“Fat cats” is a term that my father and my boss at B’nai B’rith headquarters used to describe the wealthy Jews who finance synagogue and Jewish organizational programs.
They would acknowledge the justification for part of my negative attitude toward most rich Jews, but they followed with the cautionary advice: “You have to respect the fat cats.”
We had a semantics problem. It was not that I was unable to see how beneficence resulted from the money donated by the fat cats. It was their obnoxious behavior in the way they doled out the money, the prejudicial restrictions entailed in who they picked to get the money, and what they demanded for payback, that caused my contempt for most of them. Quickly I add that I cannot and would not apply those characteristics to every last one of them, because then I would be guilty of what is known in reasoning and logic as a “sweeping generalization,” and that kind of dragnet can only be used with acknowledgment of individual differences. In fact, I have a long standing admiration for a few of the fat cats who were my friends in a prior decade; but they are long dead.
My contempt for most of the fat cats began at the shul (synagogue) that my family chose for membership, prayer, my barmitzvah, my sisters’ weddings, and funeral services. [I choose not to single out that shul by name because what I write here applies to all of the biggest and wealthiest synagogues in my experience.] The first time I picked up one of the siddurs (prayer books) used for services, I noticed the name of an individual emblazoned in big, gold letters on the cover: “Marvin Kogod” [I am using an assumed name that is not to be identified with any real person, living or dead].
“Why is this siddur named Marvin Kogod?” I asked my father. “Is this the house of God or the house of Marvin Kogod?”
“He’s the wealthiest member of the congregation,” my father replied. “It was his money that enabled the synagogue officers to buy siddurs and put them in the racks in front of all the seats, so that nobody has to buy a siddur and lug it to the shul. The officers felt that he should be honored for his generosity.”
I was not impressed with that explanation. “Our rabbi says that if you do a mitzah, you do it because you believe the reward is in the doing of it, and if you need to be honored for doing it, then it is no longer a mitzvah.” [Mitzvah means "good deed" in Yiddish, but not in biblical or Talmudic Judaism, wherein it translates from the original Aramaic and Hebrew as "commandment" or "duty."]
“Even so,” my father countered, “we owe much to the fat cats. This synagogue building would not exist but for them. You have to respect the fat cats.”
The same kind of problem (for me anyway) occurred in regard to seating arrangements at the synagogue for high holiday services. For regular services throughout the year there was no need for arrangements, since the shul seats were four-fifths empty (or worse). On high holidays, however, the fat cats liked to strut their stuff. The men dressed nattily in $400 suits while their wives wore multi-thousand-dollar mink or sable coats. Both stood up to make sure they were noticed when the bidding for front row seats took place on the “holiest day of the year,” Yom Kippur.
You read that correctly. On Yom Kippur the services were interrupted for bidding on seats. The rabbi and chazin (cantor) were replaced on the podium by the synagogue president, who took bids of money that was destined to be used for building improvements and programs. [Pointing] “Yes, Mistah Cohen. Mistah Cohen bids fifteen thousand dollahs!” [Pointing] “Yes, Mistah Levy. Mistah Levy bids twenty-five thousand dollahs!!” And so on.
Mistah Cohen and Mistah Levy thereby continued to wind up in the front row on high holidays, where they were in the first place from the previous year’s bidding. My father could only afford to bid five hundred dollars. So, he wound up (with me beside him) in the middle of the synagogue. The poorest Jews were relegated to the last rows. My problem with this pecking order was that throughout the year, for sabbatical services and when minions were needed, my father and the poorest Jews were there, while the fat cats were not to be found. They appeared only on the high holidays, and even then mostly during the parts of the service when they could stand up to be recognized for their contributions. For further recognition they contented themselves with plaques on the building walls commemorating their “dedicated service to the synagogue and Judaism.”
Until I had moved out of my parents’ home for U.S. Army duty in Europe, followed by journalism jobs elsewhere, I continued to attend synagogue services as an honor to my father; but thereafter I only entered a synagogue because members of my family were there for some occasion.
My next problem with the fat cats came in the early 1960s when I was handling public information for B’nai B’rith at its international headquarters in Washington. Chores such as writing pro and con suggestions for chapter debates on issues of the day were easy and even enjoyable for me. But every time I had to write a news release or some kind of announcement for an event honoring one of the fat cats, I almost gagged on the kind of eulogy my boss wanted to see.
I was writing about a character such as Moishe Stern [another fictitious name], a little Napoleon type who had his own photographer following him around the premises at an event and snapping shots of him next to any kind of prominent person. That is the way he got his vicarious feeling of importance, since he himself drew scant attention. He was nothing more than a little old Jew who had become immensely rich from shrewd investments that belied his moronic, ungrammatical talk; and he was only mentioned when he squeezed a moderate donation out of his bank accounts. After all these years, I can still picture and hear him berating his photographer because the guy took two minutes to get a drink, and during that brief interlude Moishe finally managed to be next to the president of B’nai B’rith, with whom he wanted to be photographed, and by time the photographer returned the opportunity had been lost, since nobody wanted to spend more than two minutes talking to Moishe. His face contorted with anger, Moishe demanded of the photographer: “Where were you when I wanted you to shoot a pikcha of me and the president?” After the answer from the photographer was that he was only away for two minutes to get a drink, Moshe snarled and said: “That ain’t smart.” Huh?
After struggling for weeks to produce some kind of eulogy for the fat cats that would satisfy my boss, who was displeased by the evident lack of sincerity in my prose, I finally figured out that if I was sure to include the description “good Jewish heart” in what I wrote, there was no critical problem with the rest of it. That was the description my boss used every time that he wrote something about a fat cat that “had to be respected.” So, I dropped those three words into every eulogy I wrote: “time after time in his devoted service to Jewry Chaim Putz has shown that he has a good Jewish heart.” Reading it, the boss smiled benevolently at me and said: “Well, there is hope that you are finally getting it.”
My final and most recent problem with fat cats occurred after I was victimized by the infamous “financial crash” in the second week of October 2008 that touched off a “recession,” as the mass media has called it a trillion times in articles and broadcasts. For millions of Americans such as myself, it was the beginning of the Second Great Depression which Obama and the Congress have yet to address as to what it really is. My little ebooks operation, The Mind Opening Books, was wiped out along with my savings, and it has yet to recover. Also, royalties on two books of mine still in print dried up. At my age, now 81, and with medical conditions, nobody will hire me to do anything. I am left with trying to resurrect a once flourishing freelance writing career that I had to abandon for 20 years because all of my time had to be devoted to running a non-profit educational and legal project; and it is taking me a long time to get back into print.
Struggling to remain solvent, I pitched my fraternity brothers. At George Washington University I was vice president of Phi Alpha, one of hundreds of college and university fraternities merged into the biggest Jewish fraternity of all time, ZBT (Zeta Beta Tau). With two friends, I saved Phi Alpha from extinction and thereafter I planned and arranged its social, athletic, and charitable functions that made it one of the most prestigious fraternities not only at GWU but also in the metropolitan Washington area. After I moved away, I continued to be a member of ZBT, and I even wrote for its online journal without asking to be compensated. I figured I had some help coming from ZBT.
I noticed that some of the fat cats on the board of directors had donated a lot of money – as much as $500,000 – for a ZBT scholarship fund that pays college expenses for young Jews. I figured those fat cats had at least a few bucks for an old, impoverished frat member; so, they were the ones I approached: around 40 of them. I did not want to ask for a handout. So, in emails to the fat cats I asked them to buy some of my ebooks, priced at between $6 and $12. Only one of the fat cats responded, with a payment of $6 for the cheapest ebook.
What happened next was stunning. I receive emailed letters from ZBT’s co-executive directors threatening to revoke my membership and sue me for using email addresses included with some of the thousands of names of ZBT members in a directory I had purchased when I had money to do so (it costs around $75). The threats were dutifully transmitted to me by the co-directors as a response to complaints to ZBT headquarters from some of the fat cats that this guy Wolfe was “spamming” them with requests for financial assistance.
You see, that is an example of the core behavior of fat cats that disgusts me. They will donate as much as $500,000 to a scholarship fund in return for eulogies about their “good Jewish hearts” sent nationwide, and in return for their being presented with a plaque memorializing their generosity at a dinner arranged in their honor. But let one of the old Jews who helped make ZBT what it is today ask for a little financial help, and they will complain about it. The problem with them is that helping others is not a personal thing for them; indeed, it is repugnant to them when they are confronted with a plea for assistance from an individual who is impoverished, whether that individual be a fraternity brother or a beggar on the streets. They simply do not want to be confronted with poverty on a personal basis.
So, I pointed out in emailed letters to the fat cats that organizations of the size and kind characterizing ZBT have programs that fund elderly members or past workers who have become impoverished. One of the executive directors wrote to me that he would take up the matter with the board of directors. But if it was taken up, which I doubt, nothing has come of it. The fat cats want no part of any program engendering funds to help elderly poor members or ex-members of the fraternity.
For me, the general attitude of the fat cats toward poor persons or people they view as being part of the “lower classes” is embedded in one of my favorite quotations on the rich-poor dichotomy that grows broader every year. Here it is, from George Orwell (Eric Blair), the famous author of the realistic novel 1984:
We [rich] know that poverty is unpleasant; in fact, since it is so remote, we rather enjoy harrowing ourselves with the thought of its unpleasantness. But don’t expect us to do anything about it. We are sorry for you lower classes, just as we are sorry for a cat with the mange, but we will fight like devils against any improvement of your condition. We feel that you are much safer as you are. The present state of affairs suits us, and we are not going to take the risk of setting you free…
Meanwhile, I have told the directors that they do not have to revoke my membership in the fraternity because I have submitted my resignation. Also, I dared the directors, the fat cats, and their lawyers, to sue me for asking the fat cats to help me by buying a few of my ebooks at a cost of perhaps a millionth of their assets. Apparently the lawyers advised them that it might not be a good idea to sue an 81-year-old fraternity brother because he “spammed” them via email asking them to buy a few of his ebooks to help him out of poverty. The publicity about it might be a bit adverse.
Sadly, this latest episode in my life ends my last participation in any part of the so-called “Jewish community,” a name I consider to be as valid as the name “Martian community.” I sometimes grow maudlin about that loss. But my overall, final feeling about it is that up to my brain and down to my backside I have had it with the fat cats that have to be respected.
Burton H. Wolfe is the former director of the non-profit Homosapiens Educational & Legal Project. He is the author of many articles and essays published in major newspapers and magazines, and of subject-definitive books such as The Hippies (New American Library) and Hitler and the Nazis (Putnam) used as basic sources for study in high schools, colleges, and universities across the U.S. From his home in Boynton Beach, Florida, Wolfe turns out The Mind Opening Books – http://TheMindOpeningBooks.us.
Wolfe can be contacted via his personal email address: bhwolfe(at)msn.com.