Steve Fishman in NY Mag: The Bluffer as Scholar - Ezra Merkin fashioned his illusion on emptiness

When praise is anonymous, it is meaningless.

And so at the cutting edge of emptiness we find the praise of Ezra Merkin that was cited by Steve Fishman in his otherwise generally praiseworthy essay:
“Pious, prayerful, and profound,” said a fellow congregant. Said a business colleague, “He is one of the wisest men on Wall Street.”
What context produced the great deception, the illusion that we now attribute to Mr. Ezra Merkin? It was nothing less than a mere breakaway minyan - a group of unruly, disaffected Jews who were cast out of the established synagogues of the upper East Side of Manhattan.

The rabbi and leaders of Zichron Ephraim (now the Park East Synagogue) would no longer tolerate the outrageous antics of the Merkins and their ilk. They were cast out onto the street. So they had no recourse if they wanted to attend services in an Orthodox Jewish house of worship other than to reconstitute themselves into another shul,
…In 1958, when Ezra was 5, Hermann co-founded the Fifth Avenue Synagogue, a congregation that would become perhaps the richest in the country. The synagogue, a monument to Hermann’s accomplishments, would be under his control for years. And he guided it forcefully—he had little patience for communal decisions—turning it into a haven for modern Orthodoxy as well as a center for his own religious education. Hermann put a premium on education. Yanked out of school as a teenager, he was a frustrated intellectual. At home, a learned Jewish text was often open on his desk, next to the Wall Street Journal. He regularly attended Talmud classes at the synagogue, until a few days before he died at 91 in 1999.
Indeed, Hermann, the unlettered son of Leibl the Goniff, a furrier with a penchant for rising during services to shout like an inebriate at the rabbi, had no choice but to set up his own place of worship.

No other synagogue would admit him to pray. And that son Hermann would tell a tale of mock-piety that made the Torah scroll's themselves weep in embarrassment.
…But once a week, on Shabbos, Hermann ceded the floor to his eldest son, his Torah prodigy. Wearing a tie, Ezra commenced an exegesis of the next day’s Torah portion. He was professorial, playing it up. It was one of the few things Ezra did that elicited unrestrained paternal approval.
Huzzah. The grandson of the goniff ostensibly had managed to make up for his irksome heritage.
After high school at Ramaz, the Upper East Side Orthodox day school, Ezra attended two yeshivas in Israel, then Columbia and Harvard Law, and swiftly climbed through the world his father built. “There was never a time when he wasn’t a success,” says an acquaintance.
Again, anonymous praise and now the added approbation of the unlettered paraded about as if it were acceptance of a work of scholarship approved for publication in a refereed journal.

What a vacant tale of the bluffer as the scholar:
With investors, Ezra was a showman. He likes a stage, and likes to show off his storehouse of knowledge. He could talk Talmud with rabbis, or politics with a Ph.D.; he sent articles to Ruth Madoff, which Bernie shared and reported. “It made me better read,” Bernie would say.

Ezra could be impatient with slower minds—“uninhibited” in his disregard, says one. But with those he considered equals, and with his clients, he was a pleaser. “He does not like to disappoint,” says one friend. And for all his erudition, he had another winning quality. He didn’t mind poking fun at himself. The key to success is sincerity, he’d confide. If you can fake it, you’ve got everything.

A couple of business associates later complained, as one put it, “He’ll talk about things factually but not necessarily in any relation to facts. For some reason, he makes things up, and not for any advantage to himself, necessarily.” Perhaps rounding the edges made for a more convincing presentation. And most found him convincing. At the UJA-Federation, where he headed the investment committee for ten years, “he would speak conceptually of economic matters,” says one attendee from outside the financial world. “The word you heard after he left the room was ‘dazzling.’ ”
And so Ezra fashioned his illusion, he faked it, he made things up.

In the company of ignoramuses, his basic Hebrew literacy became genius. In the context of the unsophisticated businessmen, his basic finance vocabulary waxed astonishing.

As we know now all of this was not just the vanity of vanities and a striving after wind. It was the smokescreen that enabled a fraud that cost good people their life's savings and took essential funds from needy charities.

Source: New York Magazine, "The Monster Mensch. What made Bernie Madoff, a man who helped revolutionize Wall Street and built a completely legal billion-dollar business, perpetrate the greatest fraud in history? And what led Ezra Merkin, born to immense privilege, to enable him?" by Steve Fishman, published Feb 22, 2009.

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