Jewish Journal


April 27, 2009

Is Phillip Markoff Jewish?



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:

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