3 billion in assets. He expects market volatility to rise if Trump extends his lead in Tuesday’s elections.

Some investors are particularly concerned about Trump's nationalist rhetoric, saying it is potentially destructive to a global economy that is already struggling. If it reduces trade flows then it could also hamper U.S. and global growth and hurt U.S. company profits.

The real estate investor proposes labeling China a currency manipulator and ending what he calls China's illegal export subsidies and theft of U.S. intellectual property. He also wants to penalize companies who move jobs from the U.S. to Mexico by hitting them with high tariffs if they want to export back to the U.S., as well as build a wall at the Mexican border to prevent the flow of illegal immigrants.

“In areas of trade policy and foreign affairs lies the greatest uncertainty,” Kass said. “Trump is not likely to be market-friendly in any of these policy areas.”

In response, Trump’s spokeswoman Hope Hicks said in an email to Reuters that the same crowd criticizing the Republican Party's top candidate had been responsible for causing the last worldwide recession and economic meltdown in 2007-2008. 

“They have zero credibility,” said Hicks. “Mr. Trump will restore confidence to the global markets by ending runaway spending and borrowing, restoring trade balance and fairness, and bringing wealth to America's middle class.”

 

CARRIED INTEREST

Investors had, for some time, been concerned about the strength of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders' insurgent campaign for the Democratic nomination against former Secretary of State Clinton, given he declares himself to be a democratic socialist and has said Wall Street's business model is fraudulent. With recent losses to Clinton in Democratic contests in South Carolina and Nevada, he is now seen as less likely to win the nomination.

Trump's plans include ideas that traditionally come from Republican candidates, such as lowering the corporate tax rate, simplifying the tax code, and as his web site puts it, cutting the deficit through “eliminating waste, fraud and abuse” and “growing the economy to increase tax revenues.” 

“I think markets will like Trump on the taxes issue since he favors lower rates and a permanent change in repatriation rules,” said David Kotok, chairman and chief investment officer at Cumberland Advisors in Sarasota, Florida, which manages $2 billion in assets.

Still, financial advisers say that Trump's plans to do away with the so-called carried interest tax loophole – which gives hedge fund and private equity managers preferential tax treatment on much of their income – would prompt more selling if he begins to climb in national polls against Clinton.

Jeffrey Gundlach, the co-founder and CEO of bond investing and trading powerhouse DoubleLine Capital, said that Trump has a history of being ”comfortable with a lot of debt and leverage,” and that won't impede him from spending heavily. He said he believes Trump’s pledge to spend heavily on the military makes defense stocks a good investment play.

Others see such spendthrift tendencies more darkly.

David Ader, chief government bond strategist at CRT Capital Group in Stamford, Connecticut, said Trump's history raises questions about his ability to run an organization as unwieldy and complex as the government. The businessman has in the past filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for the Trump Taj Mahal casino and Trump Plaza Hotel. 

Ader says the uncertainty would cause investors to flock to safe-haven U.S. Treasuries shouldTrump take office. 

“It's one thing to run casinos that have gone bankrupt, it's another to run a country and its foreign policy,” he said. 

Whether he would enjoy the support of the Senate and House of Representatives is a critical question, and will determine how many of his policy pronouncements can be turned into legislation. Congress could act as a brake if Trump gets the presidency and behaves as wildly as Trump the candidate. He clearly does not have the full support of a number of key Republican senators and would be unlikely to get much Democratic support for many measures.    

Todd Morgan, senior managing partner at wealth management firm Bel Air Investments Advisors in Los Angeles, said that the increasing likelihood that Trump will be the Republican nominee is one reason why he has raised cash in some client portfolios over the past four months. He would likely sell more if it looks like Trump will win the general election, he said. 

“It's like a scale and you keep dropping more weights on the balance everyday, and the political uncertainty is becoming a bigger and bigger weight,” he said.

Clinton and Sanders battle in debate over healthcare, Wall Street ties

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders battled over healthcare and Wall Street in a debate on Thursday, with Clinton accusing Sanders of misleading Americans on his healthcare plan and making promises “that cannot be kept.”

In a sixth presidential debate that featured several sharp exchanges but a more sedate tone than their last meeting, Clinton said Sanders' proposal for a single-payer, Medicare-for-all healthcare plan would mean dismantling Obamacare and triggering another intense political struggle.

“Based on every analysis I can find by people who are sympathetic to the goal, the numbers don’t add up,” Clinton told Sanders. “That's a promise that cannot be kept.”

Sanders said he would not dismantle the healthcare plan known as Obamacare and was simply moving to provide what most industrialized countries have – healthcare coverage for all.

“We're not going to dismantle anything,” Sanders said. “In my view healthcare is a right of all people, not a privilege, and I will fight for that.”

Sanders repeated his accusation that Clinton is too beholden to the Wall Street interests she once represented as a U.S. senator from New York, noting her Super PAC received $15 million in donations from Wall Street.

“Let's not insult the intelligence of the American people,” he said. “Why in God's name does Wall Street make huge campaign contributions? I guess just for the fun of it, they want to throw money around.”

Clinton said the donations did not mean she was in Wall Street's pocket, and noted that President Barack Obama had taken donations from Wall Street during his campaigns.

“When it mattered, he stood up and took on Wall Street,” she said.

THE JUDICIAL SYSTEM AND RACE

With the presidential race moving into states with larger minority populations, both candidates decried the high incarceration rate of African-Americans and called for broad reforms of the criminal justice system. Sanders said black incarceration rates were “one of the great tragedies” in the United States.

“That is beyond unspeakable,” Sanders said of a disproportionately high black male prison population. He called for “fundamental police reform” that would “make it clear that any police officer who breaks the law will in fact be dealt with.”

Clinton criticized what she said was “systemic racism” in education, housing and employment. “When we talk about criminal justice reform … we also have to talk about jobs, education, housing and other ways of helping communities of color,” she said.

Clinton entered Thursday's debate under acute pressure to calm a growing sense of nervousness among her supporters after a 22-point drubbing by Sanders on Tuesday in the New Hampshire primary election and a razor-thin win last week in the Iowa caucus. Both states have nearly all-white populations.

For his part, Sanders, an independent U.S. senator of Vermont who calls himself a democratic socialist, hoped to harness the momentum and enthusiasm he gained from the first two contests and prove he can be a viable contender to lead the Democratic Party to victory in the Nov. 8 presidential election.

“What our campaign is indicating is that the American people are tired of establishment politics,” Sanders said. “They want a political revolution.”

The race now moves to what should be more favorable ground for Clinton in Nevada and South Carolina, states with more black and Hispanic voters, who, polls show, have been more supportive of Clinton so far.

Clinton, a former secretary of state, on Thursday won a significant endorsement from the Congressional Black Caucus, while Sanders has launched his own effort to make inroads among African-American voters.

Sanders met with civil rights leader Al Sharpton the morning after his New Hampshire win, and has aired advertising and built up staff quickly in both Nevada and South Carolina. The debate on Thursday was the last one before those two contests.

After South Carolina on Feb. 27, the presidential race accelerates with 28 states voting in rapid succession in March, including 11 states on March 1 and big prizes such as Ohio, Florida and Illinois on March 15.

‘The Wolf’ and the Jewish problem

“The Wolf of Wall Street” is nauseating, pornographic and soul-crushing — and you have to see it.

You have to see it, because you — meaning society, Jews, all of us as individuals — have to face the questions it raises about money, wealth and morality. 

Director Martin Scorsese is taking some heat for depicting Jordan Belfort as a likable rogue. Yes, Belfort lies, steals and snorts avalanches of coke off naked tushees, but he loves his dad, has a great run and, after all, he’s Leonardo DiCaprio.  A generation of young men will now flock to Wall Street aping Belfort, just as a generation of drug dealers took their cues from Al Pacino in “Scarface.”  

I don’t blame Scorsese. His genius is to examine society’s most grievous sins through its most colorful practitioners. True, he doesn’t show the effects of Belfort’s crimes on their victims — the families wrecked by financial loss and legal troubles, the people who fell for the cons and paid with their nest eggs. Then again, the movie is told entirely from Belfort’s point of view, and Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter probably assumed Belfort has never spent two seconds thinking about the human suffering he caused — unless it was his own.

[Related: DiCaprio defends ‘Wolf of Wall Street’]

But I do regret that Scorsese chose not to deal with the fact that Jordan Belfort is Jewish. Although some of the characters in “Wolf,” like Jonah Hill’s Donnie Azoff, are clearly portrayed as Jews, even to the point of wearing chai necklaces around their coke-frosted necks, Belfort, with his Anglo looks and Frenchy name, is left to be simply American. I get it: To do otherwise might give the movie a whiff of anti-Semitic caricature. Scorsese feels much safer depicting the Italian-ness of his violent mobsters than the Jewishness of his greedy con men.

But, just between us, let’s talk about Belfort-the-Jew — let’s go there. In the movie, you never really understand how someone so gifted can be so morally unmoored. But in his memoir, upon which the movie is based, whenever Belfort refers to his Jewish roots, the diagnosis becomes more apparent. 

He is a kid from Long Island. His dad, Max, grew up “in the old Jewish Bronx, in the smoldering economic ashes of the Great Depression.” Belfort didn’t grow up poor by any means, he just wasn’t rich enough. The hole in him wasn’t from poverty, but from desire for acceptance. The “blue-blooded WASPs,” Belfort writes, “viewed me as a young Jewish circus attraction.” 

Belfort had a chip on his shoulder the size of a polo pony, and so did everyone he recruited. They were, he writes, “the most savage young Jews anywhere on Long Island: the towns of Jericho and Syosset. It was from out of the very marrow of these two upper-middle-class Jewish ghettos that the bulk of my first hundred Strattonites had come….”

It’s not complicated, really. Poor little Jordan wanted to show those WASPs whose country clubs he couldn’t join that he was smarter, richer, better. What he failed to understand is that just about every Jew, every minority, shares the same impulses. But only a select few decide the only way to help themselves is to hurt others.   

Belfort, like Bernie Madoff, is an extreme example. These are guys who feel they have nothing, they are nothing, so they will do anything to acquire everything. They cross a pretty clear line and just keep going.

The question that gnaws at me is whether there’s something amiss in the vast gray area that leads right up to that line. Are the Belforts and Madoffs unnatural mutations, or are they inevitable outgrowths of attitudes that have taken root in our communities? We don’t, as a community, like to talk about money and wealth and how to acquire it and how to spend it. A Madoff affair happens — a crime that devastates thousands of people, businesses and philanthropies, many of them in the heart of the Jewish community — and we hardly speak about it anymore.  

These days, we are deep in the pit arguing over the American Studies Association’s (ASA) boycott of Israeli academics and whether Jewish students at Swarthmore College’s Hillel should open their doors to anti-Zionist speakers. We have devoted so many smart words and fiery sermons to these issues, you’d think the entire Jewish future depended upon them. Never mind that there are bridge clubs bigger than the ASA, and that the State of Israel, with its history, power and genius, may just survive the withering onslaught of a panel discussion in suburban Pennsylvania. The Jewish world never lacks for turbulent conversations. My only concern is whether they’re the right ones. Talking about Israel is easy — talking about money is uncomfortable.

But these are the conversations we need to be having. What’s the right way to make money? How much is enough? How much must we share, and with whom? We are blessed to be living at a time of unparalleled Jewish power and wealth, and it makes us so uneasy, we prefer to talk about everything but. We have benefited from an economic and political structure that is becoming less and less just. We are enjoying unprecedented wealth as millions struggle on minimum wages, facing hunger, unemployment, benefit cuts, homelessness. We look to our rabbis and institutions for guidance, but too many of them are afraid to upset the wealthy donors upon whom they are dependent. So we talk instead about Israel, about Swarthmore, and our communities become breeding grounds for the next Madoff, the next Belfort.

That’s not a movie. That’s a shame. 


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Dinner table revelations: The unexamined life

You don’t know what a bad person you are, or how bad your hair looks, until you’ve sat down with my religious relatives for a meal and tried to conduct a conversation. 

This happens to me every other week, on Friday night, when my mother hosts a summit of friends and family members from both sides of the aisle — religious and Reform — throws in a smattering of people who really couldn’t care less either way but will go along with the majority for the sake of keeping the peace, and lets the games begin. Almost invariably there’s a new face in the crowd, and it’s usually a very beautiful one because his or her ancestry stretches back to my mother’s grandfather, the once-mighty and forever fruitful Solomon (the Man), famous for his good looks, many talents and many, many wives. Solomon was Jewish but did not discriminate on the basis of religion, ethnicity or even geographic location. He once went to India to find “the most beautiful woman in the world,” married her and brought her back to live in the same house with his first wife and her children. You can read about that in my first novel, but the point is we don’t know how many people walking the earth today owe their existence to him. We just know that my mother has a knack for finding these “cousins,” and she loves to introduce them to the rest of the family at Shabbat dinner. 

The other thing we know, if we’re paying attention right now, is that what I just said about Solomon the Man and his amorous activities violates one or more of the three deadly sins of speech — lashon harah (negative speech about another person that is true), hotzaat shem ra (negative speech about another person that is untrue) and rechilut (gossip). Lest you think I’m trying to appear especially knowledgeable about matters of moral rectitude, I’ll confess I only learned the subtle variations in prohibited speech because I looked it up on Wikipedia a few months ago, and only then after being challenged one too many times by my religious relatives about something I said. 

“How do you know this is true?” they would ask every time I made an assertion that involved other individuals. 

The banking system and the economic meltdown are why I think so many Wall Street CEOs should be in jail. 

Lashon hara. 

“Do you know for a fact they’re responsible?”

A distant cousin I didn’t know I had (she lives in Europe, so my mother hadn’t had a chance to discover her before she found me on Facebook), who wrote to tell me she’s read my books, and did I know that Aunt X, who died a hundred years ago, actually had a lover? 

Hotzaat shem ra.

“Did you see this aunt and her lover together in bed with your own eyes? If not, you can’t say it’s true.”  

The mayoral elections in Los Angeles and why the DWP union boss’ backing of Wendy Greuel hurt her chances. 

Rechilut.

“Did you go door to door and ask every voter how they feel about the DWP union boss? Is there any real benefit to be drawn from making this observation? Do you know the union boss personally?” 

The rivalry between the Orthodox Iranian rabbis in Los Angeles and their Conservative colleagues over the souls and leadership of the community, how the two factions have fought for years over whether to have a microphone in the synagogue on Shabbat.

Lashon hara, hotzaat shem ra, rechilut. You’ve just “killed” a whole bunch of people in one breath. 

My relatives weren’t always religious. They used to talk about their own ancestors from time to time, which is how I managed to gather a few good stories before prohibitions kicked in and my sources dried up. They did, of course, apply all the usual standards of censorship, erasing for all time any trace of mental illness, genetic flaws, alcohol or other addictions, bad behavior, poor manners or any other factor that, in a tightly knit society such as ours, might interfere with the children’s chances at a good marriage. But it wasn’t until some of them became seriously observant that I became conscious of what a terrible and devastating weapon negative speech can be. 

I’m deeply grateful to them for this. I really am. I’m ashamed and remorseful for all the times I’ve blurted out something about another person without weighing the consequences. I’m trying to do better. We all should. It will make the world a better place. The only thing is, this kind of awareness wreaks havoc on one’s storytelling — in print or orally — and it also leads to a great deal of unwelcome self-reflection, and these, in turn, kind of ruin your life anyway. 

Which brings me to my hair. 

Nowadays, our Shabbat dinner summits follow more or less the same pattern: The religious group sits politely and keeps mostly quiet while the Reform faction engages in prohibited speech until, sometime during the meal, one of the observant people steps in and issues a gag order. 

“The long plane ride between L.A. and Tel Aviv is hard on the elderly.” 

Unless you have scientific data to back this up, you’re hurting Israel’s tourism. 

“The collapse of the factory in Bangladesh makes you wonder about the humanity of buying cheap, foreign-made products.” 

Unless you did the building inspection yourself …

You really can’t talk about anyone who is not in the room except to say something positive, which is nice, but takes only two seconds because no one is allowed to disagree, and no further discussion is needed. Because it’s Shabbat, you’re not even allowed to talk about historical public figures with a bad reputation — Nebuchadnezzar, say, or Kim Il Sung — because the mere utterance of their name sullies the holiness of the table. So what you have are long stretches of silence that can be filled in one of two ways: either you start reciting prayers or you talk about yourself and each other, which is how I learned, exactly two Fridays ago, that my hair looks bad — really bad — and, they hope you don’t mind their being honest, they hate your hair, it looks awful, worse than it did last year this time, and it was pretty dismal then. They don’t know what it is — the color or the cut or just the fact that it’s there, on your head — but you should undo it immediately and stop wearing these dead, drab shades in clothing, you don’t look good in white, it makes you appear ashen, like you should be taking hormones, which of course will give you breast cancer …

A few minutes of this, and North Korea’s labor camps don’t sound like such a bad topic of conversation. 

“So,” I said after checking my hair a couple of times in the mirror and deciding it’s beyond saving, “Do you like Michelle Obama’s new hairstyle?” 

Oh what a relief it is when you hit the right note at just the right time! No sooner had the name “Obama” been released into the air than all the walls came down, the injunctions expired, and my entire family, religious or otherwise, launched into an all-out attack on the man’s character, abilities and intentions. They hate him all right and don’t mind saying so, and they can’t stand his wife or her new hairstyle, and if that doesn’t fill entire evenings with lively chatter, how about those Palestinians? What’s wrong with saying they’re bloodthirsty criminals when it’s true, already common knowledge, and meant to effect positive change? Oh, and do you know you’re not allowed to listen to the Persian-language radio run by Mr. X anymore because he’s an agent of Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah? 

I love my relatives, and I love my mother’s Friday night summits. I even like self-reflection once in a while. But it seems to me that our laws — all of them, even the holy ones — are subject to human interpretation. We pick and choose how to observe even when we believe we’ve stuck entirely to both the letter and the spirit, and I’m thankful for this, and so is my hair. And really, what’s history if not glorified gossip? And besides, that thing I said about Solomon the Man and his taste for beautiful women, that wasn’t hearsay or gossip, there’s DNA evidence to support my claim. Just look at this latest cousin my mother has discovered, her bronze-colored skin and agate eyes, the seven languages she speaks and 700 suitors she has already turned down. Did you know her mother once ran off with a …  

Herman Wouk spins filmmaking yarn

When I quickly first read the Wall Street Journal’s brief note that Herman Wouk had written a new novel, “The Lawgiver” (Simon & Schuster: $25.99), about making a film about the life of Moses, my synapses apparently misfired. It isn’t about the “life” of Moses, as I first misread it. 

Still, the bigger question, at first, had to be whether in publishing the work, Simon & Schuster had just been kind to a surely past-his-prime icon (e.g. “Marjorie Morningstar,” “The Caine Mutiny,” “War and Remembrance” and “This Is My God”). After all, Wouk is 97. Yes, Moses did live until 120 — but wasn’t age calculated differently then? How can a current 97-year-old write any novel with any meaningful message, particularly in the digital age? 

To boot, the Wall Street Journal reported that “The Lawgiver” is an epistolary novel. A what? So we dial up the root of all knowledge — Wikipedia. Before the obligatory deeper fact checking, we learn that the epistolary genre (most famously used in “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker, “Herzog” by Saul Bellow and “Letters of Two Brides” by Honore de Balzac), is a novel written through a collage of documents, typically letters, diary entries, news clippings. 

When I finally got my hands on “The Lawgiver” — the very title is the tantalizer Wouk probably intended — I found that the author’s literary growth certainly wasn’t stunted by old age. Most writers 60 years his junior wouldn’t have the imagination to do this. 

Wouk’s epistolary includes the usual — letters, memos, aide-mémoires. But, surprisingly, there are e-mails, voicemails and texts, too. Imagine a nonagenarian who probably, for most of his astonishing career, wrote his masterpieces on foolscap or even a hunt-and-peck typewriter from a day gone by, writing a novel composed largely of e-mails and text messages. Importantly, the unique literary style the master employs doesn’t distract the reader one bit from digesting the story. And just so the reader gets the magnitude of all this effort in weaving different threads into a cohesive narrative, these various communications are presented in different type fonts and even cursive handwriting. 

The narrative tells the story of a writer, filmmaker, lawyer and movie producer, along with Wouk himself and his now-late wife — apparently, his creative inspiration for all — who appear as themselves as a part of the artistic process. The Wouks surface because, any false humility aside, bringing Wouk into the process of producing a film about such a great biblical figure would be an obvious “get.” And what they collectively try to produce is a credible film about maybe the most important force who ever lived — albeit not the god-like Moses of Charlton Heston (“The Ten Commandments”), the humanized Moses depicted by Ben Kingsley (“Moses”) or even the marble sculpture by Michelangelo. Probably, it’s Wouk’s own Moses — but we never come to really know.

So, where is that Moses? In 2000’s “The Will to Live On,” quoted at the outset of “The Lawgiver,” Wouk said, “I still hope against hope for a bolt of lightning, which will yet inspire me to pen my own picture of Maysheh Rabbenu, the Rav of mankind.” So I myself breezed through the new book’s quick read, quickly flipping through easily readable pages and hopelessly looking for a glimpse of that bolt of lightning. 

But no. Instead I found, as will you, an extraordinary, aging writer like Moses himself — with eyes not dimmed and vigor undiminished (Deuteronomy 34:7). Wouk is a modern storyteller still vigorous enough to write, teach his art and tell a captivating Jewish (sort of) love story. It is the story of a young woman film-writing “phenom” — Margolit Solovei, aka Margo, aka Mashie, depending on the world in which she is defined at a particular moment in the story’s telling. She has abandoned the derech (“path” in Hebrew); longs for the approbation of her observant father, “Tatti,” despite that road not taken to which she surely still connects; and remains drawn in some indefinable way to the road’s magnet in the person of her still-smitten former love, whom her father reluctantly sees as the vehicle to pull his daughter back. All this with mixtures of Wouk, his wife, a money guy, a producer and others. All in a marinade of e-mails, text, letters, memos to file, news clippings, etc.

But still, although incredibly worthwhile in its own right, this was not the story I looked for. As someone Moses-obsessed, hoping still to learn who the biblical leader really was through the eyes of a truly gifted writer, I longed — still do — to read that “authoritative” novel. “The Lawgiver” offers something else. It teaches, at day’s end, that a man, no matter his age, should encourage his creative juices to continue to flow.

Again, though, not a story about Moses. 

And so, this review is maybe not a review at all. Rather, see it as a plea to the man who teased us with his title: Mr. Wouk, you didn’t write the novel about the lawgiver sui generis, which surely takes a writer sui generis. Not yet! 

Mr. Wouk, lest it go unsaid: Ad meah v’esrim — may you live to be 120. You still have time!

East Coast crippled by massive storm, death toll climbs

Millions of people were left reeling in the aftermath of the whipping winds and heavy rains of the massive storm Sandy on Tuesday as New York City and many parts of the eastern United States struggled with epic flooding and extensive power outages.

The storm killed at least 40 people, including at least 18 in New York City, and insurance companies started to tally billions of dollars in losses.

Sandy, which crashed ashore with hurricane-force winds on Monday near the New Jersey gambling resort of Atlantic City, was the biggest storm to hit the country in generations. It swamped parts of New York's subway system and lower Manhattan's Wall Street district, closing financial markets for a second day.

Businesses and homes along New Jersey's shore were wrecked and communities were submerged under floodwater across a large area. More than 8 million homes and businesses in several states were without electricity as trees toppled by Sandy's fierce winds took down power lines. Across the region, crews began the monumental task of getting power back on.

[Related: Jewish community bears impact of Hurricane Sandy]

The storm reached as far inland as Ohio and caused thousands of flight cancellations. Cellphone outages also were widespread.

Parts of West Virginia were buried under 3 feet of drifting snow from the storm.

Some East Coast cities like Washington, Philadelphia and Boston were spared the worst effects from Sandy and appeared ready to return to normal by Wednesday. But New York City, large parts of New Jersey and some other areas will need at least several days to get back on their feet.

“The devastation is unthinkable,” New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said after seeing pictures of the New Jersey shore.

The storm interrupted the U.S. presidential campaign just a week before the Nov. 6 election. The damage it caused raised questions about whether polling places in some hard-hit communities would be ready to open by next Tuesday.

Seeking to show he was staying on top of a storm situation that affected a densely populated region, the White House said President Barack Obama planned to tour damaged areas of New Jersey on Wednesday accompanied by Christie.

The New Jersey governor, who has been a strong supporter of Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney, praised Obama and the federal response to the storm.

“New Jersey, New York in particular have been pounded by this storm. Connecticut has taken a big hit,” Obama said during a visit to Red Cross headquarters in Washington.

Obama issued federal emergency decrees for New York and New Jersey, declaring that “major disasters” existed in both states.

Power outages darkened large parts of downtown Manhattan. A large blaze destroyed more than 80 homes in New York City's borough of Queens, where flooding hampered firefighting efforts.

“To describe it as looking like pictures we've seen of the end of World War Two is not overstating it. The area was completely leveled. Chimneys and foundations were all that was left of many of these homes,” New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said after touring the area.

Neighborhoods along the East and Hudson rivers in Manhattan were underwater, as were low-lying streets in Battery Park near Ground Zero, where the World Trade Center once stood. Lower Manhattan could be without power for four days.

One disaster modeling company said on Tuesday that Sandy may have caused up to $15 billion in insured losses. That would make it the third-costliest hurricane on record, behind hurricanes Katrina, which laid waste to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005, and Andrew, which devastated parts of Florida in 1992.

That figure did not take into account residential flood losses or flooding of tunnels and subways, meaning ultimate insurance claims could rise higher still.

CAMPAIGNING ON HOLD

Obama and Romney put campaigning on hold for a second day. The campaign truce was likely to be short-lived, as Romney planned to hit the trail again in Florida on Wednesday. Obama appeared likely to resume campaigning on Thursday for a final five-day sprint to Election Day.

Obama faces political danger if the government fails to respond well, as was the case with predecessor George W. Bush's botched handling of Katrina. Obama has a chance to show not only that his administration has learned the lessons of Katrina but that he can take charge and lead during a crisis.

All along the East Coast, residents and business owners found scenes of destruction.

“There are boats in the street five blocks from the ocean,” said evacuee Peter Sandomeno, one of the owners of the Broadway Court Motel in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey. “That's the worst storm I've ever seen, and I've been there for 11 years.”

Sandy, which was especially imposing because of its wide-ranging winds, brought a record storm surge of almost 14 feet to downtown Manhattan, well above the previous record of 10 feet (3 meters) during Hurricane Donna in 1960, the National Weather Service said.

Water poured into the subway tunnels under New York City. Bloomberg said the subway system, which normally carries over 5 million people each weekday, would likely be closed for four or five days.

“Hitting at high tide, the strongest surge and the strongest winds all hit at the worst possible time,” said Jeffrey Tongue, a meteorologist for the weather service in Brookhaven, New York.

Hurricane-force winds as high as 90 miles per hour were recorded, he said. “Hopefully it's a once-in-a-lifetime storm,” Tongue said.

The U.S. Department of Energy said more than 8 million homes and businesses in several states were without electricity due to the storm.

“This storm is not yet over,” Obama told reporters at the Red Cross as he warned of the dangers of continued flooding, downed power lines and high winds. Obama, possibly mindful that disgruntled storm victims could mean problems for his re-election bid, vowed to push hard for power to be restored.

The flooding hampered efforts to fight a massive fire that destroyed more than 80 homes in Breezy Point, a private beach community on the Rockaway barrier island in the New York City borough of Queens.

New York University's Tisch hospital was forced to evacuate more than 200 patients, among them babies on respirators in the neonatal intensive care unit, when the backup generator failed.

Besides the deaths in New York City, others were reported in New York state, Massachusetts, Maryland, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. Toronto police also recorded one death – a woman hit by flying debris. Sandy killed 69 people in the Caribbean last week.

U.S. government offices in Washington were due to reopen on Wednesday after two days. Schools were shut up and down the East Coast but were due to reopen on Wednesday in many places.

U.S. stock markets were closed on Tuesday but exchanges are expected to reopen on Wednesday.

The storm weakened as it plowed slowly west across southern Pennsylvania, its remnants situated between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, with maximum winds down to 45 mph, the National Hurricane Center said.

As Sandy converged with a cold weather system, blizzard warnings were in effect for West Virginia, western Maryland, eastern Tennessee, eastern Kentucky and western North Carolina.

Garrett County in Maryland had as much as 20 inches of heavy, icy snow that knocked out power to almost three-quarters of the area's 23,000 customers.

“It's the biggest (October snowstorm) that I remember and I've been here 25 years,” said area resident Richard Hill, who planned to huddle by his wood stove.

Cartoon depicts haredi Orthodox Jews praying to Wall Street

A cartoon depicting three stereotypically haredi Orthodox Jews praying in front of the Western Wall, which is labeled Wall Street, won an Iranian cartoon contest.

The cartoon won the first International Wall Street Downfall Cartoon Festival, which was co-sponsored by the semi-official Iranian FARS news service. The cartoons, which were submitted by Arabs in countries around the world, can be viewed on the FARS website.

The Anti-Defamation League in a statement called the winning cartoon “offensive.”

“Once again, Iran takes the prize for promoting anti-Semitism,” said Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director.  “The winning cartoon takes the most sacred site in Judaism and perverts it into a shrine of greed.”

Iran held a Holocaust cartoon contest in 2006. The first prize illustration depicted Israel’s security fence as Auschwitz, according to Radio Free Europe.

Letters to the Editor: ‘Bully,’ Wall Street, Tom Tugend’s award

Addressing the Bully Pulpit

Thank you for bringing so much attention to the important issue of bullying (“The Battle to Get ‘Bully’ Seen by Those Who Need It Most,” March 23).

When we talk about bullying, it’s not only about bystanders and targets. What is needed now is the cultivation of school communities where there are more allies than bystanders when acts of bias and bullying occur. This is why the thrust of the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) anti-bullying education helps young people learn ally skills and to speak out on behalf of someone else.

In-person bullying and cyber bullying in elementary and secondary educational settings is a continuing problem for all schools, parents and students. Studies have shown that difficulty making friends, loneliness, low self-esteem, depression, poor academic achievement, truancy and suicide are all associated with being bullied. 

Beyond the social impact of bullying and cyber bullying we have a moral obligation to become better allies in helping to end it. ADL resources are available, and we have already established a partnership with the Board of Rabbis and the Builders of Jewish Education to develop a Jewish response to cyber bullying.

Systemic problems of prejudice and bullying must be addressed through comprehensive anti-bias education — in school, at home, in religious and community settings, and all other places [where] we educate children to be socially and emotionally productive members of society.

Amanda Susskind
Regional Director
Anti-Defamation League
Los Angeles


I read with interest your article on bullying. It’s encouraging to know that so many well-intentioned people are giving this matter serious thought. However, we still need to deepen our thinking. In Danielle Berrin’s article, and in the sidebar interview with Ron Avi Astor (“Q&A With an Expert on Bullying,” March 23), the point is made that kids who get bullied are often socially isolated.

Very few children self-isolate. We are social creatures, and the vast majority of kids crave peer interaction and friendship. Isolated kids are alone because they are shunned, and shunning is a mild form of bullying. So when we say that isolated kids get bullied, we are only saying that “bulling lite” leads to more aggressive forms of bullying. Well of course it does! If we are going to understand bullying better, we must stop talking — and thinking — in circles.

Susan North
Peer Mediation Coach


Wall Street Shock Wave

Leonard Fein’s “bank shot” went right into the pocket — most likely of the Democratic Party (“Wall Street Shock Wave in Rear-view Mirror,” March 23). Since most Jews support Democrats, here is what Fein omitted, which might have given them a “moment” of discomfort.

• Neo-liberal President Bill Clinton was the one who ended the New Deal’s Glass-Steagall Act, which once served as a firewall between commercial banking and investment in securities. He later greased the wheels to allow creation of derivatives: “instruments of mass financial destruction.”

• President Barack Obama bailed out the banks (which was, indeed, necessary) but did so without insisting on even an iota of regulation. 

• The “real regulation” Fein calls for is also a sham, including the Dodd-Frank Act. Informed critics of crony capitalism on the right (John Dean) and also a New York Times financial reporter on the left (Gretchen Morgenson) have documented why. 

In short, neo-liberal Democratic Party government officials (Robert Rubin and Timothy Geithner, to name a few) have made sure that — despite massive banking fraud — those responsible for the crisis can remain secure in the knowledge that they are not only too big to fail but also too big to jail.

Gene Rothman
Culver City


My Turn

Every reporter has had the experience of writing an apparently complimentary article about a community figure, only to have the ungrateful subject complain about what seems like a minor omission.

What’s scary is when the tables are turned and the reporter reads an article about himself. This happened to me in Ryan Torok’s flattering report (“Award to Recognize Jewish Journalist’s 50-Year Career,” March 16) about an honor I am to receive from the Benefactors of the Jewish Club of 1933.

For the record, may I add two of the proudest moments of my life: enlisting in the U.S. Army before finishing high school and serving as a combat infantryman in France and Germany during World War II. And leaving UC Berkeley in 1948, to serve as a volunteer in an anti-tank unit during Israel’s War of Independence.

Tom Tugend
Sherman Oaks


Young Life Provides Inspiration

To say that Avery Sax is special is not enough (“11-Year-Old Is Focusing on the (Re)Cycle of Life,” March 23). This is one beautiful young human being who should be an inspiration to all people. Her outlook on life is precious and very unusual for an 11-year-old young lady.

How proud her mother must be of Avery. And Avery should be proud of Avery. 

Harvey M. Piccus
Tarzana


Misguided Prager

Wow, we have been “blessed” with two Prager anti-left screeds in a row (“Our Golden Calf,” March 9; “Response to Reader on the Left,” March 23). It never ceases to amaze me how he will extrapolate the examples of a select few extreme examples into the entire left side of the political spectrum. Let’s look at some facts. The current Southern Branch of the GOP is composed of the children and grandchildren of Southern Democrats who left the party in dribs following Truman’s historic decision to desegregate the military, and in droves following LBJ’s signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Nixon’s election victory in 1968 was made possible by his Southern Strategy. Basically, relying on white Southern antipathy to equal rights for black Americans. Further, Prager and his right-wing friends, when one strips the sugar coating away, believe in a survival-of-the-fittest society. Ayn Rand would be proud of them. I would argue that this is inconsistent with Judaism.

In contrast, let’s look at what the left has delivered. The left enacted Social Security. It fought to bring equal rights to all of the citizens of this great nation. The left enacted the GI Bill; this permitted returning vets of the “Greatest Generation” to go to college and purchase homes. Medicare was a program enacted by the left. Although there are flaws, which need to be corrected, the left enacted the Affordable Care Act. Each and every one of these programs was/are anathema to Prager and the right. I would argue that each and every one of these programs represents the highest ideals of Judaism.

Andrew C. Sigal
Valley Village


Ultra-liberal Voices

I’m not sure what is more disappointing: Rob Eshman’s call again for the Concert to Save Syria (“Syrians Need Us,” March 23) or Peace Now’s American mouthpiece Lara Friedman’s epiphany lasting less than 24 hours (“Letters,” March 23). It’s not David Suissa or Dennis Prager who refuse to deal with “true complexities.” It’s the ultra-liberal Friedman and Eshman who refuse to even listen to the words that come out of Israel’s sworn enemies’ mouths. When our enemies say we have no right to exist, the left rushes to say we shouldn’t believe it. We should just give up more land or give more freedom so it’s easier for the so-very-few radicals among them to kill us. Eshman is not as bad as Friedman since he at least gives lip service to putting some of the blame on our enemies while Friedman and her band of misfits find the solution to the world’s problems by Israel giving in on every destructive and self-defeating demand it faces.

Allan Kandel
Los Angeles

The book of Maccabees, occupied

At the Dec. 5 meeting of the Los Angeles General Assembly — the utterly democratic body that acts to guide, if not exactly govern, Occupy Los Angeles — a facilitator named Chase posed the following question:

“Should we reoccupy a space? And, if so: Where, how and why — or why not?”

It was just six days after an army of 1,400 Los Angeles Police Department officers in riot gear evicted hundreds of Occupy L.A. protesters from their two-month-old encampment surrounding Los Angeles City Hall. Despite new concrete barriers topped with chain-link fence that now surround all of the formerly occupied spaces, the General Assembly, or GA, is still convening every evening at 7:30 on the City Hall grounds — a square block that protesters now call Solidarity Park.

On this day, however, thanks to the filming across the street of a movie starring Sean Penn, the protesters had to wait a full hour to gather on City Hall’s grand stairway on the west side of the building.

Some occupiers lobbied the film crew to end their shoot early, while others openly considered getting arrested by one of the dozen or so police officers on hand to keep the crowd of protesters on the sidewalk. A few occupiers also discussed the possibility of moving the GA to another location for one night.

“Personally, I think the GA is far more important than where it is,” protester C.J. Minster said, while acknowledging that a rule adopted by the GA in the days before the LAPD raid also would make the meeting difficult to move.

“Any change to that has to be approved by a GA,” she explained. “And if you can’t convene a GA at Solidarity Park, it’s kind of a vicious cycle.”

With the Occupy movement’s protesters in most cities across the country now forcibly removed from their encampments, the question of whether, where and how to reoccupy has taken on considerable urgency. And even though the Los Angeles protesters who attended the Dec. 5 GA probably weren’t thinking about Judah Maccabee — probably not even Minster, who was wearing a black knit kippah — perhaps they should have been.

Chanukah begins at sundown on Dec. 20, and this season it is worth remembering that Judah Maccabee — aka Judas Maccabeus — who led a small band of Jews in a successful armed revolt against the Seleucid rulers of Judea in the second century B.C.E., the act the festival of Chanukah commemorates — is one of Jewish history’s most famously successful occupiers. And the way Jews celebrate this wintertime holiday is shaped by that essential question facing the recently removed protesters — whether to reoccupy.

That isn’t the only parallel between the Maccabees of old and the occupiers of today.

Although Judah Maccabee (whose nickname Maccabeus means “the hammer”) was a freedom fighter, his battle against the Seleucids also pitted him, his brothers and their followers against fellow Jews in an internal struggle — a civil war, even — over the future directions of Judean society and Jewish practice. The Maccabees, who wanted to restore the temple to its traditional practices, fought and killed other Jews who had adopted the Hellenistic ways of the imperial overlords.

Similarly, the Occupy movement — which is, it must be said, a non-violent protest movement — pits groups of Americans with different ideas about the future direction of the country against one another. The occupiers portray the battle as one between the overwhelming majority of Americans (“the 99 percent”) and the rich and powerful of Wall Street (“the 1 percent), a division that, coincidentally, aligns with the Maccabean model, as Hellenized Jews were primarily wealthy Jerusalemites, and those fighting on the side of the Maccabees were poorer, rural Jews.

A protester is arrested as Los Angeles Police Department officers dismantle the Occupy L.A. encampment outside City Hall in Los Angeles on Nov. 30. The nearly two-month-old encampment is among the oldest and largest on the West Coast aligned with the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations protesting economic inequality in the country and the excesses of the U.S. financial system.  Photo by Lucy Nicholson/AFP/Getty Images

Read closely, the story of the Maccabean revolt includes a few more unexpected parallels to the story of Occupy so far. To be sure, some of these allegorical links may take a bit more intellectual squinting than others to perceive.

Who knew, for example, that according to the second Book of Maccabees, Jews in Jerusalem and Judea first celebrated Chanukah by dwelling in booths? And weren’t those occupiers dwelling in outdoor temporary shelters, too?

I know I’m stretching somewhat: Of course, a sukkah is not a tent. And while we still remember the Maccabean armed revolt 2,000 years after it happened, it’s not yet known whether we will even be talking about the Occupy movement when Americans go to the polls next November .

Nevertheless, this comparison between historical precedent and current events presents Occupy as a movement at a crossroads, facing a choice not unlike the one the talmudic-era rabbis confronted around the first century C.E. when they created our Chanukah observances and began a process of downplaying the Maccabees’ significance.

And as other journalists already have tackled such important questions as whether Jesus would have been an occupier, or if Santa Claus should be the patron saint of the movement, why not indulge the “Maccabees as occupiers” idea, if only as an unconventional way of retelling the story of Chanukah?


Because most Chanukah stories focus on the miracle of the oil that lasted a full week longer than it should have, and not on the Maccabees’ military campaign, a quick recap of the Maccabean revolt — courtesy of the introductions to the first and second Books of Maccabees in the New Oxford Annotated Apocrypha — is probably in order:

The story begins around 175 B.C.E. The Seleucid Empire, which achieved the height of its glory and influence under Alexander the Great in 332-323 B.C.E., was slowly waning. In Judea, the Seleucid-imported Hellenistic culture, a mix of Greek and Semitic practices, divided the Jewish community, appealing to some Jews, but offending those who wanted to hold fast to their traditions.

Enter Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV, who prohibited outright the central practices of Judaism — forbidding Jews from keeping the Sabbath, forcing them to eat non-kosher animals and outlawing the practice of circumcision. With the help of corrupt, Hellenizing Jewish high priests, Antiochus’ emissaries to Judea also plundered the city of Jerusalem, stole the temple’s sacred objects and profaned the altar by sacrificing a pig there.

These developments distressed the Jews who wanted to keep their traditional practices, and no one more so than a priest named Mattathias who lived in the town of Modein, outside Jerusalem. Over the next seven years, Mattathias and his five sons, including Judah, led a revolt that led to the death of Antiochus, the reclamation — or reoccupation — of the temple by Jews and the beginning of a century-long dynasty of effective independence for Judea.

Back to modern times: For just about 60 days, Occupy L.A.’s temple was City Hall Park (located just off of Temple Street, as it happens). And if democracy can be seen as the official religion of the United States, the occupiers saw themselves as publicly practicing its central rite — exercising their First Amendment-protected right to free speech. (Whether they had a right to set up a 24-hour encampment — which was initially welcomed by the City Council — is another matter.) It was also not uncommon to hear protesters accusing the American equivalent of Judean high priests — elected officials — of some type of corruption, and of looting the nation’s treasure to further enrich the “1 percent.”

For the sake of argument, let’s go one step further with this analogy of “Maccabees are to Temple-era Judaism as Occupy protesters are to American democracy.”

When Judah and his brothers recaptured the temple, they sent in …

“… blameless priests devoted to the law, and they cleansed the sanctuary and removed the defiled stones to an unclean place. They deliberated what to do about the altar of burnt offering, which had been profaned. And they thought it best to tear it down, so that it would not be a lasting shame to them that the Gentiles had defiled it. Then they took unhewn stones, as the law directs, and built a new altar like the former one. …” (1 Maccabees 4:42-45)

The people of Occupy L.A., a self-described leaderless movement, have pursued a similar two-pronged tactic when it comes to cleansing the American democratic process, which they see as having been defiled by unchecked corporate influence.

Some Occupy activists pursue agenda items through existing legislative channels; one speaker at a recent GA urged protesters to contact elected officials to express their opposition to the National Defense Authorization Act. In short, they haven’t discarded all aspects of American democracy — but by establishing their own representative body on the steps of City Hall, Occupy L.A. is sending a clear message: The “altar” of democracy in the City of Angels has been profaned, so we have established a new one in its place.

Rep. Barney Frank, author of Wall Street reform, to retire

U.S. Representative Barney Frank, a Democrat who helped to craft the landmark overhaul of financial regulations that bears his name, will not seek re-election in 2012, his office said on Monday.

Frank, 71, one of the most outspoken liberals in Congress, will hold a 1 p.m. EST news conference to discuss the decision, according to his office.

He has represented his Massachusetts district since 1981, and is known for his detailed knowledge of banking and housing regulations, as well as his acerbic wit.

“Trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table. I have no interest in it,” he told a detractor in 2009.

He was one of the first openly gay politicians to serve at a national level.

Democrats expect to retain control of Frank’s seat as they try to win back control of the House of Representatives in the November 2012 elections.

Frank has said to several aides that he did not want to die in Congress. He has indicated that he would be interested in heading up the Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to media reports.

With then-Senator Christopher Dodd, Frank led a comprehensive overhaul of Wall Street regulations following the 2007-2009 financial crisis. The Dodd-Frank Act, passed in 2010 with little Republican support, was one of the most ambitious legislative efforts of Obama’s first term in office.

Frank’s departure will deprive Democrats of the law’s chief defender at a time when Wall Street and Republican lawmakers are trying to dilute its impact.

Republican presidential candidates argue that it is placing new burdens on the economy while the unemployment rate is stuck at 9 percent, and have vowed to repeal the law even as regulators are still putting it into effect.

Frank has fended off efforts to weaken the law’s consumer protections, but has shown an openness to some of the banking industry’s complaints. Earlier this year, for example, he said a new crackdown on debit-card fees was too harsh.

FEW FRIENDS ON WALL STREET

Still, he will not be missed on Wall Street.

“I think they will cheer that he has taken himself out of the running. I don’t think he had many fans on the Street,” said Ken Polcari, managing director of ICAP Equities.

An advocate of affordable housing, Frank would have had a hand in efforts to reshape the government-owned mortgage buyers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

House Republicans have been trying to unwind the enterprises, but the administration and other policymakers have warned against removing support too quickly given the weak state of the housing market.

Representative Maxine Waters, an even more vocal critic of Wall Street, is next in line to succeed Frank as the top Democrat on the Financial Services Committee, which oversees the economy, housing finance, and the Federal Reserve and other major financial regulators.

Waters faces an ethics investigation following allegations that she broke House rules by trying in 2008 to help a bank in which her husband served on the board of directors.

Frank survived an ethics scandal in 1989 after he admitted hiring a prostitute as a personal aide. Frank apologized and said he had never used official funds.

Democrats say they expect to hold on to Frank’s seat. President Barack Obama in 2008 won 61 percent of the vote in the district, which stretches from upscale Boston suburbs to Fall River, a blue-collar fishing town.

But the district has become more conservative after it was redrawn this year, and one Republican said Frank’s retirement gives his party a better chance of victory in a state where all House seats are currently held by Democrats. The Massachusetts delegation will fall to nine from ten in the 2012 election.

“There is no obvious heir to the throne on the Democratic side. And on the Republican side Sean Bielat who challenged him in 2010 could make a very strong contender,” Republican strategist Todd Domke said.

Frank won 54 percent of the vote in 2010 against Bielat, a political unknown.

James Segel, a former aide, said Frank felt that he had accomplished what he wanted to accomplish in Congress and enjoyed it less now that Democrats do not control the House.

Frank, who publicly acknowledged his homosexuality in 1987, told Reuters in March that he would like to write a history of the gay-rights movement.

Additional reporting by Dave Clarke, Rachelle Younglai and Richard Cowan in Washington, Svea Herbst-Bayliss in Boston and Charles Mikolajczak in New York; Editing by Bill Trott and Vicki Allen

Occupy L.A. raises more questions than it answers

From the very beginning of the Occupy Wall Street movement, people wanted to know why.

Why did a group of protesters calling themselves “the 99 percent” take up residence in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan on Sept. 17?

Why were so many people galvanized by the Occupy Wall Street protest, and why have similar encampments since sprung up in more than 100 cities across the country?

And now that authorities in some cities have begun forcibly removing the protesters, why are the Occupy Los Angeles protesters so determined to hold their ground in the park surrounding Los Angeles City Hall — especially considering that they haven’t yet agreed on what they wish to achieve?

Last week, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa hinted that the end of Occupy L.A. might be near, telling the Los Angeles Times that the protest “cannot continue indefinitely.” But as of press time on Nov. 1, the encampment was still very much in operation.

And even if authorities somehow do clear the park of the hundreds of protesters and their scores of tents, basic questions about this still-evolving movement likely will remain unanswered for many.

Who are these local occupiers? What drove them to take up residence in the tent city downtown? And could the Occupy Wall Street movement really impact the future of the country?

For the perplexed, or the simply curious, here are a few observations.

Occupy L.A., like the Occupy Wall Street movement as a whole, is most clear in its generalized outrage at the inequitable distribution of wealth in the country.

Every evening at 7:30 p.m., Occupy L.A. holds a General Assembly (G.A.) meeting. A recent one began with a call and response:

“Who are we?” a young man asked.

“The 99 percent!” the occupiers responded.

The inchoate frustration of the vast majority of the American population at the current economic troubles is what drives the Occupy movement, and the occupiers — the “99 percenters,” as they call themselves — are united in opposition to the excess gains in wealth of America’s super-elite, the top 1 percent.

These days, statistical evidence of the yawning gap between the super-rich and everyone else is easy to come by. A Congressional Budget Office report released on Oct. 26 showed that over the past 30 years, the incomes of the top 1 percent of Americans grew by 275 percent, while everyone else experienced growth of just 65 percent.

The evidence of economic hardship is also easy to see among the occupiers, many of whom are unemployed. Emilio Arreola, 25, has been involved in Occupy L.A. since its beginning in late September at Pershing Square downtown. Arreola has been unemployed since leaving the Navy two years ago. His tent is his only residence.

“I went out and got all five of my forklift licenses, I’m working on my CDL [Commercial Driver License], and it’s just so horribly hard to get a job,” Arreola said.

Beyond their dissatisfaction with the current economic system, it is hard to discern what the Occupy Wall Street movement is trying to achieve — because the members of this leaderless movement themselves have not yet decided on goals.

Like the protests that swept through the Arab world this spring, the movement proudly proclaims itself a leaderless uprising. But unlike, say, the protests that toppled former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the Occupy Wall Street movement has not yet targeted a single agreed-upon villain or united behind any clear goals.

How Occupy will end

No one knows what difference Occupy Wall Street will turn out to make. 

This could the start of something big.  Maybe the burgeoning sense that something is not right in America will reach a critical mass.  It’s already showing up in the polls.  Maybe more and more ordinary Americans will wake up and smell the plutocracy.  The consensus will grow that the only way that income distribution could have become so out-of-whack is that the power in Washington isn’t in the hands of the people we elect; it belongs to the big corporations and Wall Street bankers and hedge fund managers who have the country by the short hairs.  We’re at the beginning of a tectonic shift in our politics, our culture, maybe even in our governance. 

Or the movement fizzles.  The demographics of the demonstrators don’t keep expanding.  Unemployment and foreclosure turn out not to be the contemporary equivalent of the draft’s role in mobilizing broad opposition to the war in Vietnam. Winter, and shrewder policing with less blowback, take a toll on the encampments.  Occupy becomes just another tale of the fall 2011 media scrum, alongside the Conrad Murray trial.  In retrospect we realize that our political elites have grown so dependent on our predators that the whole corrupt system is immune to challenge.  Occupy goes nowhere – there’s no wave election, no campaign finance reform, no reregulation or rule of law for the financial sector, no increase of progressivity in the tax code, no infrastructure rebuilt by no jobs program, no course correction for the American dream. 
 

Since no one really knows what Occupy’s impact will be tomorrow, there’s a contest going on today, a battle for control over how the story is being told right now.  And the way it’s framed could actually determine the way it will play out in real life.

The right’s strategy is: If we don’t build it, they won’t come. So its narrative is: These people are lazy, losers, hippies, stooges, drug-takers, a mob.  They don’t know what they want.  They want to destroy capitalism.  This is no Tea Party. Move along, there’s nothing to see here. 

It’s a bit incoherent, but they’re sticking to it, and their intention is to prevent any more of their pigeons – the 99 percenters – from figuring out how deeply they’ve been shafted by Koch-era robber barons and their political puppets.

The left, on the other hand, hears the strains of “Something’s Coming” in the air. Its aspirational narrative sees the pendulum swinging the other way.  A moral confidence is stirring. Yes, the political system is dysfunctional, but the urgency of protest will not be paralyzed by pragmatic cynicism.  We really can do it.  We can reclaim our country from the oligarchs.  We can recapture what America used to be about.  These Occupy encampments spreading from city to city?  That’s what it looks like when hope shucks off the victim script.

The arena where these warring narratives are slugging it out is in the media.  Fox, which has been the publicist, cheerleader, speakers bureau and enabler of the Tea Party, is of course relentlessly dismissive of Occupy.  Over on MSNBC, police bungling fuels support, and the messages on the demonstrators’ hand-made signs provide a counter-narrative to the corporate triumphalism that has dominated public discourse for decades.  CNN’s account of Occupy is whiplashed between the false equivalence its brand requires – kabuki pundit combat, always ending the same way: “We’ll have to leave it there” – and the need to hold eyeballs during commercials, which mandates you-won’t-want-to-miss-this alarmism.  The prestige press needs to play it both ways, in an only-time-will-tell frame, though it’s always safe to go meta: “Every Movement Needs a Logo” was the title of a New York Times gallery of graphic identities proposed by designers, while New York magazine asked an ad exec and a PR pro to give letter grades to the occupiers’ protest signs.

Social media, whose importance to the Arab Spring has become a benchmark of subsequent protests, is atwitter with people talking directly to themselves; it’s an organizing tool, and a gauge of popular sentiment, that doesn’t require the dots of the story to be connected in prefab patterns.  But no matter how immersed we may be in virtual and mediated reality, Occupy is an essentially offline phenomenon.  It has required real people in real places – not viral videos or Facebook pages—to give it credibility.  It is as local, grassroots, bottom-up and non-hierarchical a movement as they come – the antithesis of billionaire-funded astroturfing by the likes of FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity.  No one sleeping in those parks and plazas has a clue how this will all turn out.  But their sheer physical presence gives them a narrative authority that the media and the chattering class lack. 

Every day brings a fresh blizzard of data about the world.  But which information gets our attention, and how it acquires meaning, depends on the story-in-progress at the time.  A Congressional Budget Office study of income distribution can be the usual one-day story, like other CBO studies, or it can get massive coverage because Occupy put the topic on the nation’s front burner. Record-breaking oil company profits can be framed as just another business story, or it can be reported in the context of the industry’s climate change denial campaign, and the hold its lobbyist have over Congress, and our political system’s imbecilic failure to address our direst global problem.  Wall Street’s escape from accountability, its capacity to thwart even the most modest attempts to rein in future recklessness, can be a story about the regulatory process, or it can be a warning that there are dangers to democracy that our Founders’ checks and balances were unable to anticipate. 

“We are the 99%” could turn out to be a popgun, or it could be the shot heard round the world.  Just don’t let anyone tell you that the answer is already a foregone conclusion. 

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

L.A. substitute teacher fired over anti-Semitic remarks

A substitute teacher for the Los Angeles Unified School District has been fired after making anti-Semitic remarks.

Patricia McAllister said during an interview at an Occupy Los Angeles protest on Oct. 12 that “I think that the Zionist Jews who are running these big banks and our Federal Reserve, which is not run by the federal government—they need to be run out of this country.”

In announcing McAllister’s firing Tuesday, Los Angeles Schools Superintendent John Deasy said that although McAllister said during the interview that she was offering her own private opinion, the district can “never stand for behavior that is disrespectful, intolerant or discriminatory.”

The interview was conducted for Reason.tv, a Libertarian-leaning news organization, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Jewish groups rally in sukkah at Occupy Los Angeles

As part of the Occupy Los Angeles movement, hundreds of Angelenos have been living in tents outside downtown’s City Hall for several weeks. On Oct. 16, Jewish groups rallied in a sukkah alongside these temporary shelters.

“I think of a sukkah as a structure that’s full of vulnerability,” said Elissa Barrett, chief of regional operations for Progressive Jewish Alliance and Jewish Funds for Justice (PJA & JFSJ), a participant in the demonstration. “It forces us to look at what’s happening in the world around us.”

In solidarity with the protestors of Occupy Los Angeles — an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street and similarly anti-corporate — several Jewish clergy, community organizers and rabbinical students came together to organize the protest in the sukkah, billed as “Not Just a Sukkah: A JUST Sukkah at Occupy L.A.” 

The collaborators included Rabbi Jonathan Klein of CLUE-LA (Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice); Rabbi Jason van Leeuwen of Temple Ner Maarav; Lauren Henderson, a rabbinical student at American Jewish University (AJU); Rabbi Aryeh Cohen of American Jewish University; Charlie Carnow, a CLUE-LA board member; and Maya Barron of PJA & JFSJ. 

Around 1 p.m., approximately 100 people, with many more filtering in and out, gathered around the 10-by-10-by-8-foot sukkah located, as it happened, in the “anarchist section” of Occupy L.A., Klein said.

Participants recited chants, sang, danced and broke off into chevruta groups to study texts about Sukkot from Leviticus and the Mishnah. 

Approximately 300 tents have been erected as part of Occupy Los Angeles, and most house several people. On Oct. 15, the Occupy Los Angeles movement reached its greatest number of participants, with nearly 15,000 people taking part in a march from Pershing Square through the financial district and back to the Occupy site at City Hall, according to news reports.

Planning for the Occupy Los Angeles sukkah began earlier this month.

“Rabbi Jason van Leeuwen calls me and says, ‘We’ve got to do a sukkah down at Occupy L.A.,’ and I immediately thought of some of the people who would really get into that idea,” Klein said in an interview outside the sukkah. “Voila! A week-and-a-half later, we have a sukkah with over 100 people, probably 200 people, here learning Torah and learning about foreclosures and learning about the plight of tomato growers.”

Story continues after the jump

Throughout the day, Henderson and fellow AJU rabbinical student Joshua Corber — who said they planned to sleep in the sukkah that night — answered questions from passers-by about what, to many, looked like a strange, but welcoming, structure. Etrogs, lulavs, challahs and handouts about the day’s program covered a table, the only furniture in the sukkah. 

“The food hanging [from the ceiling] makes it look like it’s raining plentiful food. I think it’s great,” said Shane Portman, 31, who, with his fiancée, stopped to visit.

The sukkah builders didn’t need a permit, but Occupy Los Angeles organizers requested that the sukkah be approximately 10 feet by 10 feet, in accordance with city regulations; a height requirement wasn’t specified, Klein said.

Early that day, Klein and the others showed up with their materials. “It was wonderful … we parked across the street in a no-parking zone, and five guys with tattoos and lip piercings and everything ran across the street, pulled all the stuff, brought it over here, and we created our sukkah,” Klein said.

Prayer sessions were planned to take place each evening and, provided there are enough people, minyans in the mornings.

The “Just Sukkah” event participants hailed from numerous Jewish organizations, among them Habonim Dror, IKAR, the Sholem Community, PJA & JFSJ, The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring and the Jewish Labor Committee.

Members of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) and the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers (the latter advocating for the rights of farm workers) — neither of which is a Jewish group — also attended the rally in the sukkah. Beverly Roberts, a South Los Angeles resident and a member of ACCE, discussed her financial problems, her inability to get a loan from the bank and the possibility that she will face foreclosure on her home.

Barrett said the Jewish presence at Occupy L.A. did not automatically indicate her organization’s support for the movement. Because part of the mandate of being Jewish is to ask questions, she said, PJA & JFSJ came to learn more about what’s been happening on the ground.

“We’re happy to have people engaging in the conversation. This isn’t about validating or invalidating,” she said.

Klein, meanwhile, threw his full support behind the Occupy Los Angeles demonstrators. “It’s purely around the question of economic justice …  So, from a CLUE perspective, we’re completely on board.”

Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR weighed in on the motives of the people behind the movement.

“I think many people are driven here for a lot of different reasons — some of which I agree with, and some of which are much more challenging for me personally,” Brous said. “But what I think is great is there is a rising of voices in this country and around the world calling for economic justice, for more opportunity, for more possibility and for a better future … I think that’s a very good thing.” 

Jewish activists try to fight Wall Street—and some protesters’ anti-Semitism

The most unloved man in Zuccotti Park, the epicenter of the Occupy Wall Street protests, isn’t a Wall Street banker but a fellow who wears a baseball cap and carries signs denouncing “Jewish bankers.”

The man, who told Slate his name is David Smith, comes almost daily to broadcast what he believes are God-given messages against Jews, Zionists and President Obama, whom he calls a “Jewish puppet.” One recent placard read “Google: Zionists control Wall Street.”

Organizers and activists have tried to provide a counterpoint when Smith speaks to reporters and gawkers, holding their own signs deriding him. “A—hole” reads one. “Who’s paying this guy?” reads another. In one video, demonstrators nearby can be seen chanting “Nazis: Go home!”

“Everyone’s been trying to get rid of him,” said Dan Sieradski, a Jewish activist who organized a mass Yom Kippur service at the site of the protests, which are now entering their second month. “But the police say he has a right to stay there, and he does.”

Though the man is one of the few overtly anti-Jewish protesters at the site in New York, he is a sign of an undercurrent of anti-Semitism that runs through some of those protesting at the Occupy Wall Street gatherings across the United States.

While movement organizers and sympathizers are quick to argue that such protesters are a fringe element, they are a reminder of the small proportion of Americans that still clings to the canard that Jews control the nation’s money. According to the Anti-Defamation League, 16 percent of Americans hold anti-Semitic beliefs about Jewish control of the banking system.

“With any kind of populist movement, you’re going to have that kind of expression popping out,” said the ADL’s civil rights director, Deborah Lauter. “But this is a particularly sensitive one in the Jewish community, and we have to make sure it doesn’t take hold.”

For the Jewish activists who see great merit in the Occupy Wall Street protests and have been trying to amplify their impact, they have had to do double duty tamping down anti-Semitic and, in some cases, anti-Zionist expressions. That task has gained greater urgency as critics of the protests—within and outside the Jewish community—have pointed to the anti-Semitic ferment of a few to disparage the larger anti-Wall Street movement.

The conservative Emergency Committee for Israel released a video calling for Democratic leaders to denounce the protests. It featured both Smith at Zuccotti Park and a young New Yorker named Danny Cline who was caught on video telling a yarmulke-wearing man to “go back to Israel.” Cline later claimed to be Jewish and a descendant of Holocaust survivors.

Radio personality Rush Limbaugh said the protesters’ rants against bankers and Wall Street were coded references to Jews. Similarly, Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin accused politicians and the media of hypocrisy for a lack of coverage of the anti-Semitic content compared to coverage of racism at Tea Party events.

For their part, Jewish activists involved in the protests acknowledged that an Israeli organizer of the social protests that swept Israel over the summer was booed when he came to speak at Zuccotti Park. But, they noted, the heckler was kicked out.

“Anti-Zionists come and try to make it about Israel,” Sieradski said. “We accept them into the movement, but we don’t allow them to hijack the movement.”

Overall, the Jewish protesters argued, the focus on anti-Semitism is exaggerated.

“Wherever you go to a public demonstration,” said Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the left-wing Tikkun Magazine, “you always have a few nutcases standing on the side.”

Lerner, who is based in San Francisco, helped organize Occupy Wall Street protests in Washington state. He said the strategy should be to ignore the occasional anti-Semite.

“Unless you’re a movement that beats up outsiders, you’re going to have people on the periphery show up,” he said.

But detractors say the anti-Semitism is not just a fringe element. Among other things, they cite support for the protests by the Canadian magazine Adbusters, which was widely condemned for a 2004 story that focused on the influence of Jewish neoconservatives in drumming up support for the Iraq war and featured a list of 50 neoconservatives with asterisks next to the names of the Jews. In 2010, the magazine published a story comparing the Gaza Strip to the Warsaw Ghetto.

Protesters say that beyond promoting the protests in its magazine, Adbusters has had no influence on their actual content.

Defenders of the protests also note that some Tea Party rallies have had offensive messages, including Hitler analogies. Pressure by Jewish organizations and others have helped marginalize those voices.

After being inundated by concerned calls after anti-Semitic manifestations at the Occupy Wall Street protests, the ADL issued a statement saying it is keeping an eye on the protests but does not believe that there is significant anti-Semitism.

“While we believe that these expressions are not representative of the larger views of the OWS movement, it is still critical for organizers, participants and supporters of these rallies to condemn such bigoted statements clearly and forcefully,” ADL National Director Abraham Foxman said.

Sieradski told JTA that protesters are printing pamphlets explaining how to confront the anti-Semites. He also accused critics of crying wolf and making it harder to fight real anti-Semitism.

“The only people who yell at us are Jews calling us traitors and self-hating Jews,” Sieradski said. “We haven’t encountered many anti-Semites, but we’re still worried about it. It is in every part of our lives, and we need to be ever vigilant.”

Video shows anti-Semitism at Occupy Wall Street protests

Anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attacks during Occupy Wall Street protests in New York are shown in a video put out by a neo-Conservative political group.

The one-minute video, in which Jews are blamed for the trouble in American financial markets and told to “go back to Israel,” was created by the Emergency Committee for Israel. It has had more than 20,000 views since it appeared Oct. 13 on YouTube. The video also shows signs raised against Israel’s occupation of Gaza; Israel ceded Gaza to the Palestinians in 2005.

The video will air on television in New York and Washington, Politico reported.

The Emergency Committee for Israel is focused on criticizing President Obama’s Israel policy and is urging Jews to vote Republican in the 2012 presidential election. Its video calls on Obama and U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the House of Representatives’ minority leader, to “stand up to the mob” of Occupy Wall Street protesters.

Among the signs showed by the video are “Gaza supports the occupation of Wall Street” and “Hitler’s Bankers.”

Many participants in the Occupy Wall Street protests are Jewish.

Why I went to Occupy L.A. instead of synagogue

A little more than a month ago, I became a Bat Mitzvah. In Judaism, that means I am now an adult and have pledged to keep the traditions of my faith. And yet it was for those very reasons that I decided to spend Yom Kippur – the holiest day of the Jewish year – joining the protesters of Occupy L.A. instead of going to synagogue.

No, my parents weren’t thrilled when I first brought up skipping services on this important holiday, but since my Mom marched on Washington for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, I think she at least understood where I was coming from. Also, my mother knows first-hand what it’s like to lose her job in this recession. She was laid off from the newspaper where she worked for 18 years before she got hired by the Huffington Post and AOL.

Yom Kippur is the day of atonement, a day where we reflect on how we could be better people and apologize to anyone who we may have hurt. I think it’s time for the big corporations and banks in America to say they are sorry too.

And it certainly is time for people to stop ignoring the pain of others. We need to stand up for one another and against those who are doing us harm. That’s what Occupy L.A. is doing. It is part of a nationwide protest against corporate greed and the hardships that have fallen on families across the country.

There is a saying that goes, “If you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” If you are standing by and not doing anything, you are part of the problem.

Too many people are out of work and are losing their houses in foreclosure. Too many people are sleeping in their cars or living on the street after the banks take everything. The banks, meanwhile, are still giving their executives bonuses.

I live in Malibu, a city that everyone thinks is a place filled with rich people. Trust me, there are people in Malibu who are hurting too. I know kids at school who have had to move out of their homes. I know families who are starting to fall apart because of all the stress. Our schools have one fundraiser after another and people feel bad because they can’t afford to give anymore. Our eighth grade class is collecting cans of food to help feed people. In my synagogue, we are also collecting food for food banks. The need is so great and people are just being squeezed too hard. It is time for the government to pitch in.

I believe that by joining the protesters, I am not just taking a stand, but I am fulfilling my role of being an adult. Only kids get to ignore problems. I am also fulfilling my role as a Jew, which is to help people who need my help. I want my voice to be heard. I am joining those kids whose parents have lost their jobs and lost their homes and I want to be counted among the people who are trying to change America back to being a place we can all be proud of living in.

I hope G-d understands my choice. I know He will because He planted the idea in my head.

Occupy K Street

It’s premature to give the Nobel Peace Prize to those Occupy Wall Street kids.  But it also may be too soon to blow them off as clueless hipsters “with nowhere to go,” as New York Times columnist ” target=”_hplink”>Norman Lear chair in entertainment, media and society at the USC martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Marty Kaplan: The Monsters Are Due on Maple Streets

The power has gone out in a typical American town.  Wait—it’s not just the electricity.  The phones don’t work, either.  Portable radios are dead.  Cars won’t start. 

But then lawn mowers and cars and lights inexplicably start and stop on their own. What’s going on?  A meteor?  Sunspots?  Or are there, as Tommy’s comic book suggests, aliens among us, preparing for a takeover? Suspicion poisons the air. Neighbor turns on neighbor. A scapegoat is blamed. A shot is fired.  Panic, madness, riot.

And while the humans behave monstrously, the real monsters watch from a nearby hilltop, working a little gizmo that messes with the power on Maple Street and marveling how easy it is to manipulate these earthlings into destroying themselves.

In what is arguably the best “Twilight Zone” episode ever, “” target=”_hplink”>declared their willingness to return to the table and negotiate a shared sacrifice. The monsters are on Wall Street, where state pension funds were sunk into toxic sub-prime mortgage-backed securities.  The monsters are on K Street, where lobbyists are fighting financial industry oversight. The monsters are the politicians who are using Wisconsin’s deficit as a pretext to ” target=”_hplink”>so be it” language of their leadership, you’d think that the federal deficit is caused by the very people who who’ve been suffering the most in this recession.

But the monsters aren’t low-income ” target=”_hplink”>health insurance to cover them; or ” target=”_hplink”>Pell Grants; or people who think their government’s job includes preventing their air and water from ” target=”_hplink”>billionaires who’ve benefited from a massive transfer of wealth from the middle to the top and whose political puppets protect them from paying their fair share of taxes.

They’re the corporations whose cash has convinced Congress to deregulate industry after industry, despite all evidence that it is the enforcement of rules – not the magic of the marketplace—that protects the public’s rights.

They’re the defense contractors and pork appropriators who’ve used the cover of “national security” to shield the Pentagon’s budget and its procurement process from the cuts and reforms that even Republicans like the Secretary of Defense are advocating.

They’re the front groups and propagandists, like FreedomWorks and Fox, who use class warfare and culture wars in order to turn Americans against their own economic interests.

They’re the Supreme Court justices whose Citizens United decision, overthrowing a century of settled law, has made our campaign finance system an open sewer, and whose indifference to ” target=”_hplink”>coming case promises to throw sick people back onto the tender mercies of insurers and to destroy our best hope to curb Medicare costs – further ballooning the deficit and providing cover for even more draconian cuts.

The game in Washington is to use the deficit as camouflage for destroying government’s capacity to promote the general welfare.  The game in Wisconsin and other states whose new Republican governors and legislative majorities are feeling their oats is to shelter the income of the wealthiest, and to balance the budget on the backs of the middle class. 

At the end of the episode, Rod Serling says this:  “The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices to be found only in the minds of men.  For the record: Prejudices can kill, and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own—for the children, and the children yet unborn.  And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the twilight zone.”

Sometimes it’s hard to watch the news and not think that things are surreal.  The other day, when what’s been happening in Madison reminded me of what happened on “Maple Street,” I suddenly realized the theme music that goes with it.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of ” target=”_hplink”>USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Creditors force Ezri Namvar into involuntary bankruptcy

Businessman and philanthropist Ezri Namvar was once a pillar of the local Iranian Jewish community, a trusted friend to whom many in the community loaned freely and without fear.

Now Namvar and his investment company, Namco Capital Group, Inc., are accused of losing as much as $400 million loaned to him.

For the last three months, lawsuits have been filed and extensive negotiations have been taking place to resolve the hundreds of millions of dollars in disputes between Namvar’s creditors and the Brentwood Iranian Jewish businessman. On Dec. 22, two dozen creditors filed an involuntary bankruptcy petition against Namvar and Namco.

The petition follows 17 lawsuits filed against Namvar, Namco, entities owned by Namvar and other Namvar family members alleging breach of contract and contractual fraud in a case that attorneys estimate involves 300 to 400 creditors, the majority of whom are Iranian Jews.

“Disputes happen all the time, but the magnitude of this case is huge,” said A. David Youssefyeh, a local Iranian Jewish attorney who is advising nearly 20 Iranian Jewish creditors in this case, of whom only a small group participated in the filing of the petition. “This case hits people in the community from such a broad socio-economic level — it includes everyone, from students that had entrusted Mr. Namvar with their bar mitzvah money, to retired people who invested their entire life savings in Namco and were paying their living expenses from the interest they received from the company.”

The creditors include investors in Namco Capital Group, those who lent money to Namco and received a personal guarantee from Namvar, lenders to Namco who received a lien on property owed by Namvar or one his entities and those who gave profits from their real estate transactions (1031 funds) to Namvar, according to the lawsuits.

“For 1031 money, the IRS will allow delayed payment of taxes on profits people give to a facilitator, such as Mr. Namvar, to hold for them until they find a substitute property to purchase,” Youssefyeh said. “But now that that money is gone, the people that entrusted Mr. Namvar with the money may potentially have to pay taxes on monies that they don’t have.”

Problems first arose nearly five months ago, when various creditors discovered they were unable to retrieve funds they had invested in Namco or given to Namvar, and that they were also no longer receiving interest payments from monies invested his company, Youssefyeh said.

While some community members filed suits to regain their money, the majority hoped instead to resolve the issue outside of the courts, in the traditional manner of the tight-knit community.

“Back in Iran, whenever a businessman in the Jewish community was unable to pay his creditors, the community leaders would get together and devise a plan to help the businessman get back on his feet financially so that he could repay those debts,” said Ebrahim Yahid, a community activist in his 80s who is a close friend of the Namvar family.

Indeed, such a group was organized after a meeting on Nov. 5 between Namvar and Namco’s Iranian Jewish creditors, according to a statement released to The Jewish Journal by the group on Dec. 16. Namco’s creditors first nominated and then voted to create a provisional committee, including prominent, independent community members. The group planned to trace all of Namvar’s assets and propose solutions to the creditors, according to the statement.

The all-volunteer committee included retired banker and former president of the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF) Solomon Agahi and former IAJF Secretary General Sam Kermanian, as well as businessmen Jack Rochel and Nejat Sarshar. They had their first meeting on Nov. 24, according to the statement, and they were offered full authority by Namvar to resolve the disputes. The committee also hired an independent forensic accountant and attorney.

Nevertheless, talks broke down, and Youssefyeh said he advised his clients to file the bankruptcy petition when his negotiations with the local Iranian Jewish community leaders and Namco’s attorney failed to secure a deal to retrieve their investments for his clients and the nearly 200 other local Iranian Jewish creditors.

Youssefyeh said he became frustrated because Namvar’s paybacks seemed designed to protect the wealthy creditors, rather than the small investors whose life savings had been jeopardized. “What particularly made me mad was that with the $12 [million] to $13 million, Mr. Namvar could pay off 190 people, most of which needed the money for their survival, that had entrusted Mr. Namvar with $200,000 or less,” Youssefyeh said. “But people close to him told me that instead of Mr .Namvar paying off these creditors, Mr. Namvar had earmarked the remaining $17 million that he would receive from the sale of his Wilshire Bundy Plaza building to pay his 1031 obligations first, in order to avoid any potential liability arising from the 1031 funds not being available to the investors.”

Youssefyeh said bankruptcy was the only available option to protect his clients, because it allows the courts to distribute Namvar’s assets and even reverses settlement payments Namvar had made to his more affluent creditors, who have the financial means to proceed with litigation against him.

According to the bankruptcy petition, filed in U.S. Federal Bankruptcy Court in downtown Los Angeles, the dozen creditors include both Iranian Jews and non-Jews, with more than $7 million in claims against Namco Capital Group and $7 million in personal claims against Namvar.

While members of the provisional committee declined to comment on the filing, legal experts said the petition nullifies the committee’s ability to settle the case, giving the courts the responsibility of distributing Namvar and Namco’s assets.

Some community leaders, who asked not to be identified, argued that the bankruptcy petition could hurt the community’s numerous creditors, because they might never receive their money back, since the case could take years to litigate and any available monies could be eaten up by attorneys’ fees as well as other costs.

Youssefyeh defended the bankruptcy petition. “The [provisional] committee had not taken any steps to take control of Mr. Namvar’s assets and in so many words said that they were not qualified to disperse his assets,” he said, adding, “yes, it will be painful and take a long time, but at the end of the day there was no other viable solution that would have frozen the assets, brought all of the preferential transfers and securitization money back into the pot.”

Local Iranian Jews had been investing with Namvar and Namco since the late 1990s. The relationships were based on his family’s reputation for being honorable as well as his success in real estate development, Yahid said.

Some have compared Namvar’s situation to the Bernard Madoff scandal, which involves a Ponzi scheme, but this is unfair, according to Namvar’s friends and community supporters, who say Namvar’s losses are due simply to the economic downturn.

“I know he [Namvar] did not have bad intentions — the economy around the whole world has gone downward, including the real estate market here in Los Angeles, and everyone is hurting, including himself,” Yahid said. “If he really had bad intentions, he would not have welcomed the committee to resolve this case, but would have instead declared immediate bankruptcy himself and destroyed the lives of hundreds in our community.”

Will recession fuel a return to public schools?

Throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District, the recession is prompting middle-class parents to take a look at public middle and high schools they have long disdained. Private schools are just too expensive for many people.

A large number of Jews, whose heritage and culture put a high value on education, are in this economically stressed category. That is why the present and future of the Los Angeles schools is a Jewish issue, one that deserves a place high up on the community’s agenda.

“The number of people who can’t afford private school is increasing,” said Marlene Canter, the Los Angeles school board member who has for two terms represented the Westside and its many Jewish residents and who is about to step down. I met with Canter and her field representative, Paola Santana, for breakfast last week in Westwood to talk about her efforts to persuade Westside residents to send their children to public schools. She represents the Fourth District, which extends from the Palisades and Brentwood to Marina del Rey and includes Mar Vista, Palms, Westwood, Westchester and Venice. It also reaches as far east as Hollywood.

We discussed the current recession’s impact on Jewish families who began abandoning the LAUSD generations ago, when court-ordered desegregation touched off a white exodus from the school system. While this was happening, Los Angeles’ population was changing, and many schools became predominantly Latino. The change is reflected in high schools in Canter’s district.

University High School’s student body is almost 60 percent Latino, 18.6 percent black, 8.9 per cent Asian and 10.3 percent white. At Venice High, Latinos comprise almost 73 percent, whites 11 percent, blacks almost 11 percent and Asians almost 4 percent. Hollywood High School’s students are 77.8 percent Latino, 9.4 percent white, 4.7 percent black and 3.8 percent Asian.

Canter said she starts with the premise that “every child should have an opportunity to get a great public education in a public school.”

You can’t very well make the argument that the schools throughout the Los Angeles district are great schools. The district is huge and covers the Southland’s poorest and toughest neighborhoods. LAUSD’s leadership is unstable and uncertain, smothering initiative with a huge blanket of bureaucracy. The teachers’ union opposes attempts to change work rules that shelter the incompetent. So does the principals’ union. (Yes, unbelievably, they have a union, too).

But there are many talented teachers and principals in the Los Angeles schools. I saw some bad principals, but good ones, too, when I wrote about the schools for the Los Angeles Times more than a decade ago, and I was reminded of the high-quality personnel in September when I met with Los Angeles High School teachers for a column for Truthdig, the web magazine. I was impressed.

In this climate, Canter is stepping up her efforts to urge parents to consider sending their children to middle and high schools in their neighborhoods. There are, she acknowledged, other choices within LAUSD — charter schools and magnets. But charters are often located far from home, and for admission to magnets, parents must navigate through a complicated lottery system based on points. Local schools are making an attempt to improve, and they could be an attractive choice.

What’s more, many public schools aren’t the same monolithic campuses that they once were. There’s been a movement to create small learning centers, offering special programs known as Schools for Advanced Studies, for example, for honors students, or specialized “academies” for kids particularly interested in math, science or performing arts, among others. These schools-within-schools are very popular, creating not only specialized learning centers for the students, but also a sense of community. And they take only a simple application for admission. You can find them in many LAUSD middle and high schools.

Earlier this year, Canter arranged for Ray Cortines, the recently named LAUSD school superintendent who at the time was deputy superintendent, to meet with a group of parents at a Westside Coffee Bean to tout the virtues of University High. Kathy Gonnella, principal of Emerson Middle School, has also hosted a wine and cheese evening for parents. My daughter, mother of two children, went to the latter and came back impressed. Earlier this year, I attended an evening meeting at Webster Middle School, where several principals pitched their Westside middle and high schools.

“What we are doing is breaking down perceptions,” Canter said, attitudes that have been 30 years in the making, dating back to the desegregation controversy.

She said the principals and teachers have to play a big role in bringing about the change. “Principals in private schools spend a lot of time marketing themselves,” she said. But in the past, she said, “our principals have never tried.” The schools, she said, “must open the doors to the parents.”

In addition, she said, the school board must make marketing LAUSD a high priority.

Of course the need to bring back middle-class parents extends far beyond the Jewish community. It is important throughout the district. It is unfair, unjust and simply dead wrong for a parent to be forced to mortgage the family future to send a kid to a private school that may or may not provide the education the child needs. Harvard Westlake is a good school, but graduation from there is not an automatic ticket to the Ivy League.

Los Angeles’ public high schools should be a path to Harvard, UCLA, Berkeley, USC, Cal State Northridge or any other college. As a matter of fact, they already often are. The district is making an effort to improve and has succeeded in many schools.

With more parents considering such an alternative, it is up to the L.A. school district to convince them that it is a good choice.

Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Bill Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at bw.boyarsky@verizon.net.

Panel discusses strategies for dealing with recession

Talking investment strategy might not top everyone’s agenda for a bright Sunday morning, but about 75 local residents gathered at Young Israel of Century City on Dec. 21 to do just that.

The Pico Boulevard synagogue opened its doors to the community for a panel discussion on the economy, its effects on real estate and stocks and what people can do to get by amid the ever-darkening financial forecast.

“We have to help those in crisis, and right now, we’re all in crisis,” said the Orthodox congregation’s Rabbi Elazar Muskin. “A synagogue is not just a place of prayer and learning — it has to be a family that cares for the needs of its members and the community at large.”

As the Jewish community reels from monetary losses, those needs include advice on everything from investing in index funds to choosing an insurance company. All four panelists agreed on at least one thing: Living modestly and without excess is coming back into fashion.

“The days of going to the bank and getting lines of equity are over,” said Jacob Hausman, owner and broker of Los Angeles-based Real Estate Finance Connection. “We have to live within our means again. This is the traditional way, which is sensible, has good traction and is grounded. It’s the way of the future.”

Selwyn Gerber, CPA, economist and investment adviser, also touted a return to traditional financial values. After years of spending freely, he said, U.S. consumers are literally spent.

“We’re at the beginning of the end of an era,” said Gerber, who made a point of referring to the economic downturn as a depression instead of a recession. “This is the beginning of the end of America’s global power…. The days of California being this great place with a booming economy are gone.”

Gerber’s recommendations for living in this “radically new environment” included diversifying investments, avoiding flavor-of-the-month investing (hedge funds, he said, are “a Jackie Mason joke waiting to be told”) and choosing index-based equities and secure bonds.

“You shouldn’t have to think too much about your investments — it should be like watching paint dry,” he said. “The key is to resist the impulse to react” to the stock market’s bumpy path.

But stocks are no safe haven for life insurance, said Richard Horowitz, president of Management Brokers Insurance Agency. He cautioned against buying insurance invested in the stock market and recommended checking the safety of insurance companies through a rating agency before purchasing a policy.

“You want to make sure you don’t outlive your insurance company,” Horowitz said, only half in jest.

On the real estate front, Hausman pointed to traditionally Jewish areas as bright spots in Los Angeles’ otherwise bleak landscape. Neighborhoods like the Pico-Robertson area, he said, won’t suffer as much as other locales because the enclave — with its shuls, schools and kosher restaurants — will always have value for the community.

“There is strong infrastructure in the Jewish community,” Hausman said, adding that falling rents in these neighborhoods offer a window for younger Jewish families to move in. “This is an opportunity for families to move back into the neighborhood, if at one time that wasn’t a choice. That is a silver lining.”

Alan Gindi, president of ABRA Management Inc. and board president of Yeshiva University of Los Angeles (YULA) Girls High School, said people will need to make sacrifices wherever they can.

“We obviously have no idea how long or how severe our current economic downturn will be,” he said. “In difficult times, we’re much better off securing a small brick house as opposed to building a large house made out of cardboard.”

Hope vs. slippery slope

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Is Bernie Madoff Jewish?  Very. Oy.


Bernard Madoff at a 2007 roundtable discussion with Justin Fox, Ailsa Roell, Robert A. Schwartz, Muriel Seibert, and Josh Stampfli.



“It’s all just one big lie.”

With those words Bernard Madoff confessed to senior executives of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities that the $17 billion hedge fund company  he  founded was nothing more than a Ponzi scheme.
 
According to Timeonline.com, Madoff is at the center of “the largest investor swindle ever blamed on a single individual.”
 
Madoff was arrested Thursday by Federal agents and charged with securities fraud.  In its complaint the Securities and Exchange Commission said Madoff was at the head of an “ongoing $50 billion swindle.”  He could face 25 years in prison.

The news that broke today on the front pages of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal reverberated in Jewish communities across the world.

“A lot of Jewish charities had investments with him,” one prominent investor — who said he had no connection to Madoff — told The Jewish Journal. “So did a lot of Jews.”

The collapse of the Madoff business leaves a mess that is yet to be sorted out and whose victims are just coming to the fore.

But what’s already clear is that Madoff used his ties to the Jewish community to garner at least some of his ill-used funds.



UPDATE SUNDAY 1:41 p.m.:

By Sunday the initial casualty reports showed that Madoff’s crimes reached deep into the Los Angeles Jewish community. 

“It has come to our attention that the Jewish Community Foundation [Los Angeles] is included among a number of major institutions as well asindividuals who may have been victimized by an alleged fraud,” wrote Jewish Community Foundation Board Chair Cathy Siegel Weiss and President and CEO Marvin Schotland in a letter sent to board members.

Regretfully, the Foundation was one of those clients. Mr. Madoff was highly regarded and his firm has been one of the most prominent firms on Wall Street for decades. We were shocked to learn of this alleged fraud.

Some $18 million of the Foundation’s Common Investment Pool (currently valued at 11% of its assets) was invested with Madoff, according to the letter.The CIP represents endowments from a variety of long-established Jewish organizations. The Journal is investigating which participants were involved and how much they stand to lose, and whether officials can expect any sort of remediation.

Meanwhile, there are reports that many other local institutions and individuals have been hit by the scandal.  Senior Writer Brad Greenberg and blogger Dean Rotbart are investigating and verifying these reports and will have updates here.



Madoff is a trustee of the Yeshiva University and a long-time philanthropist in Jewish circles.
 
According to Yeshiva University, “Bernard L. Madoff, a member of the University’s Board of Trustees since 1996, was elected chairman of the Board of Directors of Sy Syms School of Business in 2000. Mr. Madoff is chairman of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, one of the nation’s largest third-market dealers in New York Stock Exchange and over-the-counter securities.
A benefactor of the University, Mr. Madoff recently made a major gift to the Sy Syms School.”
 
The first known charity victim, according to JTA, is the The Robert I. Lappin Foundation in Salem, Mass. which gave away about $1.5 million to Jewish causes.
 
After Madoff’s arrest, The Robert I. Lappin Foundation in Salem laid off all of its employees and locked its doors on Friday after its benefactor’s assets were frozen because they were invested with Madoff.

“Mr. Lappin investments were frozen,” the foundation’s executive director of the foundation Deborah Coltin told JTA. “The assets are frozen. We have no money. The foundation cannot access its money.”

Lappin, who was reached by JTA Friday afternoon, said that he lost $8 million – the entirety of his foundation’s money – because it was invested with Madoff. Lappin, who had been involved financially with Madoff since 1991 also took a “significant” hit personally. He said that he knew nothing of Madoff’s fraudulent activities.

The foundation, which gave away about $1.5 million per year to Jewish causes, let go all of its workers, one fulltime employee and six part-time employees.
 
Forbes details the fall of Madoff
 
“Bernard Madoff is a longstanding leader in the financial services industry,” his lawyer Dan Horwitz told reporters outside a downtown Manhattan courtroom where he was charged. “We will fight to get through this unfortunate set of events.”
 
A shaken Madoff stared at the ground as reporters peppered him with questions. He was released after posting a $10 million bond secured by his Manhattan apartment.
 
The SEC filed separate civil charges.
 
“Our complaint alleges a stunning fraud — both in terms of scope and duration,” said Scott Friestad, the SEC’s deputy enforcer. “We are moving quickly and decisively to stop the scheme and protect the remaining assets for investors.”
 
The SEC said it appeared that virtually all of the assets of his hedge fund business were missing.
 
Madoff had long kept the financial statements for his hedge fund business under “lock and key,” according to prosecutors, and was “cryptic” about the firm.
 
And Reuters has the story here:

REUTERS – Edith Honan and Dan Wilchins:
 

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Bernard Madoff, a quiet force on Wall Street for decades, was arrested and charged on Thursday with allegedly running a $50 billion “Ponzi scheme” in what may rank among the biggest fraud cases ever.

The former chairman of the Nasdaq Stock Market is best known as the founder of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC, the closely-held market-making firm he launched in 1960. But he also ran a hedge fund that U.S. prosecutors said racked up $50 billion of fraudulent losses.

Madoff told senior employees of his firm on Wednesday that “it’s all just one big lie” and that it was “basically, a giant Ponzi scheme”, with estimated investor losses of about $50 billion, according to the U.S. Attorney’s criminal complaint against him.

A Ponzi scheme is a swindle offering unusually high returns, with early investors paid off with money from later investors.

On Thursday, two agents for the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation entered Madoff’s New York apartment.

“There is no innocent explanation,” Madoff said, according to the criminal complaint. He told the agents that it was all his fault, and that he “paid investors with money that wasn’t there”, according to the complaint.

The $50 billion allegedly lost would make the hedge fund one of the biggest frauds in history. When former energy trading giant Enron filed for bankruptcy in 2001, one of the largest at the time, it had $63.4 billion in assets.
U.S. prosecutors charged Madoff, 70, with a single count of securities fraud.

They said he faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $5 million.
The Securities and Exchange Commission filed separate civil charges against Madoff.

“Our complaint alleges a stunning fraud — both in terms of scope and duration,” said Scott Friestad, the SEC’s deputy enforcer. “We are moving quickly and decisively to stop the scheme and protect the remaining assets for investors.”

Dan Horwitz, Madoff’s lawyer, told reporters outside a downtown Manhattan courtroom where he was charged, “Bernard Madoff is a longstanding leader in the financial services industry. We will fight to get through this unfortunate set of events.”

A shaken Madoff stared at the ground as reporters peppered him with questions. He was released after posting a $10 million bond secured by his Manhattan apartment.

Authorities, citing a document filed by Madoff with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on Jan. 7, 2008, said Madoff’s investment advisory business served between 11 and 25 clients and had a total of about $17.1 billion in assets under management. Those clients may have included other funds that in turn had many investors.

The SEC said it appeared that virtually all of the assets of his hedge fund business were missing.

CONSISTENT RETURNS

An investor in the hedge fund said it generated consistent returns, which was part of the attraction. Since 2004, annual returns averaged around 8 percent and ranged from 7.3 percent to 9 percent, but last decade returns were typically in the low-double digits, the investor said.

The fund told investors it followed a “split strike conversion” strategy, which entailed owning stock and buying and selling options to limit downside risk, said the investor, who requested anonymity.

Jon Najarian, an acquaintance of Madoff who has traded options for decades, said “Many of us questioned how that strategy could generate those kinds of returns so consistently.”

Najarian, co-founder of optionmonster.com, once tried to buy what was then the Cincinnati Stock Exchange when Madoff was a major seatholder on the exchange. Najarian met with Madoff, who rejected his bid.

“He always seemed to be a straight shooter. I was shocked by this news,” Najarian said.

‘LOCK AND KEY’

Madoff had long kept the financial statements for his hedge fund business under “lock and key,” according to prosecutors, and was “cryptic” about the firm. The hedge fund business was located on a separate floor from the market-making business.

Madoff has been conducting a Ponzi scheme since at least 2005, the U.S. said. Around the first week of December, Madoff told a senior employee that hedge fund clients had requested about $7 billion of their money back, and that he was struggling to pay them.

Investors have been pulling money out of hedge funds, even those performing well, in an effort to reduce risk in their portfolios as the global economy weakens.

The fraud alleged here could further encourage investors to pull money from hedge funds.

“This is a major blow to confidence that is already shattered — anyone on the fence will probably try to take their money out,” said Doug Kass, president of hedge fund Seabreeze Partners Management. Kass noted that investors that put in requests to withdraw their money can subsequently decide to leave it in the fund if they wish.

Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities has more than $700 million in capital, according to its website.

Madoff remains a member of Nasdaq OMX Group Inc’s nominating committee, and his firm is a market maker for about 350 Nasdaq stocks, including Apple, EBay and Dell according to the website.

The website also states that Madoff himself has “a personal interest in maintaining the unblemished record of value, fair-dealing, and high ethical standards that has always been the firm’s hallmark.”

In the wake of the scandal, Internet message boards are alive with anti-Semitic vitriol.
 
The web site dealbreaker.com provides a list of Madoff’s victims supplied by CNBC’s  David Faber:

  • Fund of Funds
  • European banks
  • remont Advisers
  • “market confidence”
  • JEWS

The comments on that page reveal the kind of anti-Semitic writing that scandals involving Jewish financiers unleash with clockwork precision.
 
A sampling:

  • LOL Jews!…
  • Looks like a lot of Jews might be converting to Muslim soon….in prison….
  • Now that the JEW has been thrown down the well, is our country free?LETS THROW A BIG PARTY!!!

The message boards at the web site Stormfront, where neo-Nazis go to play, is rife with comments like, “One of satan’s children doing what comes naturally.”

Hey. If it’s small comfort the prosecutor in the case is Jewish, and it was Madoff’s sons who turned their crooked dad in.

Thousands of small Jewish investors who played by the rules and worked and saved are now financially ruined because of this man. For all but your garden variety bigots, one horrifically monstrously putrid apple doesn’t mean squat about the whole tree.

 

Kadima cuts costs via Community Tuition Partnership

Kadima Hebrew Academy/Kadima Heschel West Middle School is confronting the economic crisis by reducing tuition school-wide for 2009-2010 by an average of 20 percent.

Kadima hopes the move — the first of its kind in the Los Angeles area — will encourage struggling families to keep their kids enrolled at the private day school and make Jewish education seem more financially feasible to those who formerly could not afford it.

“We wanted to find a way to make our day school education more affordable for more parents,” said Dr. Barbara Gereboff, head of school. “A couple of our families have come in and said times are tough and they don’t know how they’re going to make it work. We decided it was time to make an innovative, bold move outside of the normal paradigm to make that possible.”

The West Hills school joined community supporters and parents who could afford to donate extra funds in a partnership to subsidize the tuition cut. The Community Tuition Partnership, which will take effect in the 2009-2010 academic year, will lower costs for the entire K-8 student body: kindergarten students currently paying $16,273 for 2008-2009 next year would pay $13,070; elementary school fees would fall from $18,314 to $14,300; and middle school rates would drop from $20,910 to $16,905. New enrollees pay an extra one-time entry fee, but total tuition and fees are slightly lower if families pay for the year in full upfront.

“Most schools in the last few years have continued to increase tuition, in Los Angeles and across the country,” board of trustees president Shawn Evenhaim said. “What we’ve done is we’ve pushed a large part of our community away because it just wasn’t accessible anymore. We wanted to look at what we could do to correct that.”

This year, many families receiving financial aid asked for increased aid, and several families that had never applied for financial aid before did so for the first time, Evenhaim said.

But simply increasing financial aid wasn’t addressing the extra stress put on middle class families, Gereboff said. Even as the economic downturn began to plunge formerly stable households into financial turmoil, many parents resisted making the psychological adjustment necessary to ask for help.

“Many middle-class parents didn’t see themselves as people who should apply for financial aid, so they wouldn’t even walk in the door to begin with,” she said.

Evenhaim also said he spoke to parents who couldn’t afford a day school education on their own, but refused to apply for aid because they didn’t see themselves as “financial aid families.”

Kadima board members started exploring ways to subsidize tuition four months ago in response to what they saw as a “perfect storm” pushing students out of Jewish education across the city and beyond. The school modeled its rate cut on a similar step taken by Gross Schechter Day School in Cleveland, Ohio, five years ago. At that school, parents, community donors and Jewish organizations pooled their funds to cut yearly tuition almost in half — students now pay $6,500, a steep drop from the $13,000-$14,000 they would be paying without the subsidy.

“If we could shock the system by lowering tuition, we felt we could provide relief to our current families and also attract new families,” said Rabbi Jim Rogozen, headmaster. “We figured we could either take a chance, given the economy, and wait to see what the next year brought — or we could do something different.”

Since slashing tuition in the 2004-2005 academic year, Gross Schechter has seen its enrollment rise by 24 percent. The school has also retained more students at all grade levels who might have otherwise opted to switch into public schools, Rogozen said.

Parents and administrators at Kadima are hoping their own partnership produces similar results. PTO president Natalie Spiewak said the move would tip the scale for families who found the school’s former price tag intimidating.

“I think people who otherwise wouldn’t look at Kadima because it was too expensive might say, ‘This is more affordable now; maybe I can consider it,'” she said. “I think this is going to open the door for a lot more people to be able to choose a private day school education.”

News of the program is also a much-needed boon to families that are now struggling to keep more than one child enrolled at the school, said Spiewak, whose two children are students.

But even with the tuition cut, Kadima’s rates are still middle-of-the-road as far as L.A. day schools go. The Rabbi Jacob Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am this year charged $13,345 to $14,650 for its elementary and middle school students, Valley Beth Shalom Day School charged $16,150, and Sinai Akiba Academy’s fees ranged from $17,083 to $19,275.

“Some schools cost significantly less, some are on par, and others cost more,” said Miriam Prum Hess, vice president of The Jewish Federation and director of day school operations for the Bureau of Jewish Education. “The struggle for schools is to make their education as affordable as possible, yet operate in a responsible way. It will be interesting to see how this works, but it’s hard to tell.”

While Kadima is still “not cheap,” Evenhaim said it wasn’t hard to get donors on board to fund the tuition cut. For the school’s parent donors, it was as simple as asking them to pay what they paid in tuition this year — under the new, lowered-rate system, the extra dollars would suddenly be tantamount to tzedakah.

“Almost everybody that we went to were extremely excited about this concept,” he said. “Just by writing a check for tuition, they are giving tzedakah to the community. When they become part of this partnership, they feel good because their money is working to ensure the future of Jewish education. This is the best investment that we can concentrate on today.”

The new tuition system would not affect the quality of classroom instruction for the school’s 260 students, according to Gereboff.

Evenhaim said he hopes the program will inspire a local trend. He wants other private schools to adopt similar plans and make a unified effort to boost the number of L.A. students in Jewish day schools. “If this is successful, we would love to share it with many other schools,” he said. “Our goal is not just to make sure Kadima has a lot of students — our goal is to make sure that as many Jewish kids as possible receive a Jewish education.”

Spiewak said she plans to keep her children in private day school.

“I believe in the education that my children are getting there,” she said.

2009

I’ve been reading a lot of Ralph Waldo Emerson lately. I recommend him when times get tough.

“People wish to be settled,” Emerson wrote. “It is only as far as they are unsettled that there is any hope for them.”

Well, there is hope for us. A lot of hope — it’s been a very unsettling week.

Any Monday that begins with news that the Los Angeles Times’ parent company is filing for bankruptcy protection, The New York Times is putting its headquarters in hock, General Motors is gong to be run by a government nanny, NBC is going to start cutting its programming hours, unemployment is at record levels and laid-off workers are beginning to protest the fact that Bank of America gets $25 billion and they don’t even get bus fare home — this isn’t the dawn of a new week, but of a new era.

A month ago my Shabbat dinner companion was an investment analyst who pulled all his clients out of the markets in October — October of 2007. He said his company ran sophisticated mathematical models that showed the financial markets were — hmm, what’s the polite word here? — doomed.

“This isn’t the end of the beginning,” he told me. “This is the beginning of the beginning.”

The pain will continue to spread around the world.

“Dubai is going to look like a ghost town,” he said. “It’s overbuilt, there are no buyers and the price of oil is going to go through the floor.”

The image of oil sheiks lighting campfires to keep warm beside their indoor ski slopes comforted me for only an instant. The truth is, their pain and our pain are interconnected, as it is with the fate of those striking Chicago factory workers, the college grads unable to find decent jobs and, of course, our own Jewish community.

“A lot of money has been sucked out of the system,” a lawyer who is active in several Jewish institutions told me Monday. “We’ll make it through this year, but ’09 will be very tough.”

What’s happening in the L.A. Jewish community is, to paraphrase Sam Zell, our ersatz Citizen Kane, a perfect storm.

Endowments invested in the markets are down. As we’ve reported here, some organizations, out raising thousands, saw millions sucked from their endowments overnight.

Donations are trending down among big donors and small. Most institutions receive 80 percent of their donations from 20 percent of their supporters. But it’s the wealthiest among that 20 percent who give the most, and that crust has gotten thinner. Real estate, financial services, and media and entertainment are vulnerable industries now, and Jews are over-represented in all of them.

The Los Angeles Business Journal reported this week that some 300 to 400 Iranian Jewish families face severe financial setbacks or even bankruptcy after real estate ventures run by Ezri Namvar, a leader in the Persian Jewish community, tanked, leaving investors owed an estimated $400 million.

Meanwhile, needs are up. One report out of San Francisco — where the worst of the calamity hasn’t even hit yet — has demand for Jewish Vocational Services up 100 percent. Personnel cutbacks, inevitable as they are, will only strain already stressed service providers more.

Monday night, Larry King had preacher Joel Osteen on CNN to offer spiritual advice to help us through these times. This, too, shall pass, he said. Be the change you want to see in the world.

No offense, but when people are wondering how to keep their homes, that strikes me as useless pap.

(Again Emerson: “I hear a preacher announce for his text and topic…. Do I not know beforehand that not possibly can he say a new and spontaneous word?”)

But then, what do we do? As I walked to my car after Monday’s lunch, the lawyer — who had just spent an hour describing the calamitous state of the community — said, “Hey, don’t worry so much.”

When the money is sucked from a community, what’s left is community. Sure, there is less for now to sustain services it provides, but the bonds of acquaintance, friendship and family abide. When your real estate business skids, when Zell’s L.A. Times defers your buyout payments indefinitely, when a trusted friend loses your millions, there are still friends to go to for support, for commiseration. Stripped of its financial successes, the community Jews have built here is revealed for what it is: bonds among people, not among donors.

“But this is an old custom on the East Side,” wrote Michael Gold in “Jews Without Money,” about growing up impoverished in the Lower Manhattan, “whenever a family is to be evicted, the neighboring mothers put on their shawls and beg from door to door.”

Of course, we are a long way from those dire straits, but the idea that help comes from our neighbors rings true. Relationships with others, with our teachers, with fellow Jews — those relationships are like meat and money in times like these.

We learn geology the morning after the earthquake, Emerson wrote. I suppose we’ll learn the richness of community now that much of its wealth is gone.

Thanks, Cal State — thanks a lot

I am not applying to a Cal State University (CSU) system school. Let’s just get that minor detail out of the way. I have never intended or wished to go to one. In fact, I’ve aggressively dismissed the notion, and yet I find myself saddened and concerned for my peers and Californian education or lack thereof.

The Cal State system just announced a decrease in admissions by 10,000 applicants, due to the governor’s budget cuts. In a year when there are already more college applicants than ever in history, those rejection letters will not go unnoticed.

It isn’t that I have friends by the masses that are applying to CSUs; actually the one friend who I know applied to San Francisco State has already been accepted. The problem is the principle of the thing (to use an argument widely taught in high school). When we hear that the one option that has always been guaranteed to us is now an uncertain variable, we can do nothing but doubt. When competition rages from all angles, and the safety we counted on no longer exists, we can do nothing but give up, right?

Wrong, of course, but that’s certainly how it feels.

We can concede to taking responsibility for the B average we’ve gotten and know that Harvard is improbable; we can agree that the internship we passed up limits a chance at Stanford, but when we made those decisions we had in mind that no matter what, college was in the picture, no matter what, getting a higher education was a done deal.

And now what? Now obtaining a degree could take six years instead of four, because of college deferment and prolonged acceptance; now venturing away from home may be unlikely, because to weed out applicants, locals get priority. Now, like always, education bears the burden of neglect — glorified in theory but ignored in practice.

Recently, I’ve heard a lot of cross-generational accusations — middle-age cynics claiming my generation to be founded on apathy, disregard and technology. Yet, I am fairly certain it is not my generation that created the economic distress that consequently crippled college education. No, we are much too self-involved to bother creating economic distress for everyone. I think what this parent generation forgets is that we are the product of their morals, their priorities, their innovations. If we have an iPod (and I’ll say right here that I don’t) it is because you have given us one.

If I sound bitter, it’s because I am. And I don’t like exhibiting the mentality of a surly old man bruised by life; trust me. But bitterness has been embedded into us — my generation, I mean. And this CSU application cutback only reinforces a cynicism that could potentially be interpreted as apathy.

And I know, I know, the CSUs aren’t the villain here; I know they don’t enjoy turning eligible kids away. And I also know parents and adults didn’t plan for this — you didn’t plan for this.

But what I’d like you to understand, CSU administrators and parents everywhere, is that no matter how bad or sympathetic you feel, we are the ones hit the hardest. We are the ones who receive that raw and biting slap in the face reminding us it will all be that much harder.

I wish I could offer a solution, and I realize that I can complain about these cutbacks via angsty teen columns until the cows come home, and there still wouldn’t be an answer. The tragedy here is the helplessness I feel — we feel.

I suppose attacking an entire college system is a magnitudinal feat, and completely reviving such a system cannot be done lickety-split.

So maybe we’ll clean up our act in a few years, and that’ll be great for those applicants who are again guaranteed a spot among the cadre of Cal State professors and guides. But there will always be this gap, this purgatory of knowers and learners who will have fallen short of an acceptance, when acceptance means everything.

So it goes.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the January issue is Dec. 15; deadline for the February issue is Jan. 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

Economic crisis boosts need to focus on domestic violence

Domestic violence is the American epidemic we don’t want to talk about, hear about or know about. But in my 30 years as an advocate for women and children, I’ve never been more concerned about the victims of domestic violence than I am right now. Families already buckling under the weight of domestic violence in the best of times can collapse in times of economic downturn and war.

As Jews, we don’t get to take a vacation from tikkun olam and tzedakah because we find an issue disturbing or because something is affecting our bottom line. We are commanded to repair the world, to help those less fortunate, because it’s the right thing to do. And when our pocketbooks fail us, we still have our conscience and our voice.

If we don’t focus our attention on vulnerable families now — if we don’t encourage our leaders and future president to do the same — we very likely will see increases in the already too costly human price of this national scourge.

The statistics are staggering for this equal-opportunity destroyer. One in four U.S. women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime; one in six will be the victim of an attempted or actual rape; one in 12 will be stalked. Nearly 5.3 million acts of intimate-partner violence occur each year among U.S. women age 18 and older, resulting in 2 million injuries and nearly 1,300 deaths.

A poor economic prognosis matters in a uniquely grave way to women and children in families where abuse happens.

According to a 2004 study by the National Institute of Justice, women whose male partners experienced two or more periods of unemployment over the five-year course of the study were three times more likely to be abused. A spike in cases will be devastating for a system where supply is already not keeping up with demand.

Let’s wake up to what is really going on in families of all races, religions and economic levels behind the closed doors of our apartments and starter homes, mansions and military bases. The recent tragic stabbing death of 29-year-old Sgt. Christina E. Smith was the third off-post domestic violence murder of a Fort Bragg servicewoman in four months. Sgt. Richard Smith, 26, was charged, along with a friend, with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder of his wife. A local police spokesperson responded: “No, gosh, not another one.”

The war matters enormously to our leaders, to our citizens and to the parents and spouses of soldiers who pay the ultimate sacrifice. But it also matters to families of military women like Christina E. Smith. Families already under strain become another, rarely talked about, casualty.

So we’ve got to keep doing what we know makes a difference, such as running domestic violence prevention programs that model and teach healthy relationships for teens, and we need to maintain partnerships aimed at ensuring full funding of the Violence Against Women Act and Family Violence Prevention and Services Act and appropriate funding of the Victims of Crime Act, or VOCA.

Only two years ago, the Lifetime Women’s Pulse Poll, conducted by Roper Poll, revealed the degree to which domestic violence informed the voting decisions of women and men over 18. Ninety-seven percent felt that the issue of domestic violence and sexual assault against women and girls was important and would impact whom they voted for in the election.

Jewish Americans are compassionate, and the more we know about an issue, the more we care about an issue. Let’s come together as one voice and let our leaders know that in the best and worst of times we are not going to let domestic violence continue. That we hold them, and ourselves, accountable for making it stop.

Loribeth Weinstein is the executive director of Jewish Women International