Marika Feuerstein: The Mentsch of Malden Mills: A Granddaughter Reflects on the Life and Legacy of Aaron Feuerstein

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SUMMARY

In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we talk to Marika Feuerstein about the life of her grandfather, Aaron Feuerstein.

Aaron Feuerstein was the head of a successful family business that suffered serious setbacks after a fire destroyed its factory. He became famous for his commitment to the wellbeing of his employees, paying them even while they couldn’t work, but rebuilding came with challenges that ultimately cost him the company. Marika Feuerstein tells the lesser known story of his later life, and how the Feuerstein family regrouped in the wake of the fire.

  • What happened in the aftermath of the fire?
  • What were its effects on the Feuerstein family, who, until that point, had all worked in the business?
  • How did Aaron Feuerstein, as well as the rest of his family, recover from the setbacks to lead a healthy life?

Tune in to hear a conversation about wealth as it relates to family identity.

References:
Hospital by Julie Salamon

Aaron Feuerstein was an American businessman and philanthropist. Feuerstein gained national acclaim for his decision to continue to compensate his employees after a fire destroyed his Massachusetts factory. Feuerstein became known as the “Mentsch of Malden Mills,” and the decision caused him to sustain significant personal financial losses. Marika Feuerstein is Aaron Feuerstein’s granddaughter. Marika is a Boston native, and has been a top Residential Real Estate Agent. A true entrepreneur at heart, she started Keto bakery company, Sweet Finale, runs a non-profit, Purim Unity, where she puts on mega events for the Boston Jewish community, and is an executive producer on a new documentary called The American Question. Marika joins us to talk about the life and legacy of her grandfather.

David Bashevkin:

Hello, and welcome to 18Forty, where each month we explore a different topic balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities to give you new approaches to timeless Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin, and this month we’re exploring wealth. This podcast is part of a larger exploration of those big, juicy, Jewish ideas. So be sure to check out 18Forty.org – that’s 1-8 followed by the word F-O-R-T-Y, Forty.org, where you can also find videos, articles, and recommended readings.

We’ve been talking this entire month about wealth and the role that it plays in the Jewish community, particularly the Orthodox community. And I feel like we’ve hovered around two different perspectives, the first being the role that wealth plays in the way that it shapes our communal expectations. Really this conversation began when I was a guest on the Kosher Money Podcast, and that clip that got circulated a little bit talking about gvir culture, trademark, TM, of course. And what that was about, as we’ve emphasized so many times, is the way that our collective mimetic desire can shape what our communal aspirations are.

And as we grow as a community, and it’s wonderful that we’re growing as a community, also the expectations and what we’ve built with our community has grown as well. And that places a fair amount of pressure on a lot of families in terms of what their image and conception is of an authentic Jewish household. And that’s to me at least somewhat scary. We need to ensure that the middle is able not just to survive Jewish life, but able to thrive. It can’t just be that the stories that are valorized in our community are those of extreme wealth and extreme sacrifice. We need a healthy middle. So we spoke about the role that this plays on the community, and we’ve discussed the role that it plays on individuals. To close out this series, I want to really focus on a different perspective, and that is the role that wealth plays within families. It’s rarely spoken about, but it’s something that I am intimately familiar with not only from my only family history, but from my community growing up.

I think all of us know families that whether or not they’ve been torn apart, or have had difficulties, or sometimes there’s a failure to launch and find your way and your path forward. The opportunities that wealth provide along with that comes also some difficulties. Now we’re not here to boohoo, but we’re not here to demonize anybody or any individual. We’re here to highlight the problems, the difficulties, the opportunities that come along with means.

I’ll speak personally for a moment. I grew up in a family, we’re probably upper middle class, but that’s not really the history that I grew up with. My namesake, David Bashevkin, my great grandfather, had a family business. His family business was called Butler’s Wholesale. And it was a fairly thriving business. It did really, really well. He had nine children, one of whom was my Zaide, William Bashevkin. He was known as Bill, or his Hebrew name was Zev. My son is named after him. And the boys, as was common in those times, I think there were four brothers. They took over the business, four brothers, five sisters. They took over the business. And to my knowledge, it was a pretty thriving business for early, mid-1900s. It was doing really, really well.

And then, as often happens among families, they got into a major family fight over who should really be controlling the future of the business. And my Zaide got into a fight with his brothers and was essentially kicked out of the business. And this began really before I was born, but it began a really sad chapter for our family growing up that I really grew up not knowing any of my Zaide’s brothers. I didn’t know my uncles growing up.

The first time that I met any of my uncles was at my Zaide’s funeral. The surviving brother, who actually just passed away, he was the last of the nine siblings, Bob Bashevkin just passed away a few weeks ago, and he showed up to the funeral, and it was so moving to me because I had never met them. It was a fight that took place before I was born. But it was a fight that in many ways was born out of the opportunities and the possibilities that wealth provides. And not every family deals with that quite well. It can place a burden on the normal, organic growth of a family, of a child figuring out what path they want to take for themselves.

When you have a path that has already been charted for you, because you have a family business, very often that can be stunting in your ability to figure out, what should my path forward be. And it was really beautiful because though my Zaide was never alive to see it, I have no doubt that in the world of truth, in the olam ha’emes, where these sorts of fights, however real and serious they are in this world, don’t really carry over into the next world. And Bob, my uncle, who I only met after my Zaide’s passing less than a decade ago, came to my wedding, and we remained somewhat close ever since for somebody who I first met when he was already in his late 80s. It was really moving to me to be able to piece together the shards of a broken family relationship and say, you know what? I think they’re in a place where they can appreciate that whatever separated you in your lifetime could now be repaired and brought back together in my and our lifetime of the next generation.

And that’s something that I always found extraordinarily moving. But the role that wealth plays, not just in shaping communities and not just in shaping individuals, but in the way that it shapes families, whether it’s the presence of wealth, or the presence, for many families, of poverty. Growing up and having this hunger and desire, not just for your material needs being taken care of, but to have that kavod, that attention that you see wealth seeks, for a lot of young children it shapes their entire trajectory. And it’s scary to step back to understand what we are chasing in this very short and precious life that we are given on this earth. So I knew that I wanted in our final episode to talk about the role wealth plays and how families have navigated this.

There was a family that I reached out to. I grew up with them. They weren’t the wealthiest family that I knew growing up. They were very, very well to do. And I specifically reached out because at some point, this person who I admire really to the skies lost really a great deal of a family business that he had shepherded and stewarded, and it was an extraordinarily painful story. I have no idea how much money people have. Very often our estimations are very far off. I knew… I thought that they were wealthy because I was in their carpool, and I remember growing up when we would stop off on the way to carpool, this one person would stop off on the way to Dunkin Donuts and buy all the young children in the carpool Dunkin’ donuts. And I remember thinking to myself like, wow, this family’s got a ton of money. To be able to afford a donut for every single child in this car. Wow. This is extravagant.

So obviously my metrics for what exactly is considered wealth were not all that sophisticated, but they did have a really thriving business. And I remember I reached out to him to talk about his story and see if he was willing to come on. And he went back and forth, I totally respect the fact, obviously, that he didn’t feel comfortable coming on. He didn’t feel comfortable because he came back and he said, “You know what? This was really too painful. It was too painful for me. Because there was a time in my life where Jewish leaders and institutional heads and rabbis and all these important people, they would always come to me and ask me for my advice and my opinion. And you know what? Once the business fell apart, they stopped coming. And I had to look at myself in the mirror and say, ‘Did I get dumber? Is my advice no longer good?’ They stopped coming. This name that used to be featured on a lot of buildings and inside of publications suddenly disappeared.” And he said, “This was an incredibly painful period in my lifetime because it really reoriented my very sense of self.”

And what’s so scary about that is that for this person, and what I think is true for so, so many people, is that our very sense of self is wrapped up quite often in those external validators that emerge from that collective mimetic desire. When people look to us as a certain status, as a certain role in the community, when that is taken away from us, it could be as painful as so many other forms of suffering in this world. And I know people roll their eyes and they say, okay, these are third world problems. To have your sense of self pulled away from you is not a third world problem. It’s something that’s very painful and that you need to navigate and has real mental health consequences on a lot of people.

But it doesn’t tell us about any one individual person,this tells us the role that wealth and status can play in the way families are shaped and the way communities are created. And it should give us all pause. You know, for me, I always think back, there’s a beautiful song that was written, I’m certainly not going to sing the song. I’m not going to play it for you either, but it was written based on a verse in Tehillim, in Psalms, in Chapter 49, which says, “Al tira ki yashir ish ki yirbeh kvod beso. Ki lo bimoso yikach hakol lo yered acharav kvodo.” Do not be afraid when someone becomes wealthy, when he has this amazing status and he has this kavod of his household, “ki lo bimoso yikach hakol,” you can’t take it all with you in death, “lo yered acharav kvodo,” that status, that attention that you get in this world is not what follows you after death. And it’s morbid, and it’s scary, but you know what? It’s true. And I have the gift of being able to look up to my siblings and my parents, and I see that at a certain point in life, the status is not worth chasing. And what really, really is eternal and follows you after death and really makes that eternal and enduring imprint are those relationships that we create in this world.

It reminds me of a fantastic quote I once heard from Warren Buffet, he wrote this in one of his investor letters. He said, “The asset I most value aside from health is interesting, diverse, and longstanding friends.” You know, for Warren Buffet, who’s one of the all time greatest investors, has billions of dollars, and lives a fairly regular lifestyle, lives in the same house that he bought decades ago, the asset that he appreciates most are those relationships. The values that you instill in friends, in family members that really are able to endure even after your lifetime.

And I feel like sometimes, myself, everyone, we get caught up in this specious mirage of what status really affords us. And to remember that we have one precious life in this world, to make an impact and to instill values and to create moments of eternity in our lives and the lives of those we love, is something that is all too easily forgotten. And that is why I am so excited about the person who we are highlighting in this final episode. And that person is Aaron Feuerstein. Aaron Feuerstein died at the age of 95 on November 4th, and he became world famous as the Mensch of Malden Mills. Malden Mills was this incredible textile factory that was created a generation before him, maybe two generations before him, we’ll discover more on this interview. And his life story really has three chapters. The first chapter of his life is inheriting a family business at a time when most Jews had not created this type of wealth in America, and he built a business that was worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

And this business that was worth hundreds of millions of dollars became world famous because of the second chapter of his life. And the second chapter of his life is that that factory in Malden Mills, a fire broke out. A fire broke out that essentially destroyed the entire factory. And what he did after that fire broke out grabbed the world’s attention and caught the international imagination of the business community. This is from a report on 60 Minutes that covered his reaction and what he did after the famous fire of Malden Mills.

Reporters:

For years now, we’ve been hearing about corporate executives who made fortunes for themselves while driving their companies into bankruptcy, costing employees their jobs, and sometimes, their life savings. Not so at Malden Mills. The textile company in Lawrence, Massachusetts that invented the fabric, Polartec. As we reported last year, Malden Mills also filed for bankruptcy protection, but that’s the only thing it has in common with companies like Enron. In fact, Malden Mills is known for going out of its way to help its employees, even when the company suffered a shattering setback.

It started around eight o’clock – Explosions boomed into the night – Spectacular general alarm – Two buildings still burning – You can still see the orange glow – There’s just no way to quantify this – And all of this happened, of course, just two weeks before Christmas.

The fire that broke out at Malden Mills in the winter of ’95 was the largest fire Massachusetts had seen for a century. No one was killed, but the town was devastated. Malden Mills was one of the few large employers in a town that was already in desperate straits. By morning, just about all that remained of the mill was ashes.

Interviewer:

As you watched the place burn, what was going through your mind?

Aaron Feuerstein:

The only thing that went through my mind was, how can I possibly recreate it?

Reporters:

Aaron Feuerstein is the owner of Malden Mills, he’s 76. The third generation of his family to run the mill.

Aaron Feuerstein:

I was proud of the family business, and I wanted to keep that alive and I wanted that to survive. But I also felt the responsibility for all my employees, to take care of them, to give them jobs.

Reporters:

And he made a decision, one that others in the textile industry found hard to believe. While the fire was still smoldering, Feuerstein decided to rebuild right there in Lawrence. Decided not to move south or overseas as much of the industry had done in search of cheap labor. And he made another shocking decision.

Aaron Feuerstein:

For the next 30 days all our employees will be paid their full salaries.

Reporters:

A month later, he held another meeting.

Aaron Feuerstein:

We will, once again, for at least 30 days more, pay all our employees.

Interviewer:

The mill was in ruins. You continued to pay your workers. That may be a great moral gesture, but is it a wise business decision?

Aaron Feuerstein:

I think it was a wise business decision, but that isn’t why I did it. I did it because it was the right thing to do.

Interviewer:

Some might have said the proper business decision for a 70 year old guy is to take $300 million in insurance and retire.

Aaron Feuerstein:

And what would I do with it? Eat more? Buy another suit? Retire and die, huh? No, that did not go into my mind. That was not an option, not for a second.

Reporters:

He kept his promises. Workers picked up their checks for months. In all he paid out 25 million dollars. Aaron Feuerstein became known as the Mensch of Malden Mills, a businessman who seemed to care more about his workers than about his net worth.

Interviewer:

You became a hero for simply doing the right thing. It’s a terrible commentary on the business world.

Aaron Feuerstein:

Yes, it is. At the time in America of the greatest prosperity, the God of money has taken over to an extreme.

Interviewer:

To what degree is your faith, your religion, responsible for this idea of the moral businessman?

Aaron Feuerstein:

I think it plays a big role.

Reporters:

For guidance, he turns to the Torah, the book of Jewish Law.

Aaron Feuerstein:

You are not permitted to oppress the working man, because he’s poor and he’s needy, amongst your brethren and amongst the non-Jew in your community.

David Bashevkin:

There’s a point at the end of the interview where he’s asked, what do you think is going to be on your tombstone? And the most moving part about this question is not just his answer, but the pause that moment he took before responding.

Interviewer:

What’s going to be on your tombstone?

Aaron Feuerstein:

I don’t know. Hopefully it’ll be that I don’t give up and I try to do the right thing.

David Bashevkin:

This second chapter is where most people are familiar with his story. He was featured in news reports across the country. He is now found in business textbooks all over the place as somebody who really embodied what’s known as this stakeholder mentality, instead of just operating based on the bottom line of your business, really took responsibility for all those under his care, his employees, continuing to pay them. It wasn’t just 60 Minutes. He was covered on every single news outlet, both local and international. This is from a report of Peter Jennings reporting on his story.

Peter Jennings:

There are people all over the place doing wonderful things to make other people’s lives better, so that choosing one person is a little difficult. But there is no missing the fact that the man we have chosen exemplifies the spirit of the season.

Aaron Feuerstein:

Not all those business people who concentrate on accumulating a great deal of wealth are really wise.

Peter Jennings:

From the very beginning, Christmas has always been associated with wise men. The town of Lawrence, Massachusetts has 70 year old Aaron Feuerstein. Mr. Feuerstein is the owner of Malden Mills. He’s a textile manufacturer who kept his factory and his workers in the Northeast when conventional wisdom said he should go to the south.

Aaron Feuerstein:

When all the various textile mills here in the Lawrence area and in the north ran out of here in order to get cheaper labor down south, we stuck, we stayed.

Peter Jennings:

And Malden Mills kept the town of Lawrence, Massachusetts alive. Provided 1400 jobs. Mr. Feuerstein said he could do it because the higher quality of the clothing his workers made kept him competitive. But there is more to our story than that.

Aaron Feuerstein:

Social justice is part of the business that we’re in. It’s not only a devotion to the bottom line.

Peter Jennings:

This is what happened to Aaron Feuerstein’s Malden Mills on the night of December the 11th. The fire raged out of control. 24 workers were badly injured, eight of them are still in the hospital.

Worker:

I can’t believe it. It’s really heartbreaking because this is where I work.

Aaron Feuerstein:

Without hesitation, I resolved then and there that I was going to return these people to work.

Peter Jennings:

Yet as the people of Lawrence, Massachusetts stared at the embers of their largest employer, they wondered, yes, Aaron Feuerstein was insured, but at 70, would he really want to rebuild his factory?

Aaron Feuerstein:

The fact that I didn’t run and leave caught their imagination.

Peter Jennings:

But what really caught the imagination was what the factory owner told his 1,400 workers when he gathered them together after the fire. He gave them the best Christmas present they could hope for.

Aaron Feuerstein:

But at least for the next 30 days, all our hourly employees, all our employees will be paid their full salaries.

Peter Jennings:

Aaron Feuerstein also told his workers he would continue to pay their health insurance for the next three months. He hopes to have a rebuilt factory up and running by then. Hopes to have all his old workers back on the job.

Worker:

Best boss I’ve ever had and you can quote me on that.

Taking care of his people. That’s important.

Peter Jennings:

Aaron Feuerstein’s workers picked up their first check for not working today as construction crews raced to fulfill his dream of reopening early in the new year. And an elderly wise man who wouldn’t let his loyal employees down paused to offer wisdom from William Shakespeare, from King Lear.

Aaron Feuerstein:

I have full cause of weeping, but this heart will break into a hundred thousand flaws, or ere I’ll weep. I just thought in terms of what I could do to get my people back to work.

Peter Jennings:

Which is why we choose Aaron Feuerstein. His daughter says that when he wants something he is unstoppable, and we believe it.

David Bashevkin:

The second chapter caught the world’s imagination, and it’s a big part of this story, but the reason why I was so adamant about highlighting this story was really the third chapter, of what happened after they tried to rebuild, and the rebuilding efforts did not go so smoothly. And when he passed away, there was an article in the Boston Globe that quoted one of his grandchildren, Marika, who we’re speaking with today, who spoke about how her family navigated the aftermath. It’s this third chapter that is almost completely unspoken and untold, that most people are not familiar with. It wasn’t written about in textbooks. It wasn’t highlighted on 60 Minutes. Peter Jennings never had a report about it. But it’s the story of somebody who was a tycoon, lost everything, and found a new path forward as a Zaide, as a person who could recreate what it meant to be a part of a family. And this reconstruction of identity following the loss of wealth, as painful as this story is, it’s also really inspiring and just incredibly remarkable.

To hear a family reconstruct their identity growing up with a last name, every community, we all know this, has people with a last name, capital L capital N, their last name. Whenever they introduce themselves, they know the moment they walk away, there’s a whisper, “Oh, you know who that is? Oh, they…” And then you tell, they get to hear, and they do this and they’re that and they own this. There are people who walk around with a capital L capital N last name. And probably one of the original capital L capital N last name families was the Feuersteins. And most people only know the first and second chapter. And I think a part of our story and what we’re talking about is to really tell the story of the third chapter, of how we extricate and reconstruct our identities outside of purely the constructs of business and the big shiny letters that we put on buildings.

As much as we appreciate the giving, we also need to have identities that are extricated from our wealth. It’s important for the living generation, and I think it’s even more important for the next generations who are emerging with this incredible opportunity that wealth gives, but also feeling that sense of being lost and wandering and unsure how to create their own last name, their own name, their own identity, separate from what was created for them in previous generations. And I think that this story really highlights, and it’s this third chapter that we spend so much on. And that’s why I’m so appreciative of Marika taking the time out and sharing with such graciousness and vulnerability about her own development as a person, and really listening to her. She’s a hero of mine now. Hearing how she reconstructed her sense of self, growing up with a last name, and now finding and reclaiming her own story, is something that I simply found jaw dropping.

And whether or not you grew up with a famous last name or with incredible wealth, I think this story is something that everyone is navigating. Everybody is trying to figure out, how can I build a life of meaning and satisfaction that is not warped and shaped exclusively by an economic identity? That can’t be our only identity. As we spoke about earlier, our only definition of success can never be financial success. Financial success is a definition of success, but the moment we allow our children to grow up in a world where the only definition of success is wealth and financial success, then we have failed as a community.

And I think Marika’s story is about growing up in such a world and reconstructing what success actually means, what a relationship with her grandfather actually means, and how she took the incredible opportunity she was brought up with, the incredible difficulty that she faced, and recreated a sense of self for herself and brought together a family. I am so privileged and excited to share with you our conversation with the granddaughter of Aaron Feuerstein, the inspiring Marika Feuerstein.

I am so excited to have our guest today, Marika Feuerstein, who is the granddaughter of Aaron Feuerstein, who recently passed away at the age, I believe, of 95. Is that correct, Marika?

Marika Feuerstein:

Yeah. Six weeks short of his 96th birthday.

David Bashevkin:

So thank you so, so much for joining, and I wanted to begin with a story. It’s not just the story of your grandfather, but the story of your family. Aaron Feuerstein, your grandfather, ran a major company that seemed to do inseams. They did a lot of production and manufacturing, but seams for winter coats.

Marika Feuerstein:

So all textiles. So they had an upholstery division and an apparel division. So it was fabric that, it started as a knitting mill, and eventually my grandfather took it to all major textiles. So it was fabric that you could find in jackets and clothing, like he became famous for. But their upholstery division was the fabric in a lot of vehicles and car seats and furniture. So it was really just a major textile corporation.

David Bashevkin:

And this business was began by his father?

Marika Feuerstein:

No.

David Bashevkin:

No? His grandfather.

Marika Feuerstein:

His grandfather Henry. We call him Henry the first. He came to the United States in the late 1800s and he had a very difficult time finding, well, I shouldn’t say finding work, but it was more specifically keeping a job. Because at that time, if you didn’t work on Shabbat, there were signs everywhere, if you don’t come to work on Saturday, you don’t have a job on Monday. And he was very depressed. He moved to New York City from Hungary by himself and he was just constantly looking for new work. And so an amazing story, but the very quick version is that he was told to get a push cart, buy whatever he could on credit, and go sell it. And within a few years he accumulated I think $25,000, which was a lot of money back then.

David Bashevkin:

Wow.

Marika Feuerstein:

He lived very frugally and he invested in real estate with other members of his synagogue. The real estate portfolio grew. And in the early 1900s, there was a little recession, and he pulled out his money and got $50,000 out. Then saw an ad in the paper that there was a knitting mill that was for sale in Malden, Massachusetts. And he took the next bus to Massachusetts. Had no idea how to run a textile, a knitting mill or anything in the textile world. But those immigrants, it was just about faking it till you make it and getting the right people in. So he negotiated the price down I think to 25,000. This is all from my grandfather, by the way. So I mean, I hope my facts are right, but it came from him as the main source. And he hired all the right people. And within a few years he was a millionaire. And the rest is literally history.

David Bashevkin:

And this is, Henry the first is your great great-grandfather?

Marika Feuerstein:

Exactly. And he was an incredible businessman. Just had such a good work ethic. Everyone who talked about him said he always knew how to buy and sell at the right time. That was his thing. And then my great-grandfather, Sam –

David Bashevkin:

Who was married to your namesake?

Marika Feuerstein:

No.

David Bashevkin:

No?

Marika Feuerstein:

My namesake was Aaron’s first wife.

David Bashevkin:

O for two. I’m trying.

Marika Feuerstein:

It’s okay. It’s okay. I forgive you. So Henry had four children, I believe. So there’s a weird repeated thing in our family where the first wife passes away and then the second wife, there’s more children. And that was, I guess, the beginning of the family drama and the dysfunction.

David Bashevkin:

Sure.

Marika Feuerstein:

So Henry the first had three kids with his first wife. She passed away. He remarried and had another child. Back then it was just, you didn’t marry for love. He had three kids at home. I guess he married one of his factory workers who was Jewish. And that was it. That was the next woman in his life and mother of his children. When he passed away, all the children received, I guess, a share in the company. And my great-grandfather, Sam, who was the oldest of the first marriage, bought everybody’s shares and he became head of Malden Knitting. And then in the fifties, my grandfather, or I’d say late forties, early fifties, came on board and he took a loan from my namesake, Marika, from her family. And he moved the company to Lawrence and just expanded and saw this big need for all types of textiles, not just knitting. So he really revived the company.

David Bashevkin:

So, I’m so fascinated by this story. A, because it has parallels with my own family story. We also, I come from a Massachusetts family, many generations back that has its fair share of a family drama as well. I don’t think we had the same wealth and industry that your family commanded and built up, but a fair amount for the early 1900s. Now your grandfather, Aaron, his father and grandfather were all observant Jews.

Marika Feuerstein:

All observant, and from what I understand, somebody interviewed my grandfather recently and asked him, how many Jews in the early 1900s, let’s say pre 1920, who came to this country who were observant stayed observant? And it was nobody. I mean, it was just unheard of back then. So when they started Malden Knitting, it was revolutionary for this area because so many people started coming to this area specifically because there was this rumor, again, that was before the internet, that there was a company that was owned by Jews who didn’t make you work on Shabbos. And I guess the way that Henry set the company up and Sam and my grandfather continued this, if you could work every day but Shabbat and you were willing to get to that factory, you had a job and you weren’t going to lose it.

And so it became a safe haven for all these observant Jews. They started Malden Knitting in 1907. So, I’d say it took a few years for it to really take off. But once it did, I mean, that was pre World War I. Jews had a place to go and work here. And then during World War II, not only did, of course, observant Jews have jobs, they didn’t have to work on Saturday, but they saved so many Jews during the Holocaust because whoever they could get work visas to, they sent them. So a lot of Holocaust survivors came, worked, got into the states because of their company.

David Bashevkin:

Wow.

Marika Feuerstein:

I mean, if you were a Jew, you had a job. That was basically it. And if you didn’t know the company or how to run it, they taught you. It was a safe haven for the survivors that came here after the war. I mean, it’s unbelievable the stories that I’ve been hearing, especially through shiva from people who were like, my family came here with nothing and your family gave us a chance.

David Bashevkin:

And it’s really remarkable. I mean, my own grandfather, he was five years older than your grandfather was. He was born in 1920. And he was ostensibly Orthodox. But like nearly every, I think with maybe one or two exceptions, did work on Shabbos until he retired, which was due to a fairly explosive dramatic family fallout, which perhaps we will get to.

So at the height of his business, your grandfather took over a business that was started by his grandfather. So this was really a family enterprise. At the height of the business, do you have any idea how many employees there were, or what level of wealth he had achieved? I mean, we’re not talking about a $10 million company here.

Marika Feuerstein:

I mean, there were 3,000 employees at the time of the fire. I don’t know the exact figures of how much the mill was making, but to get a 300 million check in 1995 was a lot of money. I mean, today it’d be close to a billion dollars. So I mean, it had to have been generating a fortune to get that type of insurance money.

I mean, money was never a thing. I don’t remember anything ever being a problem of price, but we also weren’t the type of family that drove fancy cars. That wasn’t our thing. Everything was charity. We just gave so much charity. If a school, our local Jewish day school had a deficit, they knew to call our family and we would cover the difference. Obviously the goal is to get everyone in the community to help pay for things, and everyone should be able to donate and everyone should feel like they’re contributing to a community cause. But at the end of the day, ultimately my family would write the check. And so that was just where the money went.

David Bashevkin:

I want to get, you already mentioned the fire. And this is really where his esteem and reputation really entered a new phase. He was on 60 minutes. In 1995, I believe, there was a fire in Malden Mills. This is a case study that is taught in textbooks. You in 1995 were a young girl. You were alive when this took place. And my question is, your, let’s start with your memory of what happened.

Marika Feuerstein:

Well, it’s very clear what happened that evening because it was the night of my grandfather’s 70th birthday. We’re not birthday people. At least that side of the family was not. They didn’t celebrate birthdays. My grandfather even recently always said, “Birthdays are not important. We should only celebrate achievements.” But that year, my grandmother decided, it was my step-grandmother, my namesake had passed away, to throw somewhat of a surprise party for him. He knew about the party, but he didn’t know how lavish it was going to be. They had it at, I believe it was Cafe Budapest, which is one of his favorite restaurants. And I remember there were photographers. There were all of his close friends, all of our family was there. I think it’s actually the last real picture I have of my family from that time. My sister was maybe three months old.

Anyways, the night of the fire was that party. And I remember everyone slowly was trickling away and going into different rooms. And back then there were these things called payphones. And so the restaurant had a payphone in there. And I remember just walking by as a 10 year old and seeing family member, maybe, you know what, I was nine. I was nine at the time. Seeing family members in booths, just on these payphones, and everyone’s whispering. And eventually everyone said, there was a fire at Malden Mills, which everybody was so confused by, like what are the odds that there was a fire that evening? And they say probably wasn’t such a big deal, but my dad, my grandfather, and other people who had worked at the mill decided to go to Lawrence, which is about an hour drive north.

And we went home with my mom. And I remember just my mom turning on the news and every single news station was just showing this insane inferno that was happening at Malden Mills. And it was just unbelievable. I mean, when you watch the 60 minutes clip you’re referring to, they show the footage. It’s crazy.

David Bashevkin:

It’s jarring.

Marika Feuerstein:

It really is. But just the fact that it happened on the night of his birthday party, it’s just so ironic. I mean, I’m a big believer everything happens for a reason. And it’s, to me, there’s just no coincidences. So none of us would ever forget that evening, but especially what we were doing up until we heard about the fire as well.

David Bashevkin:

So let me ask you, in your nine year old self, and this may be a recurring theme as we talk about where you are now and where your family is now. If I would’ve asked nine year old Marika, are you wealthy? What would your response have been?

Marika Feuerstein:

Well, I can tell you about seven year old Marika who when she moved to Boston was giving out $20 bills, $100 bills to make friends in school. So, yes, I would’ve definitely have said that we, I didn’t know the extent of our wealth, but money was one of those things that I just knew, if we had it, we would give it to people. That was my connection to money.

David Bashevkin:

And just in terms of luxuries at that stage, pre the fire, you were a famous philanthropic family. Your grandfather had a brother, Moses Feuerstein, I believe, who was very involved in the Orthodox Union. And I’m just curious, aside from the philanthropy, were there any luxuries that he allowed himself?

Marika Feuerstein:

We weren’t that type of family. There was no country club situation. My grandfather, it was instilled in us very young, you invest in the Jewish community. You invest in education. That was a huge value. And I think that’s being a Bostonian. I can tell you that our wealthy Jewish community here, even the wealthiest of families, look very modest compared to other Jewish communities like Los Angeles or Miami or New York. We just invest in education, real estate, and charities. So what I remember as a kid was there was never a no. I remember if I wanted something, I could just have it, but we weren’t somebody that had fancy cars. My grandfather drove a Cadillac forever. I mean, cars depreciate. It doesn’t matter what type of car you buy. You buy American made cars. You don’t buy foreign cars. Everything had a value behind it.

That’s how I would view the money. So if you purchase something, it was made in America. If you gave charity, it was to Jewish organizations, or if it was to non-Jewish organizations, it was to soup kitchens. You were trying to better your community and the people connected to you. If you were investing money, it was throwing more money into the mill. And so that was how we spent our money. Nobody had fancy things. Nobody wore designer stuff. I mean, yes, they had a beautiful home and they had nice clothes, but it wasn’t like they were we were flashing expensive things. It was very different. And my grandfather didn’t lead with, he was this wealthy man. He led with, who are you? And there are stories. He would just sit and talk to all of his factory workers at lunch. He liked to just talk to the average person. That’s what I remember. So money had a very different connection back then to me.

David Bashevkin:

And the thing that really made him quite famous wasn’t just the fire, though that certainly was broadcast on news stations across. What really set him apart and the reason why this is still spoken about today in business school textbooks is that he insisted, even without a factory, he took the insurance payout and made sure that his factory workers would get paid during the rebuilding process. He initially extended it for 30 days and he kept extending it outwards, making sure that this community that depended on the work of this factory, were taken care of. My question is, were there any misgivings, either at the time or now looking back at it, because the, I don’t know what role specifically that played, but ultimately the business did not really, his role in the business did not continue. And he was eventually, I don’t know if you want to call it forced out or whatever it is. How did he look back at that decision to make sure that his factory workers would be able to get by with the paychecks that he gave them when they weren’t even working?

Marika Feuerstein:

Yeah. So really good question. And I want to answer it as honestly as I can, because this I think is his legacy and what he would say if he was still here today. He had no regret whatsoever paying his workers the way that he did. And it wasn’t just their salaries. It was their Christmas bonuses. This was two weeks before Christmas. They kept calling him the Jew who saved Christmas. So, I mean, there was no regret on paying the workers, their wages for six months, paying the bonuses, nor rebuilding.

David Bashevkin:

He paid out bonuses when the factory, after the factory was burned down. Wow.

Marika Feuerstein:

Yeah, it was Christmas. I mean, he had to do that. For him, the regret looking back was how he rebuilt the company. He overspent. I think that was the, there was a lot of hubris involved in this. It was like he became so famous overnight and he got so much attention and everyone knew he had all of this insurance money. I think that he had a lot of bad advisors and people around him. Not everybody, but enough that he got $300 million from the insurance, and I’m pretty sure he spent about $450 million rebuilding, with everything with the rebuild involved. And it’s a mill. It’s not supposed to look so pretty. My grandfather didn’t have a fancy office.

Again, nothing was for the show. Everything was, you make money, and then you give back. And the building that went up was very high end, and just there was a lot that was just overspent and it was frivolous spending and that’s what got him. And he didn’t get all the money at once. He had to borrow money before he got all the insurance money. So there was interest on those loans. And between his patent running out and he had China that was now starting to mass produce fleece, and just a lot of bad business decisions, one after the other, that’s what was in the end the problem. So I think he failed in terms of the rebuilding. And I think that’s a lesson on life. A lot of times you can have a great idea, but it’s how you follow through in the end and your long term plan that actually is what makes you successful.

That’s why a lot of people in the short term make it, and it doesn’t work. That was the issue. It never came down to paying his workers. And I feel very strongly that because he did such a mitzvah and because he paid his workers and because he gave them this Christmas bonuses and because he did this unbelievable act of kindness that we are still talking about today and is still needed more than ever today for CEOs to do this, he got rewarded in a very different way. But the losing of the company, and him having to, he couldn’t pay back the interest. So he went into chapter 11. He stayed on the board for a while during the restructuring. They fired everybody in our family and anyone close to him. It was I would say the dark ages of Malden Mills from anyone who talked about it. It was very depressing to go from one extreme to the other.

And then eventually he left the board to buy back the mill, and they gave him a certain amount of time where he could raise the funds and buy it back. I don’t know the exact figure. I was in high school, maybe like 60 million. And I forget if he had 40 million or whatever the number was, it wasn’t enough. And they rejected his offer. And that was it. He was out. And everything we had was connected to that company. He literally put all of his eggs in one basket because that was his life. And I don’t think they ever thought there would be no Malden Mills. It just was unthinkable. It’s like the sinking of the Titanic. It’s just like, that would never happen. But it did. There was an iceberg.

David Bashevkin:

There was an iceberg and it really, in many ways, it’s not crazy. It wasn’t eggs in one basket, like investing in Bitcoin. This was a business that went back before the 1900s to his own grandfather. This was a legacy family business.

So let’s talk a little bit about that. You mentioned up until your grandfather, you have somebody who is now on 60 Minutes. He was invited to the state of the union the next year by president Clinton as really a paradigm of what we now call conscious capitalism, of somebody who’s really having in mind all the stakeholders in a business. It’s not just about the bottom line, but it’s thinking about the lives and people involved. Let’s talk about the lives and people of your family. When you lose a family business like this, and you begin to be pushed out, especially when your last name is so wrapped up in a family business, what toll did that play on his children, meaning your parents and your aunts and uncles?

Marika Feuerstein:

Yeah. Well, and on him, too. I mean, usually when you go into chapter 11, the first thing you do is kick out the CEO. How do you kick out Aaron Feuerstein? You’re kicking out the mensch of Malden Mills, the person who Bill Clinton honored. I mean, it was a very complicated situation on many fronts. It was very hard. Everyone in my family worked at Malden Mills. My dad worked there. My aunt, her ex-husband, my uncle, cousins. I mean, it was just the whole family. And I think as a child, the hardest part was that my life was very public. I just remember everything was always in the news. I remember going to school and teachers making comments. “Oh, I saw that Malden Mills is in bankruptcy. I saw that there’s a recall on the electric blankets. I see that they’re in all this trouble.” Looking back, no one should have said that to me. It was very inappropriate. But people just felt comfortable saying what they wanted.

And my parents sadly had a terrible divorce that started about a year after the fire. When Malden Mills burnt down, there was a lot of fighting within the company. I think that from even just a lot of the workers who I’ve met the past few weeks said that the climate changed afterward. It became such a big deal that something changed. It was almost like too much exposure. And there was a lot of infighting in the company. And I remember my dad was never home. My dad was literally working night and day. And I remember him being always in a terrible mood, caused a lot of problems between him and my mother. And eventually they split. And for me personally, my parents’ divorce was on the news. Not because it really mattered, but because this was Aaron Feuerstein’s son who’s getting a divorce. And there was so much in the papers and it was awful. And everyone knew our business. Everyone knew what was going on.

So I think as a kid something, how it affected me personally was, I’m somebody who will be very public about things that go on in my life, because I’d rather be the first to say it than somebody else say it before me. Because I’m so used to my life being on the front page of everyone’s life, or their newsfeed. But I can’t even imagine how much harder it was for my dad and my aunt and my uncle and cousins, because I didn’t have a position at Malden Mills. I didn’t have my whole career wrapped up in this. It wasn’t my identity, thank God. It’s my last name, but I also got lucky as I had a very unique first name that I can just go by Marika and people know who I am. I don’t have to say Marika Feuerstein.

In fact, a lot of my friends had no idea who my family was until my grandfather just passed away.

David Bashevkin:

Really?

Marika Feuerstein:

I don’t talk about it, yeah.

David Bashevkin:

Wow.

Marika Feuerstein:

I mean, of course, my close, close friends know. But it’s not like I, it’s not something that I lead with ever. That was never my identity. To have to reinvent yourself from this family, I can’t imagine. And to go from being somebody who never had to focus on money and to worry about money, and to then all of a sudden, you don’t have a job. You don’t really know where your next check is going to come from. That’s scary.

And my grandfather couldn’t support everybody. He needed to live his life too. He needed to have money for his lifestyle. So he did his best to support all of us, but he couldn’t do it anymore. And I think it was very hard for him to have to say no to people, and when someone would say, I need a big donation, he couldn’t do it. His family needed a handout, let alone like people outside of his family. So that’s where I think it became so hard. Everyone’s identity changed. We became the recipients instead of the givers.

David Bashevkin:

Wow. And it’s so interesting, the notion of wealth and a last name. And something that I think more people are familiar with it. We hear more about the stories of people who build wealth. Like we’re a hundred years after his initial generation who kind of scrapped it together with that first wheelbarrow or whatever it was, and built a business. We have a lot of people who are kind of born into it and their identity is wrapped up in their wealth, in their prominence. The good name, all of that stuff, that hype that surrounds wealth itself.

I’m curious, was it a conscious decision for you to not build your last name kind of into your identity? Was it a conscious decision, a reaction to the fire, a reaction to the wealth not being there? Why did you make that choice?

Marika Feuerstein:

Well, first of all, I think when you come from a wealthy family, when you hand out $20 bills as a seven year old, you don’t know who your friends are. Your friends are your friends because you can buy them things, because they know that you’re going to have something to offer, or because they actually care and love you. I would make the argument that there was, again, a lot of problems in my immediate family, and somewhat of, there was a lot of in-family fighting and personality issues. And I think that was because of growing up with so much excessive wealth and never knowing who you are.

I think having a sense of self and a strong identity is everything. Not just for the average person, for religions, for ethnicities, for communities. Who am I, what is my contribution, what makes me different? And if you don’t have that value, if your value is, well I’m connected to this family, I work for this company, that’s not so great. And when it’s taken away, you’re left with a major existential crisis.

So I was lucky that I was able to grow who I was at a young age. And my friendships were based on me and the connections I made with people. And so as I grew older, I loved that. I think that I embraced that so much that I didn’t need to have friends because I was buying them something, it was because I had something else to offer. And that filled me with a lot of pride and self worth.

I think that it’s very dangerous when your identity is centered around your fame or your money. I think it’s a tragedy. And I think in the age that we live in today with social media, a lot of people are using that more than they should.

And I think that it was something that my grandfather had to wrestle with later in his life. And I think that’s why he enjoyed his later years so much. Because people, some people recognized him, but again, my friends didn’t all know the story. He knew people loved him for him. And that was something that was so incredible. And I think it’s a real lesson on what actually matters in this world, and why it’s so important to have a strong sense of self, and not to feel like the pressure to walk into a family business, which I think is a problem.

You always talk about Jews being doctors and lawyers and businessmen, which is great. You kind of can’t pass on a medical degree. And I think that’s amazing. But when you have a, you’re in the shmatta business or any of these types of businesses, you feel like, well, if I don’t go down the family business route and I fail, everyone’s going to say, you see, I told you, you should have worked in the family and had this pay check. But if you do it, are you being true to who you are? And if you’re working every day on something, I don’t care what your paycheck is, but you don’t love what you do, you’re not going to be a happy person.

So again, this fire was a major, major reset for our family in a very positive way. And I look back on it now saying like we got so lucky in a lot of ways. That, yes, we don’t have money like we did, but we have self worth, and that’s priceless, that’s amazing.

David Bashevkin:

That is so deeply moving. It resonates with me with 101 ways. I mean, first and foremost, I grew up in the home of a doctor, a pretty prominent doctor, a hematologist oncologist, he’s curing cancer. And it definitely, that notion of a parent’s self worth being wrapped up in a job and growing up in a home like that, and your first question, you can’t give your children your medical degree and your reputation. Instead, the only thing that you can live up to is the values that they’ve set forth for themselves. And my father also had some very difficult fights with the hospital. He’s since retired, but they were private. And I couldn’t imagine what they were like had they been public.

In fact, after he retired, I’m sharing this with you because I find so much of a kindredness in our stories, a book was actually written about my father. It’s called Hospital by Julie Solomon. It’s a lovely book. And my grandfather, my father’s father, was so frustrated by the way my father was depicted in the book. It wasn’t exactly how he wanted it. He wrote kind of a scathing letter to the author.

Because anytime you see your life depicted in somebody else’s hands, it can be very frustrating and dehumanizing almost. Like that’s not who I am, that’s not the child that I know. And imagining you going into a classroom and having every detail of your family’s life being reported in the news, and nowadays, the equivalent is like on WhatsApp groups or social media, that’s really, really challenging. And that last point, until we get to the last stage of your family, it just resonates so much with me. The notion of the calculus of wealth interrupting the sincerity of relationships.

I work in a Jewish organization. And like any Jewish organization, I have been given fundraising goals, and I am the world’s worst fundraiser. And the reason, no, the reason why is exactly what you said, is because I find it really painful to have to form relationships in search of a payout or a handout or a please support this cause. Even though there are a thousand reasons why, it doesn’t do that and it’s not important, but whatever end of that arrangement you are on, it can really interrupt the sincerity of relationships, and the sincerity of your own sense of self, which I think you articulated in such masterful ways.

Marika Feuerstein:

Well, we see in the Torah, by the way –

David Bashevkin:

Yeah. Tell me.

Marika Feuerstein:

Well, I know with Abraham, he obviously didn’t start off so wealthy. And I’m trying to remember the exact, you can probably correct me, but he accumulates a lot of wealth. I think it’s after what, maybe the war of the kings?

David Bashevkin:

Yes.

Marika Feuerstein:

And then right afterwards, the next sentence is like, he kind of goes back and stays at the same motel or the same place. Before the wealth and after the wealth it’s the same storyline. And I remember when I learned that it’s like, wow, you can go from having no money to having money and be the same person. I think that is so important and so special. And that’s such an amazing trait to have.

The problem is when you don’t have money, like Henry the First, and you accumulate it, money is, you can do with your money, but it’s not who you are because you remember life without it. It’s when you’re born into it, that’s the problem. That’s the big issue. It’s being born into money and raising your kids to not be so self reliant on that handout, and to not make their identity based on what that family has. I mean, that’s where it gets tricky. It’s not the first generation. It’s the second. It’s the third. It’s when it becomes almost like, this is who I am, and you expect it and you don’t earn it. That’s where it becomes a real problem.

David Bashevkin:

I’m reading between the lines that I want to get up to this third part of your grandfather’s life. But my impression is that not everyone in your family was able to reconstruct their identity as gracefully as you did. And that’s an ongoing struggle of literally recreating your sense of self after so much of your identity is wrapped up in it. Do you reach out to family members and try to, or were there periods in your life where you were trying to model the behavior that you had hoped other members of the family would be able to embrace and see?

Marika Feuerstein:

Yeah. So the story is crazy, I’ve never really said it publicly, what actually went on behind closed doors with my immediate family.

First, our family, there were, my great-grandfather had a first wife who had, they had two children. The first wife passed away from, there was a fire in the house and she had smoke inhalation. It was another fire, very crazy.

David Bashevkin:

Is that your namesake? No.

Marika Feuerstein:

No, no, no.

David Bashevkin:

Your grandfather, okay.

Marika Feuerstein:

This is my great-grandfather’s first wife.

David Bashevkin:

Okay.

Marika Feuerstein:

And she passed away from, I guess the fire was at the house, I don’t know. She was the only one that passed from that situation. And then he remarried my great-grandmother and had three more kids: my Uncle Felix, my grandfather, and my Aunt Julie, or great uncle, great aunt. Anyways, that was, again, this pattern of, there was two wives, two sets of kids. And the tension started there with our family.

So I didn’t grow up knowing my second cousins at all. I knew my first cousins and that was it. We were a very small family because there was a lot of tension between the siblings. Because my grandfather ended up being the one that took on this company and made it in to what it was. And that’s sad to me that I have such a large extended family that I don’t know.

So I really can’t speak on that family, because we aren’t close with them at all. I can only talk about my immediate immediate family. My parents lost everything. So they spent a lot of money on their divorce after the fire and never thought that there would be no Malden Mills. So when I was 13, our house was sold. My mom moved to a smaller house, farther away from the Jewish community. My dad moved into an apartment in Brookline, near my grandfather.

But by that point I knew we had serious money problems, and I was about 13, 14 at the time. And it just kept getting worse and worse and worse. And I think we all hoped that we would get the mill back, and then it just never happened. My parents really struggled. My mom lost her house in the subprime mortgage crisis. Every single one of my siblings at a certain point after the fire had a nervous breakdown at 14. So, one by one, they all dropped out of school, had severe emotional issues, and were getting sent to my mom’s family in upstate New York. And it was just, it was shattering.

It was very hard. And I was the eldest, and I stayed in school. I had a ton of friends. I would say that getting good grades was not my top priority, it was not having a breakdown. That was my one and only goal, was how do I just stay happy? Because you lose so much. You don’t just lose the money, you lose your family. And it was insanely painful.

And so I went to study in Israel for my gap year and then I stayed a second year. And I made this goal that I was going to go to the kotel, to the Western Wall every day for 40 days, and pray for my family. At that point, there was, my sister was left in Boston, but I didn’t know that she was going to be moving with my mom shortly after. And I prayed every day for 40 days that my family would come back together again, that we are going to have this miracle.

I don’t know what pushed me to want to pray for that. Everybody around me was praying for a husband. And to me that was so not what was on my mind. A part of me just felt like something was so wrong and I just didn’t know how to fix what was happening. And at the end of my 40 days, I decided to go back to Boston, change all my plans of making aliyah and studying over there. And I felt like if there’s one thing I know about Judaism, it’s a partnership. It’s not just God, and it’s not just me, it’s both parties. And I can pray, and that’s going to get the heavens to do their part, but I needed to go back to Boston to see things really come back together again.

So when I came back to Boston, my dad still hadn’t been working. My mom, she had already lost her house. She was in an apartment at the time. But my grandfather was supporting her and my sister so that they could stay. At a certain point my grandfather lost a lot of money in the stock market with Madoff and couldn’t support my mother and my sister anymore, so they ended up being homeless. They moved to upstate New York with my mom’s side of the family. And I was the last one, other than my dad, left in Boston.

And that was around the time where I wasn’t in school. I was waitressing and I started to become close with my grandfather. That’s really when our relationship blossomed, because he had one grandchild left in Boston and it was me.

David Bashevkin:

And this is the final leg, just to understand, we began with your family history and the building of this enterprise. And their second chapter is this fire that kind of uprooted your family. And there’s this third chapter that you’re introducing now, which in many ways is the sweetest most moving chapter. Though this entire story has really pierced my very identity in ways that I can’t even describe. This final chapter is, you’re waitressing, you’re kind of living a fairly simple life. And your grandfather, this heroic figure, knew presidents, on the news, is now rekindling his relationship with his granddaughter. What happened next?

Marika Feuerstein:

So, I was waitressing at the time. He could have been super ashamed of me at this. I went to private school, and here I am, after all that money he spent on my education, I’m working at a dessertery in Brookline. And he never made me feel guilty. He never, he just was happy that I was still around. And we used to go for lunch every Wednesday together when I wasn’t on a shift. And we would just sit and talk about life and talk about poetry and stuff. And at a certain point, I said to him, if you ever want to see my siblings again, you’re going to have to help my mom. She’s homeless. Everyone in her family took in somebody in upstate New York. And that’s going to be the key to bringing everyone back together.

And at the time nobody was talking to my dad or my dad’s side of the family. It was a real fractured family. And everyone dropped out of school. And so he said, okay, we’ll work on this together. And it did not happen overnight. It started with, I rented a house with some friends and I always made sure to have a guest room. So I would try and convince my mother to come visit with my sister or a sibling. And when they would come, I would throw a party or do something and invite both sides of the family. So I was trying to be the icebreaker in this family.

David Bashevkin:

It’s like The Parent Trap. You were like Hailey Mills or Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap. I love that.

Marika Feuerstein:

Exactly. So that was step one. Step two was I eventually left waitressing and helped a friend start a locksmith company. My dad didn’t work. He kept trying to get a job in textiles, that wasn’t working out for him. So I said, dad, what if you got trained as a locksmith, and you could work your own hours, would do your own thing, and just start your own business? So my friends trained my dad and for a while he worked under my friend’s company. And then my dad set off and started his own locksmith company, City Locksmith, which he still does today. And of his siblings, he is the only one that is generating an income. So the other siblings weren’t able to, I mean, they’re trying, but my dad, I’m very proud of. He’s not a millionaire. He’s not like as successful as he was, but –

David Bashevkin:

But he’s standing on his own two feet.

Marika Feuerstein:

He stands on his own two feet. He works extremely hard. He’s so proud of what he does. And it gave him a lot of self worth. And he’s able to reinvent himself in his fifties which, again, that just doesn’t happen. So that was incredible.

And then I eventually left that company. Did not like working in an office, and I did not like working for a locksmith company. And I believe I was put there to help my dad. But then I got into real estate and I needed an assistant. And my mother started remotely from upstate New York going through all my emails. And she became my real estate person. And she’s still working with me till this day. And she is my secret weapon and she is unbelievable. I think everyone wishes they had an assistant like my mother. She’s incredible. So for somebody who never worked, who lost her house, who lost everything, really, she was able to start working and have self worth and realize that it’s not over for her either.

Unlike my dad, my dad wanted to restart a career he lost. My mom never had a career. She was always a stay at home mom. Which is the hardest job, don’t get me wrong. So that was the beginning of getting both my parents to have an income and to both feel good about themselves. And, of course, my grandfather, in the meantime, when he saw everybody was working, would help out when he needed. So he wasn’t the main provider anymore, but he was there to help out to supplement. So that was huge. And then the big thing was, eventually my siblings started to come back. One by one, they came back to Boston. Everyone took somebody in. So my dad took in one brother. Then he took in another brother. Then my dad’s girlfriend took in my sister. I took in my mother. And we were all back in Boston and it was unbelievable.

And my mother wanted to come to Shabbat dinner, which was usually my dad, his late girlfriend of 19 years, and my brothers. And at that time, I believe my step grandmother was still alive, but she died shortly after. Yeah, she was still alive. And my grandfather said, Cindy’s going to be at the table. And at first my dad and his girlfriend were like, this is weird.

David Bashevkin:

Cindy, being your –

Marika Feuerstein:

My mother, Cindy’s my mother.

David Bashevkin:

Yes.

Marika Feuerstein:

They didn’t want her there. It’s my dad’s ex-wife, and they had a bad, bad divorce. My parents did not talk, it was awful.

David Bashevkin:

Sure.

Marika Feuerstein:

And my grandfather kept his promise to me. He said, if Cindy’s not at the table, I’m not coming to the table. And if you don’t want to come because Cindy’s there, that’s fine, don’t bother coming. And that was it, my mom started coming to the Shabbat table. And at first it was weird. And my dad’s girlfriend didn’t really look at her, talk to her. My dad did the same. And eventually the ice got broken. And sadly, and very tragically, my step-grandmother ended up that year being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. My dad’s girlfriend was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. And my mom was very supportive when they got sick, and even they started to mend their relationships. At the end, my dad’s girlfriend got my mom a gift, because my mom was so helpful. We walked my sister to the hospital on Shabbat.

I mean, it was unbelievable to see this family coming together. And when my step-grandmother and my dad’s girlfriend passed away, I think at that point was when things really, we really started to come together. Because my grandfather couldn’t live alone. And when we were growing up, we never went to his house, ever. We only started going to meals there when my parents divorced and we were in high school.

David Bashevkin:

Just let me jump in. Why didn’t you go to his house growing up?

Marika Feuerstein:

He didn’t want us around. When we moved to the area, because my parents started in Chicago where there was a part of Malden Mills, my grandfather had said to my mother and my dad that he thought we should move to Newton, which is a suburb near Brookline, but it’s not Brookline, because if we’re in Brookline, it’s too close. He didn’t want to be too close to us.

David Bashevkin:

Mm-hmm, interesting.

Marika Feuerstein:

For a grandparent to say they don’t want to be too close to their grandchildren, that’s like unbelievable. It’s like usually a grandparents dream to have their grandchildren nearby. But not him. He was CEO of Malden Mills. He was a busy man. He didn’t want us in his space. He was had a second marriage and it was just too much for him.

And so when my parents divorced, he had us over once or twice a month for Shabbat dinner. But we had someone who served us, we had a set time that we were there. We never slept over. In fact, I never even saw his bedroom. I mean, it was like a very professional relationship. Like I would never feel comfortable going through his condo without, unless it was in the main living room or dining room.

And when my grandmother passed away, my brother moved in to take care of him. And then my sister eventually moved in. And then eventually he requested that my mom come and stay there too. So everyone was kind of living with him at the end and it became like our family house. It was insane. And we just became a family, a real family. And all my siblings got their GEDs. My brother Michael went and got a computer science degree from Amherst. My sister, who’s the most amazing story, literally went from being homeless, not thinking she’s smart, doing online schooling, to, when she lived with my grandfather, he said to her, you know, you’re really smart. And he would sit and learn poetry and Shakespeare with her.

He gave her the self confidence to go back to school. She went to community college, she ends up getting the number one scholarship for community college kids. It’s called the Jack Kent Cook scholarship. They give it to maybe 20 kids in the whole country. And she now is on a full ride at Columbia. I mean, it’s like unbelievable what happened.

David Bashevkin:

At the very end of your grandfather’s life, if I’m following, I don’t know if it’s at this point of the story, he actually moved in with you?

Marika Feuerstein:

Yeah.

David Bashevkin:

And he spent the very end of his life, the Aaron Feuerstein, multimillionaire textile tycoon, moved into an apartment, and it was two bedroom, three bedroom, and lived –

Marika Feuerstein:

Where I am right now, with me.

David Bashevkin:

With Marika, with you. So I really have two questions to kind of put a cap on this story and this final leg of the story.

Number one, did your grandfather ever reflect about this final chapter, the pain of this final chapter? And, specifically, what you mentioned when you were waitressing, kind of the lament that none of his children amassed the wealth or the notoriety that he was able to have in his own lifetime, was that painful for him or was that almost the removing of a burden for him?

Marika Feuerstein:

Yeah. So the final years he was running out of money, honestly. I mean, that’s the truth. He was running out of money at the end. And he had a very nice condo, and he was living way beyond what he thought he was going to live. And he didn’t want to feel that pressure or stress. So in 2019 he wanted to renovate his condo, so in case he ever had to sell it, he could, and he’d be ready to go. And moving in with me seemed like the smartest thing, because it was so close to the synagogue and it was first floor. And I gave him my master bedroom. And then COVID hit and he ended up just selling his condo and this was it. This is where he wanted to spend his remaining years. He got two things, from spending time with him, that I saw in those last two years.

Number one, we did go to Malden Mills in 2019, the two of us, for a drive, January of 2020. And when I saw the company for the first time in person, not just on the news, I couldn’t believe how big it was. I just had no idea how many buildings and what the type of operation he ran.

He said to me that losing the company should have killed him. He said it should have just ruined him. And it didn’t. That made me realize that not only did all of us get a new sense of identity that we all had to create on our own, but he also had a new sense of identity. That his identity was not being Aaron Feuerstein, the CEO of Malden Mills who can write the checks. In the end, he became Aaron Feuerstein, the person who did the right thing, but also the CEO of our family, and somebody who he believed was going to help continue the Jewish people, because Jewish continuity to him was everything.

And also I asked him, if he never inherited Malden Mills, would he have wanted to be a businessman? And he said, “No.” He was an English literature and philosophy major at YU. He wanted to be a professor, a teacher. He loved learning. Every day of his retirement was like going to a job. A 90-year old man in a three piece suit every day, up at the same time, sitting at the table, and I can tell you as his roommate, he would sit and read from morning till night. He would stop reading maybe 10:00, 10:30, 11:00 PM, and this was memorizing Shakespeare and poetry and always reading a book on Jewish history or Jewish identity or a secular book. The New York Times and Boston Globe cover-to-cover. He loved to learn. He loved to debate. He loved to push people to be critical thinkers. And that was the identity I think he would’ve chosen had there not have been a mill that his family wanted him to run.

I think, that was the beginning of the theme, is, what happens when you inherit this? Well, he got blessed in both ways. He got the life that he was supposed to do, and he got the life that he wanted if he could have chosen it as well. And I think that was the beauty of his life. The later years was the life he chose for him. He got a second chance at being a father, a much better father than he was. He was not a present father growing up. He was never home. He got to be a real grandfather. And we all got to have a second chance at having a family because it was taken from us.

So he brought our family back together again. He worked tirelessly to show us how important the Shabbat meal is, and that family is number one, and I saw his values at the end come out. And to live to almost 96, his wisdom was something that it takes a lifetime to have, and he’s lived through so much. So whatever he said, we took seriously, because he’s lived through it all. And at the end of the day, that’s what matters. It’s family, and friendships, and you give because you’re supposed to and because it’s the right thing to do, but you have to have more to your life than just money and fame.

David Bashevkin:

This is one of the most extraordinary conversations I’ve ever had. We’ve been doing this for over a year, and honestly I could sit with you for another several hours because really this resonates with me so personally. I don’t come from a family of this stature, as I mentioned before, but really there’s something very universal about this narrative in a lot of ways. I’m just curious, you said he was filled with a lot of wisdom. The topic that we’re exploring this month is about wealth and finances. Did he ever explicitly, at that last chapter in his life, share with you anything about his view? Or how would you encapsulate how he viewed wealth?

Marika Feuerstein:

Totally. Yes, because he said it to me all the time, “Don’t overspend. Don’t go into debt. Don’t. Don’t do it.” He bailed me out a few times. I like to throw big community events, big, big parties in Boston, and he would get so mad at me if I overspent on these things. I would do it from my heart. You know like, “Oh, if I go $5,000 over budget, so what?” To him, like I said, he didn’t regret paying his workers. He regretted how he spent his money. At the end, I think he would’ve said, “Don’t throw your money away. Don’t just think it’s always going to be there. Be smart. Invest it in multiple things. Don’t just put it all in one thing.”

He wished he would’ve bought more real estate. He wished that he would’ve invested into different companies, not just his own. Nothing lasts forever. No business. People aren’t immortal and neither are businesses, and I think that he learned that the hard way. So, be smart. Always give, but you have to look out for yourself. If you are not for yourself, then who will be for you, type of situation.

David Bashevkin:

Gotcha. If there’s anything that I think really will endure, it’s really this narrative and his values and it’s the values almost that were not shared with the world.

There was that moment of after the fire, but for me, hearing a story of rebuilding and reconstructing your personal identity and the identity of your family is a value that will endure. There’s an immortality to that value and I can’t thank you enough for sharing.

I always end my interview with a little bit rapid fire questions. My first question, listening to this story, is there a book that you found or you would find your grandfather constantly engrossed in that you think helped give him the resilience, or you the resilience, you could answer for either one or both, to have this ability to reconstruct your identity? Meaning, where did he find this value? Where did you find this value? Is there a book recommendation that you would have for this ability to reconstruct your very sense of self?

Marika Feuerstein:

During the years he was trying to get Malden Mills back, he was constantly reciting Iyov, Job. That’s the book where God takes everything from Iyov, because it’s like, “Oh, Iyov only is good to you because he has all these different things.” And he strips him of everything and Iyov never complains and he never curses God. That was his idol. That’s what got him through it 100%. And I never heard my grandfather once say, “I regret what I did. I miss having the money.” If anything, he was happiest here. So, I don’t have windows on the left side of my apartment. That’s why I have this fake mirror to trick people. So when he sold his condo, I’m like, “Do you miss your condo? I have a little tiny apartment.” And he was like, “No, I’m so happy here. I just miss sometimes looking out at the trees.” But that was it. That was the only thing he missed. Life is the energy you create in your house, not what you buy.

David Bashevkin:

Is there a book that you would recommend that jumps out at you that helped you? Because your story, though not in the headlines, to me at least is equally compelling and moving. I don’t know if you’re a big reader, but is there a book that jumps out at you that gave you strength to kind of –

Marika Feuerstein:

Purim.

David Bashevkin:

The Purim story?

Marika Feuerstein:

My whole life is based on Purim.

David Bashevkin:

That’s the right answer.

Marika Feuerstein:

Everything about my life is Purim and I’ll leave you with this little thing. It’s amazing. Purim was the first event I did for my family when we were trying to bring everyone back together again. It was a Purim seudah with my family. My Zadie’s middle name was Mordechai, and my Hebrew name is Shoshana, which the gematria is the same as Esther.

And I always looked at the Purim story that Esther and Mordechai plotted to save the Jewish people, to bring them back to Jerusalem, when they didn’t build the temple. There was a tragedy that took place, but the big tragedy wasn’t Haman, it was that they were going to assimilate and be dispersed and be over. So, Purim is what gives me strength. It’s the holiday of unity.

But what’s amazing is when I was waitressing in 2012, I had a client who would always sit in my section. He was a big developer. And we became friends, and one day it was Purim, and I told him I had to leave early because I was fasting and it was a random Jewish holiday. And he said, “Well, in two sentences or three sentences, can you tell me what this holiday is about?” And I said, “Well, someone tried to destroy the Jewish people, and thank God we had a Jewish queen that nobody knew was Jewish, and she threw parties and saved all the Jews.” I said, “But the deeper meaning is that nothing happens by chance. Everything happens for a reason. And even though God’s name was not mentioned in the story, God is everywhere, and you always have to have that perception.”

And he was like, “Do you really believe that?” And I’m like, “Of course.” So he said, “Well, okay, do you think there’s a reason that I sat in your section and you and I became friends?” And I said, “If you gave me five minutes, I’m sure we could figure it out.” Well, it took 20 seconds because he never knew my last name. He only knew me as me as Marika. And the second he heard Feuerstein, as it turns out, his grandfather and his father both worked for Malden Mills and Malden Knitting.

David Bashevkin:

Wow.

Marika Feuerstein:

He was the first one in his family to go and get a degree, became a big architect and developer. And here we are. I’m the waitress, third generation, and he’s this big shot. It was unbelievable. For me, I knew.

David Bashevkin:

That is Purim.

Marika Feuerstein:

Before someone’s going to push me on Purim, I’m ready to go. I’ll bet my life on Purim. But that was the life.

David Bashevkin:

Wow. My second question, you already answered on behalf of your grandfather, so maybe you’ll answer according to yourself. If somebody gave you a great deal of money, and allowed you to go back to school without any responsibilities and either get a PhD or write a book, what do you think that book would be about? And I’ll tell you now, Marika, after hearing your story, I know what I would want that book to be about, but I want you to answer on your own terms.

Marika Feuerstein:

That every miracle begins with a problem. And that when bad things happen, you need to not focus on the bad thing being the ending. That bad thing is the new beginning. And we are here for a purpose until the day that we die. And so we’re going to constantly need to have a struggle until there’s nothing left to grow from.

David Bashevkin:

Marika, I hope one day we see your memoir, and I would love its title to be Every Miracle Begins with a Problem. That’s absolutely beautiful. My final question, which is the easiest one, I’m always fascinated by people’s sleeping schedules. What time did you, and maybe you could answer for your grandfather of blessed memory as well, what time did each of you go to sleep, and what time did you wake up in the morning?

Marika Feuerstein:

Okay. So, he was the first one up in the house. So, no matter what he was up by 7:30 every day. It took him a while sometimes to get ready, but he was sitting at the table no later than 8:45 every morning. And I probably would stroll, especially with COVID, would stroll out of bed somewhere around nine-ish.

David Bashevkin:

God bless you.

Marika Feuerstein:

So, it was very rare that I ever woke up before him.

David Bashevkin:

And what about going to sleep at night?

Marika Feuerstein:

So, okay. He always stopped reading at 10 o’clock, between 10 and 11. So, I’d say he went to bed sometime between 11:30 and midnight. And depends, I was all over the place. So, I could go to bed at 2:00 in the morning, 1:00 in the morning, sometimes 10:00 o’clock. Depends how active I was. He was the structured one of the two of us. He had a strict schedule. I was the question mark.

David Bashevkin:

Marika Feuerstein. And I’m deliberately saying your last name at the end because this entire interview is about you really reclaiming your last name for yourself. And this story is so incredibly moving, and I cannot thank you enough for sharing it with all of its honesty, all of its authenticity, and all of its messiness, which I think is what makes it so beautiful. Marika, thank you so much for joining us today.

Marika Feuerstein:

David, you are amazing. Thank you very much for being willing to listen.

David Bashevkin:

So, I think we began a really important conversation related to wealth in this month. And I’m so appreciative and gracious to our listeners who have all reached out and spoken about their own struggles and ways they’ve navigated, people who have navigated wealth, people who have navigated the middle, and people who have navigated really financial difficulty and poverty. And we’ve heard from all three, which is what makes me so appreciative of the 18Forty community.

Now this may seem absolutely insane to bring up to close out our topic on wealth, but I do want to address something that we did at 18Forty, which is, for the first time ever, we actually turned to our listeners and asked, graciously and kindly, if our listeners would consider donating to 18Forty. We did this at the end of December when all nonprofits and a lot of these organizations reach out. That was probably foolish. I knew if I didn’t do it then I would never do it. I’m a terrible fundraiser for a 1,000 reasons. I never do it, which is probably why I have never really risen to the top ranks of any nonprofit organizations that I am a part of. Part of being able to do that is to be able to be the rainmaker of sorts.

But I want to tell you the number one reason why I hate it, and I want to speak directly to our community with a very real promise, but also a request. I hate fundraising because it transforms relationships that are otherwise sincere and authentic into this feeling that they are transactional. I hate meeting people, I hate responding to emails, I hate connecting to people, and in the back of my head lingering is whether or not I should be doing an ask, reaching out for money. It drives me crazy. I, like Warren buffet who I mentioned, the asset that I treasure most are my friendships, are my family, are the people in my life who I never want to color our relationships with this transactional quality of reaching out to people for money.

We’ve been talking this whole month about money and how it shapes communities and relationships. And I am hyper aware of this, to a point where it is absolutely crippling in a way, where I’m unable to really reach out with graciousness and ask people even for causes that I support. I absolutely stink at it. So, why am I doing this now? I’m doing it for two reasons. A, I do want to do it at the end of a topic where we spoke about wealth, because that’s not what we’re chasing. What we’re trying to do is build a community. And 18Forty began two years ago. We have one person who essentially covers nearly all of our expenses for the website, and for the audio engineering, for the videos that we do, for the writers, for all the things that we do on the website. We do have somebody who covers nearly all of that, not everything, but covers nearly all of that.

But I want to grow, because I believe in this community and I want to take it further. And what we’re really trying to do is reach out to our listeners and ask them, if there was ever an episode that really resonated with you, if there was ever something that you really feel like you had an impact on your life, consider giving back. We’re really trying to do something different here. We’re trying to address the points of dissonance in people’s lives.

As I’ve mentioned so many times, whether it is theological dissonance, the theological principles that you grew up with are no longer cohering with the perspectives you have now as an adult, whether it is sociological dissonance, which is the communities that shaped you as a teen, as an adolescent, and now you’re looking at the world now and wondering how to look at marginalized communities, how to look at the other, so to speak, in your life with a new and mature lens, or whether it is emotional dissonance, which is sometimes the most painful, which is that the satisfaction, joy, and meaning that you once found in your Jewish life is no longer present in the same way.

And at 18Forty, we are trying to do something different. I heard an incredible analogy when I was talking to my dear friend, Gil Pearl. We’re talking about some contentious issues within the community. And he told me an analogy that he heard from Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein, which absolutely floored me. He said that sometimes in the community, it’s like we begin to swerve in a car. And your first reaction when you swerve in your car, God forbid, is that you grab the steering wheel and you jerk it and yank it in the other direction, and you start spinning it in the other direction. Which, if you know how cars work, that will only make your car spin absolutely out of control. In order to regain control of a swerving car, you need to swerve and take the steering wheel and move it into where you are swerving. Not trying to frantically swerve it out of control, but actually move the steering wheel into where the car is loosing control, which will allow you to regain your treading and gain control of the vehicle.

I think there’s a communal analogy here, and there’s an analogy for what we are doing at 18Forty. I think in many points in our lives, we feel like our individual lives, our communal lives are swerving out of control, and the usual reaction, whether it’s from institutions that we’re affiliated with, whether it’s people, mentors, is to grab the steering wheel and swerve in the other direction. And that only makes the car swerve further. That only makes our inability to speak through issues, to use controversy as a catalyst for conversation, as a catalyst for constructing meaning, when we swerve in the other direction, the car only loses more control. But when we steer into the difficulty, when you have the confidence to be able to talk about issues, however difficult, however controversial, however sensitive, and be able to steer into them, that is what allows you to regain control of the car.

And that’s what we’re doing at 18Forty. We are swerving into the controversy, into the difficulty, into those points of conversation that are usually only spoken sometimes in hushed tones at Shabbos tables, or 20 year olds asking questions, innocently, but unable to find answers and directions. We are swerving directly into those points in order to regain control of the vehicle. And I’m so proud of what we’re doing here, and more than anything else, I’m so proud of the community that have created.

I have two promises for you. Number one is, I am not going to be asking you for money at the end of every single podcast. You could stop listening now and you can unsubscribe if I start doing that. I will be showing appreciation at the end of every single podcast as I try to do, and I should be doing more often. I’m only going to mention it once now, and I really promise this is not something you’re going to constantly be hearing me from about.

And that is, if 18Forty has made an impact on your life, consider giving back. We would not be here unless there was a community that was around us and supporting us, and our ability to grow really lies in your hands. So, whether it was an episode, an email, a conversation, or some way that we’ve reached out and connected, if we have impacted you in any way, consider giving back. You can donate at 18Forty.org, that’s 1-8, followed by the word F-O-R-T-Y.org/donate. It means a great deal to me and the future of the 18Forty community if you would considered doing so. And I’m so appreciative to everyone who already has contributed, supported, whether it is financial support, or frankly just an email, a word of encouragement. Our community is so gracious and so kind.

And the emails, whether it’s feedback, comments, criticism, it means a great deal to me when I hear from you. And I’m so appreciative to everyone who has reached out, who has already given. And for those, and a lot of you probably didn’t know, I only shared once on social media and one email, a lot of you are not signed up for the email, shame on you, I will shame you for not signing up for the emails. I do reserve that right. But if we have impacted you in any ways, help us grow, consider giving back. 18Forty.org. That’s the number 1-8 followed by the word F-O-R-T-Y.org/donate. It really means a great deal to our community, and to help us continue growing, putting out great content. Creating new forms of education for our entire community is something that I’m so excited about, and we will not be able to do without your support.

But I also want everybody to know that it does not just have to be financial support. I really want to emphasize that again. Everybody who has given, it means so, so much to me. Everybody who will give, it means a great deal to me. But I will not allow fundraising or any need for growth to color and allow the relationships that are formed in this community to become transactional. Continue reaching out whether or not you give whether or not you sign up to the emails, please continue reaching out, sending in your comments, helping us highlight the issues that you find most important, and we’re going to be sending out another survey in January to hear from our community of what ideas, topics, conversations you want to hear in the coming year, so you can help us grow even further, not just with your financial support, but with your direction, your guidance, and your encouragement.

Really from the bottom of my heart, to every listener, to everybody who’s tuned in for one episode or every episode, to everyone who’s sent out an email, to everyone who’s texted me, WhatsApped me, your encouragement, your support, your graciousness, your feedback really means the world to me. Thank you so much.

And thank you so much for listening. This episode, like almost all of our episodes, was edited by the wonderful Dina Emerson, and it wouldn’t be a Jewish podcast without a little bit of, well, this time I could say shnorring, because I actually did do a little bit of shnorring. But it wouldn’t be a Jewish podcast without a little bit of Jewish guilt. So, if you enjoyed this episode, or any episode, please subscribe, rate, review. Tell your friends about it. It really helps us reach new listeners

You can also leave us a voicemail with feedback, questions that we could play in a future episode. Don’t panic. You don’t have to leave your actual name. I know. I know Jews and we do not like leaving our names. We love anonymous feedback. And the number for our voicemail is 917-720-5629. Once again, that’s 917-720-5629. Give us feedback. We’re planning an episode right now with all of our listener feedback. If you’d like to learn more about this topic, or some of the other great ones we’ve covered in the past, be sure to check out 18Forty.org. That’s the number 1-8, followed by the word “forty,” F-O-R-T-Y.org, 18Forty.org, where you can also find videos, articles, and recommended readings. Thank you so much for listening, and stay curious, my friends.