Morris had no shortage of vanity about his good works. Once Olmert ribbed Morris that he was a schnorrer, from the Yiddish word for a beggar. Morris bristled. “I’m a social engineer,” he snapped. As Morris saw it, he shaped events. He put wings on the hospital and raised millions of dollars, $200 million, he said once. People came to him. “Most of my time is [taken up with] people asking me for favors,” Morris once explained. “That’s all I’m doing all day.”
Morris’s charity work strengthened his feelings for Israel. “I was deeply involved in every facet of Israel, except unfortunately not living there,” he says. In 1979, he’d tried. He’d picked up and gone. He thought he had a job waiting for him at Shaare Tzedek. “By the time I got there, there was neither oxygen for patients nor money to pay me,” says Morris.
And so he returned to wander in the Long Island desert, amid the strip malls and the inground sprinklers. “Sojourning,” as he once put it, in one Orthodox community or another. He was far from settled. He felt that in America—even in the greater Five Towns—a Jew is always in some measure on foreign turf. “No matter how integrated you feel you are,” he tells me, “anti-Semitism lurks in very sophisticated places.”
So Morris nurtured a connection with the holy land as best he could. He bought an apartment, a beautiful one overlooking the Knesset, in a religious section of Jerusalem, “the center of Jewish experience,” as he explains to me. And he labored relentlessly for the land promised to God’s chosen people. “It was a good feeling. Even if we don’t live in Israel, we’re pioneering, in a sense, the Jewish State.”
Whenever Morris visited Jerusalem and stopped by Olmert’s office to drop off cash, Olmert gave Morris a hug. “A big hug,” Morris said.
Morris might think of himself as a stranger in a strange suburban land. Still, by the eighties, he’d become a force in the Five Towns. And his good works were a gateway to other, more-worldly ambitions. “He desperately wanted to prove himself by making it big on his own,” says the person who knew him at the time.
Morris worked his way into the business lives of his wealthy friends. “People would invite me to be a participant in their business venture even though many times I didn’t have the minimum [amount] of the investment,” Morris said in a deposition.
By the mid-nineties, Morris was hunting up deals of his own, cross-fertilizing his spiritual and philanthropic connections. “Business opportunities opened up to me,” he says. For years, Morris had led Saturday-night classes in the homes of Great Neck dentists and doctors, religious seekers who needed the guidance of a learned teacher. Morris was a compelling figure, and when a decade ago Great Neck experienced a localized great awakening, when, in a wave, soccer moms turned Orthodox, “Moshe [as they called him] was a big part of that,” says Sandra Levine, one of the soccer moms.
As a businessman, Morris says, he prefers deals based on trust, and so it no doubt seemed natural to return to some of those Great Neck living rooms, this time as a roly-poly investment banker. He encouraged the seekers to get in on his deals: “I’m invested, and you should be” was his usual pitch.
Morris got involved in a motley array of ventures—a satellite company, a business focused on plus-size women. In 2004, Morris was trying to develop a business called Kooltech, based in Far Rockaway, to sell minibars to hotels. Olmert offered to put Morris, “my dear friend,” in touch with Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire hotel owner and, once, a supporter. Though the police pointed to the letter as the quid pro quo for a possible bribe, the deal didn’t quite work out; when Morris called Adelson and told him that the subject was minibars, Adelson hung up.
If Morris’s deals went sour, and more than a few did, he could be a tough customer, by some accounts. He left a trail of lawsuits in his wake, Morris once spent $30,000 on a libel suit that he settled for $60,000. Another time he sued over a few months’ salary he claimed he was owed. Recently he sued the co-founder of the minibar business, who returned the favor by suing Morris.
Sometimes Morris bypassed the courts and chose instead the in-your-face stylings of the tough Bed-Stuy kid. At a wedding, he told a rabbi he was sure had ripped him off, “I’m very angry, and you’re a no-good son of a bitch and a disgrace to the Jews.” Another time, he believed a banker gave him bad advice that he said cost him $300,000. He followed the man up Fifth Avenue screaming and cursing. (A witness claimed Morris also shoved the man, though Morris denies it.) And when a real-estate deal involving some Five Towns rabbis went bad, costing Morris a considerable sum, there were threats mentioned about “blowing up” a car. For Morris, it was an offhand remark tossed off in the heat of the moment. He was simply interested in a settlement. But the rabbis were afraid. Especially when, later, three bulky, hard-looking men showed up at another partner’s house trying to get money back and using the name Morris Talansky. Though it turned out that Morris hadn’t sent them, it raised questions about the company he kept. “There were people who weren’t as nice as me” is all he’ll say.