Big Macher by Zach Swiss

When the news about Mr. Margolis broke my mother asked my father if he remembered him at temple on Rosh Hashanah. That, at least, is how I–the family’s self-appointed archivist–recorded her question in the rose-covered notebook I used to capture all manner of domestic minutiae. But recalling it now and extrapolating from mother-daughter conversations she and I would later have I’m certain I deliberately misquoted her. What she really said was: “do you remember that bastard at temple on Rosh Hashanah?” I was 12 at the time and while I’m somewhat surprised I’d have registered the word “bastard” as a curse (it wasn’t one shouted out by the bad, popular boys during recess) I’m not at all surprised my instinct would’ve been to censor the official record (I was prissy). My mother did not curse frequently; when she did the effect was jarring. She was not shy about notifying my father and I when she was “miffed” or “ticked” about something but those words sounded so quaint that they neutered the force of her anger. “That bastard” signaled a purer concentration of anger; from that one inappropriate word, more seemed likely to follow. I’d learn soon that there were several reasons to be very angry with Mr. Margolis but I’ve never been sure which most inflamed my mother that morning. My father, for his part, was characteristically stoic. “Yes Esther, I remember,” he said. I was silent, but I did too.

Temple during the high holidays was completely different than temple at any other time. For the rest of the year, temple meant weeknight Hebrew school lessons in a dank basement classroom led by a stern older lady with no patience for pubescent misbehavior (naturally, I was her favorite). “Be quiet and control yourselves,” she’d snap on our rare visits to the synagogue which attached to that space a sense of required reverence and forced solemnity. Once a term, our class would lead Friday evening prayers and even with all our parents there, the synagogue was never more than a quarter full. It was a reform temple, regular attendance was low. The cynic in me would venture that the vast majority of congregants’ annual membership dues funded exactly two days of worship; I’d further venture that “worship” may not be the right word to describe most congregants’ motivation for attending on those two holiest of days.

But perhaps I’m being uncharitable. While the synagogue oddly seemed least reverent and solemn on the high holidays, that had as much to do with the reconfigurations required to accommodate the influx of attendees as with their behavior. Normally the temple’s second floor was divided into three distinct spaces: bland entry foyer, gaudy banquet hall and darkly austere synagogue. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the collapsible walls separating the spaces opened and in the resulting mega-space the banquet hall’s gaudiness and the synagogue’s dark austerity were overpowered by the blandness of the foyer. Temple never looked more unexceptional.

And the congregation never looked more impressive. Services began at 9 in the morning; an hour earlier, the parking lot would start to fill with shiny Audis, BMWs and Lexuses (for the defiant holdouts who proudly refused to drive German). Families emerged, polished and well-dressed, as perfectly composed little units, striding to the entrance with the cohesive force of tightly bound nuclei. Men sported dark suits, women displayed the remnants of late summer tans. Everyone wore sunglasses. Most found a car to wave to on their walk in. Drivers lowered their windows to shout, “Can you believe this mess,” even as parking attendants methodically directed traffic, and husbands disentangled from wives to scream back, “Insanity,” though the parking situation was no better or worse from one year to the next.

Inside, the cushioned pews up front filled fastest. It was temple so some degree of decorum governed the scramble for seats. Still, when I’d scan the rows nearest the bema I always noticed, among the few regular congregants who reliably arrived earliest, the mothers from town I knew to be pushiest. Every year, at the end of services, my father would stand gingerly, clutching his lower back, and swear that next year we’d better arrive early enough for a spot in the pews, that he had half a mind to say something to the temple president about the terrible metal folding chairs, and every year my mother would say sharply, “That’s enough nonsense, Ronnie, you’ll do no such thing.” Never once did we get seats in the cushioned pews.

Mr. Margolis always did. While I remember observing him at temple many times over the years, I recall only one specific interaction with him, though it’s possible there were others I’ve forgotten. It was at Rosh Hashanah services, just a few days before the news about him broke. We’d just taken seats 11 rows past the end of the pews, my father huffing about his poor back (an old grievance) and poor view (a new one). “Ronnie, you’re exhausting,” my mother whispered caustically, a catch-all recrimination she’d recently begun using. It sounded unnecessarily harsh to me, several notches more cutting than her old standard (“That’s enough, Ronnie”) and while I initially excluded the new phrase from the daily recaps I logged in my flower notebook, it had become too common to ignore. My father, for his part, seemed oblivious to the switch. Services wouldn’t begin for another half hour and I sensed my mother growing tense. Not for the first time, I wondered if she deliberately sacrificed my father’s comfort to minimize her own discomfort. If she truly wanted us to arrive at temple early enough to claim comfortable seats we would have; that we perpetually missed the mark seemed intentional. I don’t mean to make my mother sound cruel, only to underscore how much she loathed the next phase of the proceedings: the schmoozing phase. “I love your dress,” Barbara Feldstein (to our left) would say to Michelle Schuster (a row ahead), who’d reply, “Thank you; Bloomingdale’s; by the way, your hair looks fabulous,” and then Michelle would say, “Oh, excuse me, there’s Karen Cohen,” and she’d sidle a few seats over to kiss Karen’s cheek and say, “I saw you at Firenze’s last week but didn’t get a chance to say hello,” and Karen would say, “Yes, we’d just come from Sammy’s game; he pitched a shutout; Marty’s been researching college teams; he says middle school’s not too early to start preparing,” and meanwhile Barbara would have approached Joyce Baum to ask how her cruise went and Joyce would say, “Fantastic until the final night when Stephen and Ezra Shapiro–you knew we went with the Shapiros, right?–got into a huge fight about Jillian’s Bat Mitzvah being at the same place they had Madison’s and Ezra accused me and Stephen of copying him, as if he has exclusive rights to Temple Beth Torah and it became a whole big thing and we haven’t spoken to them since we’ve been back,” and Barbara would say, “Well at least you got a great tan,” and a few rows back Michelle would have found Janet Klein and, in slightly quieter tones and with an occasional glance back at Karen, would say, “I made one comment about seeing her at Firenze’s and she goes on and on about Sammy this and Sammy that and Marty fielding offers from the Yankees for a slot in the starting rotation and not once did she ask how Eric’s cello lessons are going; honestly I’ve had it with her,” and Barbara would have spotted Leslie Horowitz and would breathlessly be saying, “Apparently the Baums are no longer on speaking terms with the Shapiros; the cruise sounds like a total disaster and I can’t say I’m surprised; I warned Joyce about the Shapiros so frankly shame on her for not listening to me.” And so on, and so forth, in endless permutations. The women most visibly relished this phase, strutting from row to row in spindly heels and extravagant jewelry, careful to greet the right people and ignore the rest. The men tended to cluster at the edges in large groups; I remember one year we sat near such a cluster and the talk focused on stocks, cars and golf, three topics that were completely impenetrable to me and while I have no memory of what specifically was said, I do remember how they said it: authoritatively, each comment made with enough confidence and certitude to carry the force of proclamation (those clusters were not for the meek). And what did the kids do during the schmoozing phase? The littlest were immediately shuffled to basement classrooms where Sunday school teachers led junior services tailored to an audience with a shorter attention span (not that it wouldn’t have also been appropriate for many adults upstairs). As for the older kids, those around my age, I’m not sure where they disappeared to; wherever it was, I was never invited. By age 12 the boys were all interested in girls, just not me, and the girls paid me as much attention at temple as they did everywhere else, which is to say none at all. If that sounds horribly self-pitying, I’d note that only years later, with the benefit of hindsight and therapy, can I make such an admission; at the time, I’d have insisted that I was avoiding them as much as they were avoiding me, that temple–particularly during the high holidays–was a place for reflection not socializing, that sitting with my family was far more important than chasing around the quote unquote popular kids. I was my mother’s daughter through and through. She was not fashionable and didn’t much care to be. She hated small talk and superficiality. She had few friends among the town mothers–she had few friends period–and her stern, unfriendly disposition was both a consequence of and reason for the little attention paid to her by the other women. (For what it’s worth, my father seemed completely unfazed by his unpopularity.) On the day of the encounter with Mr. Margolis, though, my mother scored a visitor.

Marie Stone was the mother of Ashley Stone, the girl with whom I’d share my Bat Mitzvah service in a month. Ashley was proving to be a lackadaisical student, showing up unprepared for our lessons with the cantor, while I, at my mother’s urging, studied enough to have already nearly mastered the odd arpeggios in my haftarah portion. But Ashley was a sweet girl and seemed impressed rather than embarrassed by my avidness. I liked her. When Marie waved from a few aisles over my mother made no reciprocal gesture of greeting; as far as I know she had no idea who Marie was and assumed the wave was directed at someone else. But Marie, all smiles, walked over anyway and introduced herself. “Hi! I’m Marie Stone! Our daughters are getting Bat Mitzvah-ed together!” (Marie spoke in exclamations!) “I hear Miriam”–she gave me a wave and a broad smile—“is a fabulous student! You must be very proud!” The encounter probably looked vaguely ridiculous from afar: Marie, pretty, petite and practically bouncing with good cheer, standing before the three of us, seated, dour and stone-faced, as if she was participating in some kind of Judaic panel interview. My mother replied tonelessly, “I’m Esther, this is my husband Ronnie and my daughter Miriam and yes, we are quite proud.” Marie was voluble: she described her own upbringing (nominally Catholic), her pre-marriage conversion to Judaism (nodding towards her husband Jeffrey, in mid-conversation near the bema) and her excitement for her daughter’s transition to womanhood (I blushed). I sensed my mother’s tension ebb as Marie spoke. Then Marie said, “Oh, there’s Isaac Margolis,” and called out to get his attention. He was several yards away, strolling down the center aisle, stopping every few steps to shake a hand, kiss a cheek or wave hello to someone he recognized. It was a performance we’d seen many times over the years. As we waited for him to reach us, Marie said, “Do you know Isaac; he’s a big macher around here,” and I knew my mother had grown tense again.

We did not know him, but of course we knew of him: his son and I attended the same school, his wife was once the PTA president and he led a charity for childhood leukemia that sponsored an annual festival in the town park. A moment later Mr. Margolis stood before us. He kissed Marie on each cheek, laid a hand atop hers and leaned in close to whisper something in her ear that made her giggle, cover her mouth and place a palm lightly on his chest. I studied him. He wore no socks with his shiny brown loafers. His navy suit was pin-striped, tie burgundy, and shirt sky blue, with a stiff, white collar hugging his thick neck. His glasses were frameless; thin golden arms running from the glass to his ears. He was tan with dark hair swept back from his forehead and rigidly gelled in place. His teeth were extraordinarily white. My mother and I were motionless as he and Marie chatted; my father absentmindedly rubbed his back. If before we appeared to be subjecting Marie to a panel interview, I imagine we now looked like film extras buried deep in the background of a crowded scene, mute and unnoticed. When Marie finally said, “Do you know the Lefkowitzes,” he inclined his head in our direction. “Miriam and Ashley will be sharing a Bat Mitzvah service,” Marie continued as Mr. Margolis stared. “You must know Matthew,” he said to me and I nodded. I knew of his son, one grade ahead, and was sure he’d not know of me. “Why aren’t you with the other kids?” he asked. “Why don’t you run along to the library and if they give you a hard time, say I sent you.” I mumbled unintelligibly about services starting soon and stared at my feet–the sensation I felt right then was not something I’d record in my notebook that night. Mr. Margolis turned to my father: “You folks new to the congregation,” he asked and my father said “Nope, been coming for years.” Mr. Margolis looked skeptical. My father, thankfully, seemed not to notice, as he massaged his lower back. “Bad seats?” Mr. Margolis asked. “I’m on the temple’s infrastructure committee; I’ll mull upgrades next year,” he said. As he leaned in to inspect my father’s metal chair, his yarmulke tumbled off. “Hand-stitched,” he said, plucking it from my father’s lap and showily twirling it before placing it back on his shiny black hair. “Well,” he said, “I promised Sol a word before services.” (Solomon Wittlestein was our rabbi.) “Marie, always a pleasure,” he said and again delicately kissed her cheeks. “Nice meeting you folks,” he said, turning from us. Before he reached the aisle’s end a balding man in gold sunglasses excitedly yelled, “Margolis,” and bounded towards him; the two men embraced in the aisle. Moments later Marie excused herself and services started shortly after.

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed; so goes the ancient Jewish poem we recited each year at the rabbi’s command. I took it as both a warning and a call to action. Only prayer, charity and repentance could influence the divine judgment rendered on me, my family, everyone during the ten days between the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement. The poem asks: who shall live and who shall die, who shall be poor and who shall be rich, who shall be humbled and who exalted? One week after we met Mr. Margolis on Rosh Hashanah and three days before Yom Kippur, the news broke.

His investment firm was bankrupt. For months he’d attempted to bribe regulators to block the announcement. The source of these attempted bribes was the charity for cancer-stricken children he’d founded and managed for the past two decades. It too was bankrupt; whatever money had not gone to his failing business went to his personal bank account or to the account of a woman named Annabeth Pruitt who lived in a luxury condo in the trendiest neighborhood in Charlotte, North Carolina along with her two young children, Clarence and Theodore. Their birth certificates listed Isaac Margolis as father.

Somehow Mr. Margolis had received a tip about raids federal agents planned to execute at each of the three properties listed to his name (the mansion in our Westchester suburb, a vacation home in the Berkshires and the condo in Charlotte) and in the early morning hours on the day of the raids he purchased a one-way ticket to Lebanon, a country with no extradition treaty with the United States, and boarded a plane at Newark. The raids proceeded as scheduled. When agents swarmed the Westchester property his wife Linda swore he’d gone to his golf club for an early morning round. The Feds assumed she was lying to abet his escape but later determined she’d been answering honestly. Isaac had told her he’d be back by noon. He’d not woken their son Matthew to say goodbye.

As agents catalogued the family’s belongings in the coming days it became apparent that several pieces of jewelry had gone missing from Linda’s closet, including a gold brooch given to her as a young girl by her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor. Linda told the agents she had seen the brooch–valued at well over $30,000–only days earlier, when she’d been selecting a necklace for synagogue. She also noticed a missing silver bracelet, a wedding gift from a wealthy cousin, that she’d been told had cost several thousand dollars and that she admitted she’d not seen for some time. Investigators later recovered the bracelet in the condo occupied by Annabeth Pruitt.

The government seized the family’s assets. Property and possessions were liquidated to help remunerate jilted investors. One account unaffected by the seizures was Matthew Margolis’ college fund. Linda had left all financial matters to her husband, who created and oversaw the account. It had been emptied years earlier, agents informed her. Mr. Margolis had also assured her that he’d created a retirement account in her name (though she had not held a job at any point during their marriage). Agents found no evidence that such an account ever existed.

The news leaked out in dribs and drabs. The first story, which ran in a local Westchester paper, only covered the bankruptcy, embezzlement and bribery allegations. The following day, after Mr. Margolis’ dramatic escape to Beirut, coverage expanded to The Wall Street Journal. By week’s end, after Clarence and Theodore’s birth certificates came to light, The New York Times ran a page one article on the imbroglio. The national publications quickly lost interest and shied away from the story soon after, but the Westchester paper reliably published new revelations continuously for the next several months. Some of these stories I read myself but much of the news reached me secondhand.

Everyone talked about it, yet no one seemed to know what to say. People shook their heads in disbelief. They said things like, “inconceivable,” “outrageous,” “despicable,” but their fury was muted by the sheer incomprehensibility of an evil so pure and boundless living among them, undetected, for so long. It was a multi-faceted evil, sin layered upon sin, and it had not existed in some darkened shadow but had flourished in broad daylight, in the schools, stores and temple everyone shared. Mr. Margolis had been a pillar of the community; the shame over the social status he’d been allowed to achieve was communal.

Rumors sprouted. It was inevitable, communal shame notwithstanding. The rumors may have been true to some degree, or perhaps to none at all, though I struggle to imagine anyone deliberately concocting false stories to compound the already unthinkable facts of the case. But Mr. Margolis had permanently altered the assumptions we’d all held on what people were or were not capable of so who knows; maybe the malicious gossip really was made from whole cloth. There were rumors of collusion, of money stashed away, of tawdry affairs. Marie Stone’s name was mentioned. Shortly after her Bat Mitzvah, Ashley Stone’s parents divorced.

Linda and Matthew Margolis moved away by year’s end. What else could they do? The mansion sat vacant and unkempt for more than a year. I have no idea where they went.

“Do you remember that bastard at temple on Rosh Hashanah?” my mother asked my father that first morning over breakfast (cottage cheese, blueberries and herbal tea, the usual). “Yes Esther, I remember,” my father replied. My mother read aloud phrases from the article. “A smug, evil man,” she said when she reached the end and though she shook her head in disgust, her mouth had a thin curl to it.

The news that first day left little impression on me. A few days earlier, I received an unexpected invite to Ashley Stone’s Bat Mitzvah party. I remember spinning bizarre scenarios to myself as I agonized over whether to go. Maybe an elderly uncle would demand an encore of the morning’s service and I’d be called upon to join Ashley on the dais to recite our haftarah portion. Maybe my classmates would refuse to have me at their table so I’d be haphazardly wedged in somewhere across the room with out-of-town cousins. Neither scenario seemed at all likely but such were the cringe-worthy delusions of 13-year-old me. My mother said the decision to attend or not would be mine alone but she couldn’t resist placing a thumb on the scale via repeated reminders that we’d have our own out-of-town relatives visiting that weekend. That was enough for me. Under the laughable pretense that my high-school-aged cousins might want to spend their Saturday night with me (all prior evidence to the contrary) I RSVP-ed no. It was inevitable; I just wasn’t the kind of girl who went to parties like Ashley’s.

I mention all this to emphasize that the nascent Isaac Margolis scandal was hardly top-of-mind for me. With typical naiveté, I assumed that meant it wasn’t top-of-mind for my parents either. Obviously I was wrong.

My notebook contains no record of the conversation I overheard that night (what a sloppy archivist I turned out to be). I remember that it was late and as I was going to bed I realized I’d left something in my parents’ bedroom I’d need for the following day. I crept through the hall thinking they’d be sleeping and I could sneak in, recover what I needed and sneak out unnoticed. But I heard them talking to each other when I reached their door. “The whole time he was at our seats he didn’t acknowledge my existence,” I heard my mother say. “Not a word, not a glance. I wasn’t worth a moment of his time and look at him now. I call that karma.” She sounded content. There was a moment of silence behind the door. Then I heard my father say: “What good is a hand-stitched yarmulke anyway?”



Zach Swiss lives in New York City and works as Chief of Staff at Heineken USA. He holds a BA in Government from Dartmouth College. His writing has appeared in Valparaiso Fiction Review, 34th Parallel Magazine, Typishly and The MacGuffin; his latest work is set for publication in EVENT later this year.