Saturday, January 3, 2009

Soap Operas in Paradise

We just got back from our Hawaii vacation, during which time I did not turn on a computer, even to check my email. We had many memorable moments during our ten days away, including--don't tell!--a room fire from our Chanuka menorah, and my daughter falling two flights through a catamaran (nothing broken but lots of swelling and bruises). Even that excitement didn't compel me to touch a computer to describe the events to friends. I also didn't even keep up online with our Oahu neighbor, Barack Obama, who was visiting nearby Kailua. Nor did I search the web to find the facts about the island-wide power outage we endured on Shabbat. I didn't even check for photos of the amazing fireworks display on New Year's Eve that took my breath away as I sat on the sand with thousands of other revelers in this unique fireworks-obsessed island culture.

But one thing I could not tear myself away from during my absence: my addiction to the soap opera known as Bernie Madoff.

I have read everything I could get my hands on (and that's plenty) each day since the story of his $50 billion Ponzi scheme broke in the news on December 11. We get the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times as well as our local paper and USA Today. I pondered the connections between his family members and The Journal's family tree. I devoured the lists of victimized investors and institutions. I can't get enough of the sordid details, which include suicide (Thierry Magon de La Villehuchet), Hollywood (Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg), charities about which I care (Yeshiva University, Hadassa, Technion), international banking (Aozora in Japan; Medici in Switzerland) and fortunes made and lost--over a period of FORTY YEARS! The scope of the fraud; the personal emotional connections and the blatant lying--and acting!--involved scoops me in.

Bernie Madoff looks pretty fine as we see him walking the streets between 9 am and 7 pm near his home on East 64th Street in Manhattan (of course we all know why then; why there! And his wife surrendered her passport, poor thing!). And I suspect the reason Bernie, collar turned up beneath his baseball cap, wears that smirk: He'll ultimately be able to earn back what he lost, on probably the biggest best-seller ever penned. Whatta story.

And in the meantime--why, look at how many years he got to live the life! Citation X jet to fly to his Palm Beach estate...heck, to his yacht near his $7,000-per-night suite at the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes, France!

Everyone seemed to think him a great guy, a modest, self-effacing, pleasant, and even altruistic guy. Who loved his family. His brother, sons, daughter-in-law, niece and wife were all in business with him. "What makes it fun for all of us is to walk into the office in the morning and see the rest of your family sitting there," said son Mark in a July 2000 interview with The Financial Technology Network. "That's a good feeling to have."

This, too, makes the soap opera compelling. Bernie supposedly revealed to his sons that there was nothing backing investments on December 10, at which point they turned him in--and refused to sign for his bond, and haven't spoken to him since. Is it possible that Bernie just smirked through forty years of deception even to the family with whom he surrounded himself?

So there I was on the beach in Waikiki. Luxuriating in the warm air, the squeals of happy children, the beauty of Diamond Head. And who should walk by unexpectedly but a couple who are our neighbors and friends! They were as pleased to see us there in paradise as we were to see them.

We started chatting--my husband wandering deeper into the surf with the husband, and the wife and I remaining where the waves splashed our knees. A glorious setting during the holiday of Chanuka. Respite from Seattle's frigid cold and piles of snow that nearly grounded our Hawaii-bound planes. Plenty to share, plenty in which to rejoice.

So what do we discuss? The Madoff affair. We're both obsessed. We compare updates. We finger our favorite suspects. We agree that Bernie is taking the fall for the rest of them since he's old with little future, and the sons can go on. We mourn losses by charities we support; I heard that Yeshiva University "only" lost 14 million instead of the $110 million it originally claimed. But what of the lost interest it was counting on? And Hadassa, who said they lost $90 million now says they really only invested $33 million...still, just think what that would have earned elsewhere. We can't stop ourselves. We're in Paradise, and like teens immersed in Twilight, we're sucked in by another type of vampire, one walking down Lexington in a baseball cap, smirking.

Got home right before Shabbat, with cooking and laundry and shopping to do; I still haven't checked my email (since December 22!), but along with a lovely, frigid day in Seattle, of Shabbat meals and Torah and settling in, I stole some time today to feed my little addiction and catch up on the latest juice on Madoff. Is he fueling anti-Semitism? How did this complicated scheme continue? Who else is impacted?

Is it bad for my character--for my soul--to be reading this stuff?

Yes, I'll fold the laundry, unpack my suitcase and even check my email. I'll upload the thousand photos I took on Oahu (perhaps even post one on the menorah fire)...all in good time. But first, um, maybe there's something new online?


  1. It is fascinating, isn't it? Having been without power for a week when it all happened, I was a bit behind on the details, and still know so little. But I sat opened mouthed on Christmas night while my father gave me the basics and then some details. I suppose it is like seeing a crash on the highway - you cannot bring yourself to look away.

    I hadn't realized his whole family worked with him! What an added... well, I'm not sure tragedy is the right word. It is beyond imagination. I wish I knew where to go to get a good overview of the whole thing.

    So in order to keep the rest of us updated, you'll just have to keep writing about it here!

    I'm glad your vacation was relaxing, despite your daughter getting hurt and the fire!

  2. I'm happy to hear you and the family had a fantastic vacation despite some crazy misfortunes.

    Wasn't it terribly hard to not ask Michael what was going on in the world? I would have had to ask and find out!!! Good for you for being able to enjoy vacation almost world free!!

    Happy New Year to you and your family.