Originally published in the Jerusalem Post, January 7, 2011.
It hasn’t been a good decade for Jews committing hilul Hashem, the “desecration of God’s name” – a term often applied to public scandals involving members of the tribe, money and tlaw.
Most would agree that Bernard Madoff, the nefarious swindler whose gross financial misdeeds impacted far and wide, tops the list of Jewish hall of shamers. But there was also the grand rabbi of Spinka, the Brooklyn-based hassidic sect, who pleaded guilty in 2009 to laundering money through Spinka charities. That same year Sholom Rubashkin, former CEO of the now bankrupt kosher slaughterhouse Agriprocessors, was convicted of money laundering in addition to bank fraud.
An Orthodox couple named only as Heidi and Mendy capped the decade as disgraced litigants in the daytime US reality TV show People’s Court, with a literal twist on the term “money laundering.” In an episode that would make many embarrassed co-religionists wish YouTube didn’t exist, the couple was caught red-handed trying to collect fraudulently on a sheitel that a Hispanic-owned laundry business ruined in the wash.
While that last case gets high marks for being sadly entertaining, the Jack Abramoff affair wins the award for most political intrigue and glamour. In 2006 the Modern Orthodox “super lobbyist” pleaded guilty to defrauding Native American casinos of millions and corrupting public officials through a series of interconnected scandals that spanned the Senate floor – Indian casinos, private jets, golf resorts in exotic places, gambling cruises. And finally prison.
He took down with him his coterie of Republican politicians and officials, including former House leader Tom DeLay, who ended up a contestant on Dancing with the Stars.
Roughly coinciding with Abramoff’s release from a Baltimore halfway house last month was the American release of Casino Jack, a docudrama about the scandal, directed by George Hickenlooper and starring two-time Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey as the title character.
The film shouldn’t be cause for too much panic among Jews who may have feared it would air more Jewish dirty laundry.
It plays like a comedy of errors and might even be seen as a happy ending for the disgraced felon, especially considering he was a huge film buff and movie producer himself.
Abramoff was behind Dolph Lundgren’s espionage thriller Red Scorpion. If not for his crimes, Abramoff might indeed not have gotten to meet Spacey, who earned a Golden Globe nod for his portrayal of Abramoff as a comical antihero.
FOR AN interview at his publicist’s Hollywood office just before the film’s December 17 opening in the US, Spacey wore a black fedora, recalling the most iconic image of Abramoff: He’s walking down the Senate steps after the guilty verdict, wearing a black fedora and trench coat, looking like a Jewish Don Corleone.
But Spacey said that he, like Abramoff, was wearing the fedora by coincidence, revealing a type of cosmic synchronicity between the two.
“The reality was that he always wore hats because he always wore a yarmulke,” Spacey said, with an apologetic understanding that comes through in his portrayal. “And he didn’t like to push his religion on other people, and that particular day [at the Senate] it was raining, and he really just grabbed a hat out of the closet, and it was a really bad choice.”
Spacey matched his fedora with a distinguished three-piece dark gray suit, befitting his seven-year tenure as artistic director of The Old Vic Theatre in London, for which he was granted honorary knighthood.
In real life, Spacey’s look, demeanor and career might almost give cause to make him an honorary Jew. His speech is sprinkled with an intellectual, self-deprecating humor common to famous Jewish comedians. Spacey introduced the interview with, “In the interest of full disclosure, I have to tell you that he [Abramoff] was deeply, deeply upset that George Clooney wasn’t playing him.”
Physically, his dark hair and eyes and rather generic, pale countenance make good casting for American Jewish archetypes. He played Jewish lawyer Ron Klain in Recount, an HBO film about the 2000 presidential elections, but he is most remembered for his role as Lester Burnham in American Beauty, who, while not Jewish, comes off as an adult Portnoy. Spacey is a socially conscious Hollywood liberal, and his producer credits on Recount and The Social Network reflect that side of him.
TO BECOME Abramoff, Spacey consulted with rabbis on Judaism, read the same Jewish primer that guided Abramoff, To Be a Jew, and watched Fiddler on the Roof, the film said to have inspired the 12-year-old Abramoff towards Orthodoxy during his years at Beverly Hills High School.
“I had to learn davening and wrapping and all that stuff,” Spacey said. Ironically, Spacey, as Abramoff, corrects this mispronunciation when it’s uttered by his convert wife Pam, played by Kelly Preston. The “wrapping and all that stuff” is obviously a reference to tefillin.
Spacey was less concerned with the mechanical renderings of Judaism than with the internal world of the neoconservative lobbyist. Since he lived in London at the time the scandal made headlines in the US, Spacey didn’t know much about it before meeting with Abramoff at his Maryland prison.
“I’m going to give myself a chance to meet the man and try and ask him questions. Not so much about is this true or false, or did this happen or that happen about the case, because I figured I can unearth that in different ways,” Spacey said, describing his mind-set at the time. “So I went with a kind of just: I wanted to see if I could get him to talk about what was happening with him emotionally and sort of pick up personality traits, and that was very, very powerful.”
Hickenlooper died of a sudden heart attack a few weeks before the film’s release, but in his introduction to the published screenplay, the director describes how during their meeting Spacey and Abramoff “seemed to get along like a house on fire.” He observed a shared charisma, charm, wit and talent for impersonations.
“And in fact, the meeting culminated with Kevin doing impersonations of Bill Clinton and speaking to Jack as the president, and Abramoff speaking back to Spacey as Ronald Reagan,” Hickenlooper wrote. “For a moment it became a kind of hilarious, surreal presidential summit with these two iconic personalities [Spacey and Abramoff] from opposite worlds finding a kind of affable synchronicity – at least enough of one for Spacey to leave the meeting feeling as though he might have struck an emotional chord within himself and within Jack – a similar enough note that might make this vilified, Washington bad guy a palatable figure to portray as a kind of empathetic antihero.”
As part of his research, Spacey spoke with Abramoff’s former colleagues, friends and enemies in Washington, many of whom came out of the woodwork through a Facebook page Hickenlooper had set up about the film. The original screenplay, written by Jewish screenwriter Norman Snider, evolved as more clues into Abramoff’s life and personality came to the fore.
“And what I came away with was that, as often is the case in these kinds of stories, it was far less black and white and far more gray and complex than I knew,” Spacey said. “And then the script just sort of expanded and changed and shifted because we learned a lot, not just from him but a lot of people, and I think that was really when the humor [came out] and George and I sort of said, ‘Look, let’s have a chat, let’s make a comedy because it is so outrageous and some of the decisions and the misjudgements are inherently funny.’”
To frame Abramoff’s morally ambiguous persona as the main “event” of the film, Spacey suggested to Hickenlooper opening the film with the speech Abramoff gives to his bathroom mirror in lieu of the world.
“You know, I do a sh*tload of reading and studying and praying, and I’ve come to a few conclusions I want to share,” Spacey tells his reflection, ferociously waving a toothbrush.
Among them: “You’re either a big leaguer or you’re a slave clawing your way onto the C train. Some people say, ‘Jack Abramoff moves too fast. Jack Abramoff cuts corners.’ Well, I say to them, if that’s the difference between me and my family having a good life and walking and using the subway every day, then so be it. I will not allow my family to be slaves.”
It’s a vulgar manifesto for the American dream that should resonate with Jews: He insistently pushes away slavery for a life of prosperity and good family values. Christian Republicans become his allies in safeguarding this dream, and at an interfaith meeting, Abramoff goes so far as to say, “God wants people to be liquid,” as in capitalistic.
While Abramoff scams the Indian gaming industry, telling Indian chiefs he understands “what it feels like to be a persecuted minority,” he defaults on his mortgage so he can establish Eshkol Academy, a state-of-the-art private Jewish school for boys, equipped with a hockey rink. He opens the only kosher restaurant on K Street – a deli – so his Jewish friends can have a place to eat in Washington. And in the film, the ardent Zionist defends, in passing, his illegal funneling of security equipment to West Bank settlers.
“Here you have a man who is incredibly, incredibly faithful to his beliefs and his religion, incredibly faithful to his family, and in fact his wife stuck by him through all of this – they’re still together – and on the other hand, making decisions [that make] you think: ‘Really?’ That’s very complicated,” Spacey said.
AMID THE outbreak of the Abramoff scandal, the US Jewish community responded in two ways, usually along party/religious lines, as it is wont to do with cases pitting profit against a complex American legislation: morally righteous indignation and defensive apologetics.
Casino Jack finds a middle ground. Abramoff is portrayed as the victim of the hypocrisy of other politicians, including president George W. Bush and especially Sen. John McCain, who were quick to distance themselves from the disgraced Abramoff even as they were allegedly beneficiaries of his schemes.
Given Spacey’s and Hickenlooper’s political leanings, conservatives have room to argue that the film is far more unflattering to the Republican Party than it is to Jewish lawbreakers.
Hickenlooper was a self-professed political junkie and former Republican who became disillusioned with the Bush administration and switched sides by voting for Barack Obama.
Spacey denies any political agenda; it’s a cautionary tale about the abuses of power.
“I think the Democrats are just as guilty in terms of power and influence and access as the Republicans are,” Spacey said. “He happened to be a Republican, but this isn’t a oneparty problem.”
In Casino Jack, it takes another Jew to call Abramoff out on his Jewish hypocrisy.
Abramoff’s front man in his disastrous attempt to take over the SunSail gambling cruise line (factually SunCruz) is the sleazy, chubby, moblinked disbarred lawyer and mattress mogul Adam Kidan, played by Jon Lovitz. Kidan calls Abramoff a “fake Jew fat f*ck” when they argue over the gangland style hit of SunSail owner Gus Boulis.
Lovitz, a friend of Spacey’s for more than 25 years, had no qualms immortalizing a scandal by playing such a seedy Jew. Sitting in Spacey’s chair in an interview a few weeks earlier, Lovitz, a nonpracticing Jew, shared thoughts that might allay some concerns about damage to the public reputation of the faith and the faithful.
“Look, if someone’s Jewish and cheap, it’s not because they’re Jewish. It’s because they’re a cheap person. It’s not the religion. There are good people and bad people of everything. I never looked at it like he [Kidan] was a bad ‘Jewish’ guy, but [rather that] there are bad people who are Jewish.”
Spacey plainly shared those sentiments and also sounded that characteristic empathetic note for his on-screen character. “Yes, he [Abramoff] did some things he shouldn’t have done,” he said. “He crossed the line; he broke the law. All of that’s true.
“But if there is an environment and culture in which you think that’s what everybody’s doing, boy, it sure is convenient to throw someone like him under the bus and say, ‘See, we’ve cleaned up our industry. We put this bad man away.’”