Over the last few weeks Jason Buzi, a Palo Alto–based native of Haifa, has become one of the most talked-about Jews on the planet. That’s because he’s the millionaire behind @HiddenCash — the scavenger hunt that has thrust him into the international media spotlight.
So naturally, J. needed to track him down for an interview about his Judaism and his roots in Israel.
If you’ve never heard of the @HiddenCash phenomenon, here’s a short primer: A small cadre of volunteers has been hiding envelopes containing money — usually between $40 and $100 — in various cities, such as San Francisco, New York City and Mexico City. People follow @HiddenCash on Twitter to get clues about the money’s whereabouts … and then the mad dash is on, provided they can decipher the clues.
“When we started, it was going to be a local San Francisco thing,” Buzi said with a faint but noticeable Israeli accent, “but it just kind of went viral,” adding that the Twitter account @HiddenCash now has more than 608,000 followers.
The first clues in May led to money stashed at Fisherman’s Wharf, the Palace of Fine Arts, a Haight Street music store and near the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. Drops then expanded to San Jose and Oakland, and then Los Angeles.
“I got together with some friends and we were talking about our desire to give back and do it in a fun way,” Buzi, 43, explained to CNN.
Buzi was born Asaf Hillel Buzi in Haifa, Israel, and he spent his first 12 years there. His father was an immigrant to Israel, having fled Iraq in 1951. His mother was a New Yorker.
In 1983, his parents uprooted the family, including his brothers, and moved to the Bay Area. That was more than 30 years ago, but Buzi still can speak fluent Hebrew.
Buzi recalled his early years in the United States, noting that “in the ’80s, it was not yet trendy to have an ethnic name.” In school, the other children would not only mispronounce, “Asaf,” but also ridicule his name.
That’s why at 19, he decided to become “Jason.”
Ruminating on Israel, Buzi expressed nostalgia for the past and dissatisfaction with the present. There’s definitely a need for a Jewish state, he said, but some of the Zionist idealism that existed in his youth has vanished and been replaced by modern interests, he added.
“The kids may remember, but the grandchildren forget,” he said. “They want iPhones and weekend trips to Europe, not idealism.”
Likewise, his relationship with Judaism is a complex one. On one hand, Buzi identifies as Jewish, celebrating some Jewish holidays with family, and attending synagogue for the High Holy Days, though at different congregations.
“Yet I don’t feel comfortable being outspoken about being Jewish,” he added.
Buzi is a real estate investor who reportedly made a fortune flipping houses. He apparently is known around the Palo Alto area for unusual business practices, such as leaving notes in people’s mailboxes about wanting to buy their home.
In an interview with KTVU Channel 2 before his identity was revealed, he said, “The last real estate deal I did I made about half a million dollars. I can afford to give a lot.” He also said he gives a lot of his money to charities, including the San Francisco Food Bank.
Buzi told J. he’s not directly involved in any local Jewish social groups or any Israeli tech/business groups in Silicon Valley, but said he associates with many Jews, including Israelis, in the course of business.
In terms of the @HiddenCash project, he said the unexpected publicity has felt awkward, in part because of the media greatly exaggerating his wealth. He also fears that a Jewish connection to wealth and handing out money could result in anti-Semitic backlash.
Buzi and company have big plans for @HiddenCash’s future, with ideas to expand to London, Paris, Madrid and beyond — all the while encouraging everyone who finds the cash to “pay it forward if they can.”
He told KTVU, “If people need the money for themselves, that’s fine. But if they can share it with others, that would be great. I’ve heard some heartwarming stories from people donating to charity and sharing it with other people who are less fortunate.”
In the long run, Buzi said, it’s hard to know how @HiddenCash will turn out. In its current format, he and his colleagues are having trouble sustaining it, he said.
Overall, though, he said the project has been a wild ride — and a rewarding one, too.
“If people are in a position to give back, if you can give back, it’s a very rewarding thing,” Buzi said. “It’s gratifying to do.”