I’ve been covering Jack Abramoff pretty regularly here especially focusing on his Jewishness and the role it plays in his world view.
Every so often, I write a post and someone far more directly and personally connected with its subject writes to me with illuminating insight. I always welcome those serendipitous blogging moments.
This happened recently when Jay Rovins, Abramoff’s Brandeis University roommate for two years wrote to me with some heartfelt reminiscences of “life with Jack.” What I find interesting about Jay’s memory of Jack is that he says that at that time the latter “didn’t have a malicious bone in his body.” And Jay isn’t saying this to whitewash Abramoff. I think we’re both dumbfounded as to how a charismatic, driven, but essentially good-hearted college student can turn into the apparent monster that he became.
Jay graciously authorized me to publish here some of his memories of Abramoff. I publish them here because I believe that Abramoff has become a central figure linking many of the Republican scandals currently rocking Washington. As such, I think we should get a more well-rounded portrait of this man. As it is we’re hearing plenty about his sordid actions. But we hear very little about him as an individual. While I may despise both the man and the political animal, anyone this seemingly monstrous deserves to be known as a human being too:
Jack Abramoff was my room-mate for two years at Brandeis University. We were both English majors, class of ’81, we were both originally from southern New Jersey. Jack was not raised an Orthodox Jew. Jack, in my estimation, was one who adhered to his own particular forms of discipline. He was also, in high school, a weightlifter. Orthodoxy and weightlifting, among many more of Jack’s habits of the time, required this strange form of self-imposed discipline. Our tiny campus apartment, really three rooms, was strictly kosher. Jack disliked drugs, and never would drink much beyond wine for Shabbat. His head was always covered.
Jack and I would often discuss politics, arts, history, the poetry of Wallace Stevens, and more. Being friends at the time, we agreed to disagree.
He was driven even then to go beyond the limits that most of us acknowledged. He pushed too far, then, back when no one got hurt.
I attended my first Orthodox Yom Kippur services with Jack at the Jewish chapel on the Brandeis campus. It was the first time I had ever witnessed prayers accompanied by the repetitive beating of one’s breast [ed., the Ashamnu prayer], as if the sins of the previous year required such self-punishment. I saw Jack beat his own breast. I hope that he meant it then. And I hope, somehow, he might find that meaning again.
Jack’s father, a bright, hard-driving, successful businessman, was, if my memory serves, basically uneducated. Jack was originally raised, prior to moving to Beverly Hills, in Margate, NJ, a predominantly Jewish, summertime resort community. I believe that Jack admired and feared his father. It was important, in my estimation, that Jack was able to prove himself to his father. He did this, I believe, through his adoption of Orthodox Judaism and his choice of Brandeis and a liberal arts school. He was going to prove to his father that he would excel within those self-imposed parameters.
In college, Jack had a tendency to “use” people. He used them inasmuch as they became his “servants.” Most were a loyal following. They became, somehow, fulfilled by doing his bidding. He was, and apparently remained, very charismatic in this way. Dale Carnegie could teach Jack nothing. Jack’s girlfriend during almost all of his Brandeis years served him as faithfully as a rabbi’s wife. She was extraordinarily bright, but at that time, too submissive to Jack’s persuasions. Most of us regarded her then as “Jack’s wife.” She gathered the courage to leave him after we graduated. It must have been very difficult for her. She went to med school.
It’s interesting that you mentioned Prof. Allan Grossman [ed., I’d told Rovins that my brother studied with famed Brandeis faculty member, Allan Grossman]. He taught me Humanities in 1978. I possess one of his books of poetry, given to me as a birthday present by Jack. He had Professor Grossman sign it.
Interestingly, I have many stories about Jack Abramoff’s extraordinary friendship. In the late spring of our freshman year, Jack and I, with two other good friends, decided to rent two canoes on the western Charles River near the Brandeis campus. It was strictly forbidden to paddle east toward Boston as there were small dams along the way. We went anyway. Jack and I shared one canoe. At one point in our adventure, our friends, paddling just ahead of us, disappeared over a dam that was considerably taller than any of us anticipated. To use an old expression of my father’s: they went ass over tincups. Jack and I rushed to their rescue. Needless to say, everyone was OK, and hours later we finally made our landing at Harvard’s campus along the Charles. It was day of friendship, some stupid fun, and conversation. No egos were present.
The night of my first date with a beautiful, intelligent Brandeis student (who would later become my wonderful wife), I was without a presentable mode of transportation. Jack loaned me his car, a navy-blue 1976 Mercury Cougar. The date went great. Did Jack’s loaning me his car help? It couldn’t hurt.
I have not spoken with Jack in many years. He is bright and resourceful and not completely without self-reflection. Who can condone any of his recent actions? I’m sure that he now finds himself, reflectively, in a dark place. He must dwell in this place for some time before he can ever get out.
I spoke just the other day with a relative of Jack’s …[ed., I’m purposely concealing this person’s identity]. I asked how their whole family has been faring during this maelstrom of bad news. It has not been good. Jack’s parents are still alive, and they are mortified. The feeling of the family is that this is all a nightmare, that no matter how far Jack may have pushed, he would never have done anything illegal or knowingly hurt anyone. Also, the perception is that Jack is too smart to have left such a trail.
Again, my own perception is that Jack has always been driven to excess. Just as he shlepped me with him one year to the home of the Boston area’s “chief rebbe” in order to acquire those special, blessed, hand-made, Israeli imported matzot. “So what’s wrong with Manischewitz?” I said. No. Jack had to have these and he would not be deterred. He really did not have a malicious bone in his body. But if he sought something, he would not be deterred or impeded in his effort to acquire his goal.
Interestingly, our 25th Brandeis reunion is this Spring.
Guess who won’t be attending??