Wall Street: Atonement, A-list-style

The global financial crisis has had an inescapably Jewish cast.

October 10, 2008 00:39
4 minute read.
Wall Street: Atonement, A-list-style

Wall Street trader 224.88. (photo credit: AP)


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If a Congressional hearing isn't a usual component of slihot [penitential prayers], viewers of CNN or C-Span this week would have been hard-pressed to know it. On Monday, California Democrat Henry Waxman - a muckraker by nature who has never been shy about applying his Jewish values to his legislative duties - called former Lehman Brothers chief Richard Fuld to Washington to make his first public accounting since his firm's bankruptcy triggered the worldwide financial crisis three weeks ago. Fuld, who ran Lehman for 15 years, has, more than anyone, embodied the crisis: It was his portrait that an artist set out on the street for angry Lehman staffers and passersby to scribble over the day the firm went bust. His unbroken silence - to his employees, his shareholders and the world at large - has been viewed as a mark of Wall Street's arrogance; perhaps, by inviting him to testify before the House Oversight Committee and a phalanx of reporters, Waxman thought he was offering Fuld a chance to atone, even as the markets in New York were dropping ever further. INDEED, REPENTANCE has been a central feature of this crisis, not just for bankers whose bets went sour, but for all those who were suddenly forced to contend with the fact that they had been living on borrowed money, whether in the form of home-equity lines based on inflated property values, or sky-high credit-card limits. And the crisis has had an inescapably Jewish cast - both because so many of the people involved are Jews, and because the vagaries of the High Holidays calendar put it front and center: After the failure of the first bailout package, cable news anchors repeatedly reminded viewers that Congress was on a two-day hiatus for "the Jewish New Year," even as congregants around Manhattan snuck out of Rosh Hashana services to check their BlackBerries and make emergency phone calls to their trading desks. Rabbis told their congregants to relax and use the holiday to make sense of the mess: "Let go of your white-knuckled grip on reality, and let a new reality present itself," said one rabbi, Elliot Cosgrove, at the Park Avenue Synagogue on Rosh Hashana, even as muted cell phones interfered with the speaker system, The New York Times reported. So maybe it wasn't so strange to have Waxman, mustachioed and bespectacled, playing the role of the angry archangel in the run-up to Yom Kippur. "Your company is now bankrupt and our country is in a state of crisis," Waxman said sternly on Monday. He noted that Fuld earned his fortune - upwards of $350 million - taking risks with money that belonged to other people, implying that many of them are now suffering for it. "Is that fair?" Waxman asked. Fuld, a large man, sat haggard behind a table that might have dwarfed anyone else. "I take full responsibility for the decisions that I made, and for the actions that I took," he told the panel, but did not elaborate on any errors he might have been responsible for, instead turning blame on the financial regulators he claimed knew exactly how risky Lehman's operations had become. A lifelong Lehman employee, he said he was haunted by the bankruptcy, but not because of the havoc it has wreaked on the world's pocketbook. Instead, invoking the grim specter of his own mortality, he told the panel he would wonder "until the day they put me in the ground" why the government didn't save his firm the way it did others like Bear Stearns and AIG, the giant insurer. At one point, a Republican congressman from Florida, John Mica, helpfully reminded Fuld to "act like the villain." "If you haven't discovered your role today, you're the villain," Mica said. In Hollywood, villains aren't meant to apologize, but in New York people watching Fuld's performance seemed to think something was missing. One man, standing in a cobbler's shop where the hearing was broadcast on a flatscreen television above the shoeshine chairs, waved his shoes in Fuld's direction and said he hoped the onetime executive would wind up fixing shoes if he didn't end up in jail. ELSEWHERE, THOUGH, Jews were stepping in to fill the repentance gap. An Israeli lawyer, Oren Heiman, sent around an e-mail reminding friends to "help fellow community members who have been affected by the meltdown in New York." "Whether it be meeting with a retiree and attempting to help her regain financial security, or helping an ex-Lehman employee get back in the workplace, this is the time to lend a hand," he wrote. And rabbis noted that the real slihot offered a chance even for those whose livelihoods were unthreatened to reconsider their actions. "Everyone, somehow, has a part of this, even if it's small relative to the people who were 'really' responsible," said Rabbi Irwin Kula, a rabbi and president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. "We were collectively greedy, and there are sins of omission as well as commission," he added. "So we begin to change the definitions of success, what we need, what we want - if we're speaking religiously, that's the process of recalibrating." And, Kula said, there was the inescapable question of why the whole mess has been so fascinating to watch, from the first days of Lehman bankers wandering in and out of their offices with boxes and miscellany - one man carried a plastic sword away with his office plants - to Fuld's performance this week. "That's a choice we all have to make," Kula said. "Am I a voyeur, who has enjoyment in what happened, or do I have empathy, because I know I played my part?"

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