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Jewish Journal

‘The Wolf’ and the Jewish problem

by Rob Eshman

December 31, 2013 | 1:54 pm

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort in "The Wolf of Wall Street."

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort in "The Wolf of Wall Street."

“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.

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