NEW YORK (JTA) — True story: Back in 2008, one of my son’s favorite games was one we called “Bernie Madoff.” It was basically cops and robbers — I played a police officer and Elie, 3, was Bernie. The object of the game was that I chased him until I caught him.
It was silly fun — but it was also a way to make light of the crazy situation that was unfolding around us. Because when the notorious Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff made international news for swindling investors out of a staggering $65 billion, my family’s name became equated with evil incarnate.
The absence of a single “f” — we spell it Madof but pronounce it “made-off,” just like Bernie does — is what separated my family from this monster. All at once, we were getting dirty looks at restaurants, doctors’ offices, car mechanics. Alongside “nice to meet you,” the standard greeting from the Madof family included the disclaimer “no relation.”
Over the years, the sniggers and glares lessened in intensity and frequency. But now I’m worried they’ll return. ABC is premiering a two-night miniseries, “Madoff,” starring Richard Dreyfuss, and HBO has a movie coming down the pike with Robert De Niro. The news apparently has trickled down to elementary school children. Last week my son, Jacob, 9, excitedly told me, “Abba! There’s a TV show coming out called ‘Madoff!’”
I smiled at him but was filled with dread. Memories of the mad “Madoff years” came flooding back — and most of them were unpleasant.
There was the time, shortly after the scandal broke, when I ran into an old friend, a lawyer, at a party. We were catching up when the conversation took an abrupt turn.
“I’ll change your name,” he told me. “For free.”
When I laughed, he said, “I’m serious.”
For the record: I’ve never actually considered changing my name. But one time, I went to the drugstore to fill a prescription and just wasn’t in the mood to get the looks. (The stupid comments easily roll off me — it’s the looks that get under my skin.) When I gave my name to the pharmacist, I pronounced it “Mad-off.”
I didn’t get the looks — nobody made the connection.
For a minute or two I was jubilant, but as I left the store, I decided against adopting the new pronunciation. After all, Madof is my name. I’m not changing it just because someone else sullied it.
Still, my wife – who kept her maiden name when we married 15 years ago — and I sometimes joke that I should take her name. I’ve teasingly told my kids to heed my advice: “When you get married, you’ll take your spouse’s name,” I’ve said. “This name dies with me!”
Let’s take a second here to acknowledge something important: There are all sorts of fates far, far worse than having a name associated with a world-class con artist. In the face of violence, illness and poverty, if this is the worst of my family’s problems, I’ll take it.
What’s more, Madoff’s notoriety has unintentionally had some positive outcomes. For example, we used to have to spell out our surname. Now we only have to say, “No relation; one ‘f’.'”
And being named Madof can be funny, too. A few years ago, we were distributing misloach manot — baskets of food given as gifts at Purim — to some friends in our new neighborhood in White Plains, where we moved in 2009 from Riverdale. “Happy Purim from the Madofs,” the attached card read, and we decorated it with a photo of “Uncle Bernie,” as we sometimes call him. Everyone laughed.
In fact, the whiff of notoriety was helpful in starting out in a new town — people tended to remember us. Our second week in Westchester, we were at our new synagogue when a guy came up to me and said, “I remember your last name, but remind me of your first name?”
Overall, despite a few head-scratching incidents — one longtime friend emailed my brother at the height of the scandal, asking him, “Is this your family?” — most people I’ve met have been good-natured about the whole thing.
And if Madoff, who is serving 150 years in prison, is back in the news, I know the hoopla will pass. I’ve been given reliable advice in that department: Shortly after we moved to our new home, I met a neighbor named Berkowitz — the same surname as the 1970s serial killer known as Son of Sam.
He empathized with my situation.
“Believe me,” he said. “It blows over.”
“But this is 2009,” I countered, uncertain.
“Trust me,” he said. “It’ll happen.”
Still, there’s one thing that concerns me: It was relatively recently that I learned there was an actual scammer named Charles Ponzi, who so thoroughly dominated the media in 1920 that “Ponzi scheme” was named after him. (This has me wondering: Is the word “murder” named for the first guy who killed someone?)
Fortunately, Bernie Madoff hasn’t sunk to Ponzi’s level of notoriety — at least, not yet. Because once your surname becomes an adjective or a verb, well, that’s when you’re really screwed.
Jon Madof is the director of design and technology at JTA’s parent company, 70 Faces Media, and a musician. This story was told to and written by Lisa Keys.