In the Diaspora: Steinhardt's Shtick

A great deal of money with an intemperate mouth.

sam freedman 88 (photo credit: )
sam freedman 88
(photo credit: )
Earlier this month, the Reuth social-service organization held its annual fund-raising dinner in Manhattan, at one point offering its podium to the philanthropist Michael Steinhardt. He took the occasion, according to a report in the New York Jewish Week, to say of Orthodox Jews, "They come from a different planet." Out in the audience, the newspaper went on to explain, those observant guests in attendance "shook their heads" or "squirmed in their seats." Were this the first occasion when Steinhardt had insulted Orthodox Jews in their own presence, one might be tempted to respond with outrage and indignation. To the contrary, his remarks at the Reuth event had the predictable aura of a Borsht Belt comedian trotting out the same old shtick. And so, unfortunately, did the audience's awkward silence. As the grandchild and namesake of a Jewish anarchist, I am well acquainted with the venerable tradition of Orthodox-baiting among secular Jews. That earlier Samuel Freedman made a point of frolicking and feasting at Yom Kippur banquets, the better to tweak his frum neighbors. In Israel, where there are genuine and immediate issues of welfare payments and military deferments for the haredim, politicians such as Tommy Lapid have tapped into a legitimate, if not especially pretty, reservoir of lo-dati aggrievement. Steinhardt, however, embodies something more contemporary and more distinctly American. He is a great deal of money with an intemperate mouth, a combination that has let him transgress the boundaries of honorable dissidence or even sharply-observed satire to play on bigoted stereotypes and get away with it because nobody is about to turn down one of his checks. Let it be said that, in his role as a philanthropist, Steinhardt has functioned as a massive, effective source for good, helping to create and stake birthright israel, and endowing such organizations as Hillel and the Jewish Life Network. Let it also be said that his flagrantly generous commitment - tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars - leaves one all the more puzzled about Steinhardt's penchant for crudely ridiculing a segment of the Jewish world that he appears in many ways to admire. IN HIS full comments at the Reuth dinner, as in other public statements over the past decade, Steinhardt has remarked quite acutely about the Orthodox sector's ability to transmit meaningful identity from generation to generation, and he has contrasted that success to what he sees as the failure of non-Orthodox American Jews to instill comparable continuity. In his role as critic of his less-observant and secular brethren, Steinhardt is anything but a hypocrite. His vast gifts to birthright and other programs demonstrate his willingness to reach deeply into his own pockets to fund prospective solutions. So what, one is entitled to ask, could possibly have compelled Steinhardt to deck himself out in Hassidic garb at a celebratory dinner four years ago marking Richard Joel's retirement as president of Hillel to assume the leadership of Yeshiva University? Dressed in a caftan and shtreimel, false peyot dangling past his ears, Steinhardt launched into a monologue about how Joel was leaving "the world of the goyim," the world of "orgies" and "women rabbis," for the "world of the tzaddik." Without doubt, there are some in the haredi world who do perceive anything less stringent as tantamount to being gentile. But in channeling the most intolerant fringe, Steinhardt, too, was playing on intolerance, no matter how many people laughed or pretended to laugh or saved their objections for a private moment back at home. Steinhardt has also been weak on the facts in several remarks over the years accusing the Orthodox of being "myopic," interested only in assisting their own. A cursory look at any non-Orthodox day school's faculty and administration, for instance, will reveal a significant presence of Orthodox educators. The same Orthodox role is increasingly true of the staff of communal organizations - including, according to a 1999 profile of Steinhardt by J.J. Goldberg, the philanthropist's Jewish Life Project. Which Jewish organization of any kind puts more of its efforts into connecting with the unaffiliated and unobservant than Chabad? As much as my grandfather might have savored Steinhardt's broadsides, I think he would have objected utterly to the belief system that permitted them - the belief that wealth elevates one above the earthbound value of civility, or at least the dreary requirement to be accountable for one's words. Having made his fortune in a hedge fund and high-risk investments, Steinhardt embodies all that is both promising and problematic with the changing nature of American Jewish philanthropy. On the positive side of the ledger, he typifies a democratization of philanthropy, in which the emergence of new wealth in the current generation has enabled a more nimble, responsive, entrepreneurial style of giving. On the negative side, he represents the unprecedented clout of a new breed of super-rich, mega-donors whom none dare offend. His kind of invulnerability is the bill the rest of us pay with our quiescence. The writer is a professor of journalism at Columbia University.