2009-07-10 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

Columnist Richard Cohen (FRHS '58) Speaks of Madoff
Commentary By Howard Schwach

Richard Cohen and I have some things in common.

Cohen is a Far Rockaway High School Graduate, class of 1958. I am a Far Rockaway High School, class of 1957.

Cohen is a nationally-known columnist for the Washington Post, and is syndicated in dozens of papers throughout the United States, including the New York Daily News. I am the managing editor of The Wave.

Ok, so maybe we don't have that much in common. Saying we are both journalists is a little like saying that Cohen plays for the Yankees and I play for a senior's league at Riis Park.

We both, however, get paid for writing our opinions because people want to read them.

Recently, Cohen wrote a column about convicted serial money manipulator Bernie Madoff (FRHS, class of '56) and his wife, Ruth (FRHS, class of '58).

"I was in the class of 1958, two years behind Bernie, but in the same class as his wife, Ruth," Cohen wrote. "She was my friend, or so our yearbook strongly suggests, although my memory of our friendship no longer speaks to me. I remember her only as really cute, an object of desire across a classroom or another. But in the yearbook she wrote a long inscription It seems I teased her. It seems I kidded her. She forgave me all that and ended by writing that I would 'meet Bernie at the prom - and I guarantee that he will say hello.'

"When I tell people about my relationship with Bernie and Ruth, they sometimes gasp. When I show them the yearbook, they hold it as if it's a poisonous snake. My yearbook is the closest most people come to evil. Bernie is evil, which is what the judges said on Monday in sentencing him to 150 years in jail. This yearbook has become like a Nazi artifact. It is compelling. It is repulsive. It is about evil.

"To fully comprehend Bernie's evil, you have to know something about Maimonides. He was a 12th-century Jewish sage, born in Spain but died in Egypt (where he was the court physician). Among other things, he codified the solemn obligation to be charitable. It was this obligation that so many of Bernie's investors were fulfilling. It was the satisfaction of this obligation that commended them for membership in their country clubs. They thought they were doing good. For them, as for Maimonides, it was not enough to be rich. You have to be charitable as well. Bernie took the money intended for charity. He played them all for suckers.

"This is evil. This is not stealing from the rich, as it is sometimes characterized, but from the poor - the sick, the student, the refugee, the politically repressed. The list of charities damaged or sunk by Bernie is long. He stole from his friends. He stole from his family. He stole from my friends. At his sentencing, Ruth denounced him. Good. She said she could not believe what he had done. 'The man who committed this horrible fraud is not the man whom I have known all these years' [she said].

"The 50th reunion of the class of '58 was held about a month before Bernie's scheme collapsed. He and Ruth came and although I was oblivious to them - distracted by others, I guess - I am told then were greeted and hugged and warmly welcomed. But, after that, not a big deal was made of them. Then the news broke and the e-mails whizzed back and forth. Prodded by a newspaper reporter, I exhumed the yearbook and was stunned to discover the inscription. It turned out I knew Ruth. It turned out that she never knew Bernie."

Great stuff.

I did know Cohen when we both attended Far Rockaway High School, and believe that we were in a few classes together.

I must have seen Bernie Madoff swim for the Far Rockaway swim team, although I have no recollection of him as a person.

You see, even then, in the dark ages of the mid 1950s (Happy Days times), there was a rigid class structure at Far Rockaway High School that extended from the local diner on Beach Channel Drive to the school cafeteria.

First, were the jocks and the cheerleaders, the top of the heap. They had the back booths at the State Diner and they were the stars of the school.

Next, came the kids who came by Long Island Railroad each day to the school from Laurelton. They were the rich kids from the mainland and they ruled the roost, along with the Nponsit and Belle Harbor kids.

Bernie was from Laurelton. Although I believe that Ruth was from Belle Harbor, a recent New York Magazine piece said that she was from Laurelton as well.

I was from Wavecrest, definitely fourth tier.

At our fiftieth reunion in 2007, a woman came up to me and looked at my nametag, which had my school picture affixed.

"You weren't one of the elite, were you?" she asked.

I told her that I was definitely Dlist and she walked away.

That's what Rockaway was like in those days.

There were no fraternities at the school, but the elite Jewish kids belonged to the American Zionist Association (AZA) and they wore club jackets proudly proclaiming their membership.

The poor and lower middle class kids from Far Rockaway, Wavecrest, Edgemere and Arverne could not break into the AZA, so we formed our own organization. I can still remember its name, more than 50 years later. We too, had club jackets. They proclaimed that we were members of the BCSZ - the Boys Club of Share Zedek, a synagogue on Beach 38 Street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard.

Those were the days, my friend. And, they ended with Bernie Madoff and his prison sentence.

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