But there is another point that especially irks the prime minister, a point of pride. If you read the Israeli press, Olmert complains, “Olmert wakes up with Talansky, spends the day with Talansky, and is his closest friend.” Of course, Olmert says, Morris was helpful at a certain point. But of what real significance is a man like Morris Talansky to a prime minister of Israel? Morris claims that over fifteen years he may have given Olmert $150,000, all of it before he was prime minister. Even if true, and Olmert denies it, so what? It was a trifling sum. Olmert points out that he spent a dozen times that when he first ran for mayor of Jerusalem.
Olmert is almost insulted by the insinuation that the would-be Five Towns macher was a close personal friend. Morris hadn’t been invited into Olmert’s personal life, hadn’t been to his home. I’d spoken to several of Olmert’s close friends; they hadn’t met Morris. To Olmert, Morris was one of many supporters, part of a crowd of helpful, devoted people. Olmert understood how Morris might get the wrong impression. Olmert has a politician’s talents for instant warmth, even with strangers. He tells stories and moves in close, as if confiding a secret to you alone. He is a toucher, an unembarrassed hugger. “He knows how to make people feel important,” says one person close to him. In another context, Olmert told me, “You have to win over people.”
If the prime minister viewed Morris as a means to an end, for Morris, Olmert was part of his Jewish journey and perhaps its high point. Morris was raised in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, a tough Brooklyn Jew. He was 6 when World War II erupted. Even for a child, the Holocaust was a horror, shaping his thoughts and reshaping his family. “We took in survivors,” Morris tells me. “They stayed with us two or three years, until they settled down.” For Morris, as for many in his generation, the Holocaust never went away. For many Jews, it triggered a theological crisis, particularly for the modern Orthodox like Morris. How could a Jew continue to believe in a benevolent God? The birth of Israel offered an answer if not a compensation.
Morris was 15 when Israel won its independence. “ ‘The sacredness of Israel’—we were brought up like that. Israel is the place where Jews finally had a homeland,” he tells me. “Ultimately, Israel is the place where a Jew can grow spiritually and intellectually and feel a part of the people. That’s why I devoted my life to Israel.”
In his twenties, Morris studied to be a rabbi and worked for half a dozen years in synagogues in Far Rockaway and Yonkers. It was fulfilling work, though not remunerative. Soon he left to work for the family real-estate business. Then, in his thirties, Morris turned to fund-raising for Israeli causes, a job that brought together his talents and aspirations. By 1967, he was one of the American directors of an Israeli group that funded trade schools. Morris took a dramatic view of his role. “It’s central to the survival of the Jewish people,” he tells me.
In 1978, he changed jobs, going to raise money for the American Committee for Shaare Tzedek, an Orthodox hospital in Jerusalem, eventually becoming a top executive. There, Morris became a philanthropic player. In fund-raising, it’s important to keep the aggression under wraps and show the charm. And Morris believed in his own charm. “I must tell you, I’m likable. People like me,” Morris once said. Wealthy people, too. “He was highly regarded and sought after because he was viewed as someone personally close to major philanthropists around the country, especially in New York,” says a person who knew him at the time.
For Morris, raising money didn’t mean having your hand out. It meant asserting yourself. You needed a cause to believe in, and Morris was a true believer. But then you had to let others know who was in charge. A man offered Morris $100, Morris gave it back. “I don’t know how to do a hundred dollars,” he told a group of fund-raisers. He had some advice for them: Believe you’re a big shot and you will be. “The problem is how you see yourself and how he”—the donor—“sees you. Does he see you as a $100 man or a $25,000 man?”
Morris understood the needs of the wealthy. Many had forsaken their religious duties in the pursuit of wealth. For the cause, Morris didn’t mind exploiting their guilt. The wealthy “need to open up … They want to have a confidant,” Morris explained to the fund-raisers. Morris told the story of one businessman who kept his stores open on the Sabbath, in contravention of God’s laws. The man wondered if tzedakah—charity—would compensate. Rabbi Talansky fudged. “Nobody knows the way things work,” he reassured the man. It was what he wanted to hear. “We became very good friends,” Morris continued. “He used to talk his heart out.” One day Morris went to him with a big request. “The man said, ‘You have it.’ ”