Ivan Boesky was not good for the Jews

(RNS) — For the past almost 40 years, I had not thought about him; nor had I even heard his name. I had almost forgotten about him; I suspect I was not alone.

But then, there it was in The New York Times: “Ivan F. Boesky, rogue trader in 1980s Wall Street scandal, dies at 87.”

It was a name from the past, and it was not a pleasant memory.

Ivan Boesky had created the field of risk arbitrage, and he accumulated a fortune based upon trading with inside information. He served time in a “club Fed” minimum security prison. He paid $100 million in fines. He had a prominent place in American cultural history; he was the model for Michael Douglas’ character in “Wall Street,” Gordon Gekko — especially his speech — “Greed is good.”

Yes, for Ivan Boesky, greed was good — and it worked for him. He amassed a net worth of $280 million (about $818 million in today’s currency) and a trading portfolio valued at $3 billion (about $8.7 billion today). He had homes in Westchester County, Manhattan, the French Riviera, Paris and Hawaii.

But consider how the Times began the paragraph that contained his biographical details: “Ivan Frederick Boesky was born in Detroit on March 6, 1937, to Helen and William Boesky. His father was a Jewish immigrant from Russia.”

Did Times readers really need to know that his father was Jewish? What about simply “an immigrant from Russia?” Why was Boesky’s religion significant? Do other obituaries identify the father of the dead as, say, “a Roman Catholic immigrant from Italy?”

It gets worse. Consider this:

In September 1986, Mr. Boesky was invited to one of the most lavish bar mitzvahs in memory. Gerald Guterman, a real estate developer, paid nearly $1 million to rent the entire Queen Elizabeth 2 to celebrate his son, taking guests on a cruise up the Hudson River and out into the Atlantic. Huge banners, clowns, musicians and a crew of 1,000 greeted the guests. But Mr. Boesky was nowhere to be seen.

Claiming he had missed the sailing, Mr. Boesky staged his arrival: A helicopter descended from the sky and landed on the ship. As its blades whirred, guests craned their necks to watch as Mr. Boesky emerged in a tuxedo and black tie, by all accounts looking like a latter-day James Bond and completely upstaging the host family.


Did Times readers need to read yet another account of Jews spending lavishly on bar and bat mitzvah celebrations? Did we really need to read one more story that will feed into that old, tired stereotype of Jewish opulence?

You might accuse me of being oversensitive, but there is a reason for that hypersensitivity. The Jews are a bruised and battered people. The aftermath of Oct. 7 has brought with it a flood of antisemitism. That antisemitism has awakened and resurrected every historical slur against the Jews — most prominently, the blood libel accusation, which the world has turned against Israel.

To read one more anti-Jewish canard seems over the top.

That being said: On one level, yes, the story of Ivan Boesky is a Jewish story, because it is a Jewish story that Jews tell themselves.

First: The insider trading scandal of the 1980s was a story of Jewish Men Behaving Badly. Its main protagonists — Boesky, Dennis Levine, Michael Milken — were Jews.

It was a shanda (a shameful thing). Why? Because it pointed to the frequent disconnects between Jews and their ethics — which most Jews would say is the most precious Jewish gift to the world and apparently often observed in the breach.

Here is the question: Which does Judaism care more about — what animals you eat or how you earn your money?

Answer: how you earn your money. There are 24 laws in the Torah that are about traditional Jewish dietary practice. But there are more than 100 commandments in the Torah that address economic issues.

As I wrote in my book “Being God’s Partner,” Judaism is about profits as well as prophets. Jewish piety is not just about Shabbat, keeping kosher and going to synagogue. The sages of the Talmud said, “Whoever wants to be saintly should live according to the tractates of the Talmud dealing with commerce and finance.” (Talmud, Baba Kama 30a).

The insider trading scandal pointed to the flaws in the organized Jewish community — our inability to internally critique, if not police, our own people. It pointed to a moral flaw in our lives, in which being brazen was more important than moral sensitivity. It pointed to our growing sense that we were living in self-constructed jungles, in which you eat or get eaten.

Those were philosophical arguments, and as such, they were important.

But there was something deeper going on and much more painful.  

If Ivan Boesky had been “just Jewish,” his religion and ethnicity would have been irrelevant — at best, a casual footnote.

But Ivan Boesky was a macher (an important person). He had served on the boards of UJA-Federation of New York (for which he twice chaired the joint campaign), the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Yeshiva University and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.

There was something about Ivan Boesky’s Jewishness that The New York Times could have highlighted in his obituary.

The library of the Jewish Theological Seminary — the flagship educational institution for Conservative Judaism in the United States — is one of the greatest in the Jewish world. Its name had been the Ivan F. and Seema Boesky Family Library (he and Seema would ultimately get divorced, and Ivan would remarry).

The New York Times could have mentioned that, in the wake of the insider trading scandal, the seminary decided to remove that name.


Boesky himself requested they do so.

The Hebrew term for “embarrassment” is busha. I would like to imagine Boesky understood that. I would like to imagine he knew he had not only committed crimes, he had not only disgraced himself, but by implication the Jewish community and Judaism itself.

We Jews do not spend much time speculating on what happens in the world after death.

But as I contemplate the entrance of Ivan Boesky into eternity, I recall this text from the Talmud (Shabbat, 31a):

When a person ascends to the ultimate judgement, they ask these questions: “Did you set aside fixed times for study? Did you engage in the mitzvah of procreation? Did you hope for salvation?”

But there was another question that would take precedence over those questions:

“Did you conduct your business with faithfulness to the Jewish ethical tradition?”

If you believe in the World to Come, or in heaven, you might imagine a heavenly being asking Ivan Boesky those questions.

May God comfort his family and his loved ones.

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