The billionaire matchmaker: Phoebe Maltz Bovy takes Michael Steinhardt’s ‘Jewish Pride’ for a ride

This may surprise some of you, but I am not a billionaire.

After my Toronto Public Library copy of Michael Steinhardt’s Jewish Pride arrived, I took the esteemed Mr. Steinhardt, or rather his words, on the Queensway bus to Ikea in Etobicoke. I wanted a specific, vaguely Art Deco mirror, you see, and, not being a billionaire, was not going to pay the price of the mirror itself to have said mirror delivered.

I also do not have a suspicious collection of antiquities, although the mirror-schlepping anecdote above might have given away as much.

All told, you might think I have little in common with American Jewish financier and philanthropist Michael Steinhardt. He was early to hedge funds; I do not know what a hedge fund is, the name summoning, in my mind, a literal green hedge.

But the forces of culture are a strange thing. He grew up around the same time as my father, also in one of the still-not-glamorous Italian and Jewish sections of Brooklyn, and it seems possible they went to the same (public) middle school. That may be where the paths diverged, but I do, to an extent, see where Michael Steinhardt is coming from.

The vision of secular American Jewishness the author has evidently devoted his life to supporting is one I can relate to, because it is the type of Jewish I am. I similarly see Jews as a people, and think a religious-only understanding fails to properly account for the many people who are Jews as in what on Earth else would they be, but who are neither believers nor synagogue-goers.

Also like Steinhardt, I cringe at the ultra-universalist strain in progressive American Judaism, where the idea is to save the world without ever prioritizing Jews in particular.

But I’m going to have to return to where I—and virtually all of us—differ from Michael Steinhardt, which is that most of us do not have the means to shape society into what we’d like, on a grand scale. With the help of “writing partner” David Hazony, the author uses the book to assess his own impact.

Some of it, then, is a self-assessment of his various philanthropic endeavours—Hebrew-language charter schools, Jewish retreats, an entrepreneurial disruption of the idea of a multi-sanctuary synagogue called “Synaplex” etc.—and whether or not these were good uses of his money. He complains about the stodgy, inefficient world of American Jewish philanthropy, with its emphasis on honouring donors, which is inadvertently amusing.

Steinhardt co-founded (with Charles Bronfman) the program that sends Jewish young adults on free trips to the Jewish state, Taglit-Birthright Israel. He’s done plenty in his day, but this is what he’s known for most.

Jewish Pride made it all click where Birthright is coming from, ideologically. It is—or was, on my 2007 trip—pro-Israel, but more like, pro-supporting-Israel, from a safe distance. It’s much more about connecting Diaspora Jewish participants with one another, such that they might, perhaps, hit it off and have 10 children. (“These kids would potentially be making lifelong friendships on Birthright—and a few lasting romances, too.”) Indeed, if some incredibly rich people set their minds to it, they can, apparently, nudge Jews away from intermarriage at a statistically significant level.

There’s a long passage about the brilliance of the Birthright bus (as versus a suburban Toronto bus) as a concept, the bonding that takes place. It is unfortunate that I am now remembering the Birthright-provided vouchers for gin-and-tonics that took place the night before a bumpy early-morning bus excursion. I did not leave the trip with a Jewish husband, but I did, alas, vomit on that bus.

Reading while balancing a larger-than-expected Ikea mirror on the bus.

What, then, is Jewish pride, for Steinhardt?

Unlike a book of the same title curiously published the previous year by Ben M. Freeman, the 2022 one called Jewish Pride is not “inspired by… expe­ri­ences with LGBTQ+ pride.” Rather, it’s something like the opposite of the “ASHamed Jews” in Howard Jacobson’s novel, The Finkler Question. It’s Jewish particularism rather than social-justice universalism. It’s shouting from the rooftops that you’re Jewish, perhaps while armed. (He opens Chapter 1 with the question, “Have you ever held an Uzi in your hands?” Spoiler: he has. He was never in the Israel Defense Forces but served on guard duty at a kibbutz.) And it’s feeling a personal connection to successful people who happen to be Jewish.

But it’s trite to say you should be proud of your background. And Steinhardt’s version of Jewish pride is a bit more tangible.

A lot of it has to do with in-marriage and natalism. A 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, showing increased rates of American Jewish intermarriage, spurred his activism. Along with Birthright, he was behind, among other things, “a physical space in New York City where less-engaged Jewish young adults, especially singles, would want to gather.”

And there, it would seem, he practices what he preaches. The book is dedicated to his (Jewish) wife, their three children, and their 13 grandchildren. That’s about as much continuity as any individual Jew is going to produce.

Part of Jewish pride, for Steinhardt, is Jewish “excellence,” which includes pride in the Jewish work ethic. “At the office, we’d rather work late nights making large amounts of money in new, creative ways,” he writes, leading me to question my own Jewish identity, seeing as I am doing exactly none of this with my life.

Steinhardt is a proud capitalist. He regards antisemitism as “the price you pay for success.” An atheist, he writes, “Despite my rejection of religion, I know very well that it can be an important driver of Jewish identity.” I too am an atheist but am gobsmacked at the interpretation of Judaism itself as a mere identity-driver. The religion piece is a bit all over the place. Is his target audience non-religious Jews? Non-Orthodox ones? How is “spiritual” Judaism secular? Anyway, moving on.

He has been #MeToo’d, a further data point for my theory that a demography-focused version of Jewishness is not necessarily the most respectful towards women, what with our value therein coming primarily from the ability to gestate the next generation. In the book, he acknowledges that this feminist critique of continuity politics exists, though he is not swayed. He also, in the same section, semi-addresses the accusations against him, namely that he “had a habit of making lewd comments in a professional setting.” This he semi-acknowledges, while doubling down about his demographic focus.

Steinhardt also recounts responding to a younger female employee’s professional success (she’d met some numbers goals) with, “’That’s bullshit,’” saying she should have aimed higher still. That’s because he’s tough, or something.

The author recounts meeting fellow billionaire, the Trump donor Sheldon Adelson, and his wife, and giving them “a serval, a kind of wildcat native to sub-Saharan Africa.” As one does. There is a photo of him with his own serval, in the book’s photo section.

Where a progressive memoirist might digress into a privilege disclaimer, Steinhardt holds forth, without self-consciousness, about the personal zoo he’s built for himself in New York State, complete with camels, lemurs, flamingos, and “zonkeys,” a sterile zebra-donkey hybrid he views as a metaphor for Jews. (The hybridity. One would imagine the sterility would pose continuity problems.)

Jewish Pride describes his mission as trying to recreate the secular Judaism of Israel, but in the United States. It’s an interesting idea, preserving in amber the skeptical, secular, unambiguous Jewishness of the Philip Roth-to-Jerry Seinfeld generation, but using philanthropic funds to replicate this highly specific way of life—born of a confluence of factors too specific to repeat themselves—for generations to come. Given the current precarious status of secular Judaism in Israel itself, one does wonder, but perhaps with a bit of scrimping in the serval budget, he can make it happen.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @bovymaltz