The arrest last week of Phillip Markoff reminded me a bit of Bernard Madoff’s arrest back in December. The circumstances are far different, of course. While Madoff had admitted to running a $50 billion Ponzi scheme, Markoff is accused of being the “Craigslist killer.” The similarity, though, comes from a question often asked when someone with a Jewish-sounding surname gets unsavory attention.
In this case: Is Phillip Markoff Jewish?
“The answer is I don’t know,” a colleague told me. “Did some research online and can’t find anything other than that I’ve never met a non-Jewish Markoff. Then again I’d never met a non-Jewish Greenberg before, so one can’t leap to conclusion.”
Similarly, last week when David Kellerman, the Freddie Mac CFO, was found dead in a suspected suicide, the Jew-or-not question came up several times at a staff meeting. Then after the meeting I got a text from a colleague who missed the conversation. Same question.
I replied that I wasn’t sure. But what I was really wondering was why we care. So I e-mailed Tzvee Zahavy, a rabbi and Talmudic scholar who often asks Jew-or-not on his blog.
“I speculate that Jews do it to be proud of other Jews of accomplishment or, when it involves scoundrels, to be prepared to defend the tribe if confronted with the facts,” he wrote back. “Non-Jews do it to confirm their suspicions about Jewish conspiracies or just more innocently to clear up why someone has a funny name.”
Some do it, I suspect, because they don’t know how not too. They hear a Jewish sounding name or see someone with curly hair and poor eyesight and their Jewdar goes nuts. As Jon Carroll wrote last month for the San Francisco Chronicle:
I have known people who had an overexcited Jewdar sense, and they were always willing to share. “Meryl Streep? Jewish. Of course. Clint Eastwood? Jewish. Flipper? Jewish dolphin. Everyone knows that.” They want the world to be Jewish, or at least everyone in the world who can boast of any skills, awards or surgical competence.
Indeed, this overactive Jewdar has led to a bit of wishful thinking: Rex Grossman, Lance Berkman, Norman Jewison. (The High Rabbinical Court of Israel could be forgiven for mistaking the “Fiddler on the Roof” director for an MOT.) And in the case of suspected scoundrels and charlatans—and worse—Jews can only hope that the person is not one of their own.
The pathos is understandable.
Jews account for about 0.02 percent of the world’s population—two of every 10,000 humans on earth—and those 13 million people live under the hottest heat lamp in history. Jews have often been judged by the actions of their coreligionists. Diaspora Jews still see this today whenever Israel is at war.
Whether out of pride or necessity, Jews have learned to highlight the admired MOT and to distance themselves from those who bring ignominy on the community. Albert Einstein, Sandy Koufax, Seth Rogen good. Bernard Madoff, Jack Abramoff, Pauly Shore bad.
Meyer Lansky? That’s a tougher question to answer. Lansky was a Mafia innovator, a godfather of the kosher nostra and a founder of Murder Inc. But he also ran arms to Israel in its War of Independence and helped defy the stereotype of Jewish weakness, even if he wasn’t as tough as Kayo Konigsberg.
And what about Phillip Markoff?
There is no mention of a Jewish upbringing in this Sunday profile from the Boston Globe. What is painted, though, is a portrait of an intense young medical student, loved by friends, overwhelmed by the pressure to succeed and consumed by a gambling debt. Here’s an excerpt:
At the state university in Albany, Philip Markoff was known for the same discipline and intensity that had made him an academic star in high school. He logged long hours in labs and the library and carried a heavy course load that allowed him to graduate with honors a year early.
Amid the pressure, friends said, he had just one true release: Poker. All-night games, every weekend, that he took very seriously, indeed.
Markoff looked forward to the gatherings all week and talked about them a lot, according to several college friends interviewed by the Globe. The sessions were meant to be casual, but to Markoff they seemed more than that. While others joked or talked about sports, he insisted on concentrating on the cards and turned easygoing games into intense competitions.
He won often, but when he lost, he could be bitter, the friends said. Though the games were low-stakes, he hit losing streaks that cost him hundreds.
“He was wound pretty tight,” said one college friend who sometimes took part in the weekly gambling sessions and who spoke on the condition his name not be published. “We’d want to take a break, to talk and hang out, or maybe go out for a while. But he’d just want to keep playing.”
Markoff’s intensity showed itself not only at the poker table and in his studies, the friends said, but also at parties, where he drank hard and went out of his way to debate politics, aggressively asserting his support for the Iraq war and gun rights with his more liberal classmates.
His friends wrote off his intensity at the time as the chaff of an unusually driven personality, one that put the goal of succeeding above most everything else.
But now - as Markoff, a 23-year-old medical student, stands accused of seeking out women who advertised erotic services on Craigslist, robbing them, and fatally shooting 25-year-old Julissa Brisman - some of them wonder if their classmate’s occasionally off-putting behavior is a piece with the portrait that authorities are now painting.
But when they cast through their recollections for other clues, they don’t come up with much.
“If there were any clues, he hid them well,” said a college friend who asked to remain anonymous out of sensitivity to Markoff and his family.
With details turned up in the investigation, like Markoff’s possible gambling problem, a gun found hidden in his apartment in a hollowed out copy of Gray’s Anatomy of the Human Body, and panties allegedly collected from his victims as mementos, police have depicted Markoff as leading a seedy alternate life.
Markoff pleaded not guilty in court. And the crimes of which he is accused could hardly contrast more with the life he showed the world, with his future as a doctor, and with plans for a picture-perfect marriage in August.