I can vividly picture the scene taking place on a Newark, New Jersey street corner in 1922… Prohibition is hanging heavily over every boarded up bar and single family household on the block. The streets are full of the penniless, making bedding out of old jackets on the grey and crunchy dirty sidewalk snow. Children are wrapping up nightly stick ball games to return home for dinner as the streets darken with denizens of the nightlife and small time hoods…
And then suddenly, out of the darkness, trotting up in a horse-drawn buggy, appears Rabbi Levi Zalman, who is suddenly swarmed by scores of men from these homes looking to procure the finest bottle of bootleg wine they can get their hands on. Money is exchanged, prayers are said and the men race home to their families. With every sale, Rabbi Zalman mutters, “Baruch Hashem.” (Blessed be the name of the lord). When it’s all over, Rabbi Zalman rides away a very rich man…
Of course, Rabbi Levi Zalman is not a Rabbi at all. In fact, he is Jack Joseph Brauer, an out-of-work shoe peddler from East Jersey City who has just unloaded his Government-relegated weekly supply of booze for a shade over $5,000.
He is also my great-great grandfather. This was his “congregation.”
Ratified in 1920, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution – which is America’s only Amendment to later be repealed – federally prohibited the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol. Of course, this was one of our biggest failures in our short history, and led to the golden age of organized crime, corruption and sheer madness across the country.
Doing some research (And I am not the first to report this – just giving you some background) Jewish households were allowed a certain amount of wine per household per year. To top that off, if you were a Rabbi, and you lead any type of “congregation” (12 members or more) you were allowed to get as much wine as you wanted for religious purposes at any time you desired… So guess what happened? A lot of “new Rabbis” suddenly started showed up.
“There were fake Rabbis everywhere,” my grandmother told me years ago before she died. “If you knew 12 people, that was a congregation… why do you think so many people started converting to Judaism during the 20’s? FOR BOOZE.”
So, when Jack Brauer’s shoe business got hit with hard times in the early 1920’s, he bought some religious robes, sported a fake beard and marched up to the proper Governmental distribution center and bought as much alcohol as he needed… He flipped it in two days and kicked off a successful six-year-run as the biggest “Rabbi Bootlegger” in Newark, New Jersey.
A few years later, when the American Jewish Committee began cracking down on the large number of fake Rabbi’s, my great-great grandfather Jack was NOT on the suspected fraud list. In fact, he continued to support his family until 1931, just before the Amendment was repealed. How? He had the third largest congregation in New Jersey at the time. (Even though it was 95 percent FAKE.)
Now, according to the three part documentary Prohibition by Ken Burns, other religions had these loopholes as well. In fact, Priests were ALSO able to purchase liquor for religious ceremonies. Of course, the government could actually reference records to determine if someone claiming to be a Priest actually was a Priest. But Rabbis? There was NO WAY OF TELLING WHO WAS A RABBI.
According to writer Daniel Okrent, “Rabbis were suddenly showing up everywhere. Irish Rabbis, Black Rabbis…” Nobody ever doubted their religious claims.
As is turns out, my grandmother was correct. In the 1920’s, Jewish congregations increased in membership by like, 75 percent. In short? BOOTLEG LIQUOR BUILT MODERN DAY JUDAISM. In fact, I don’t think you can reference a time in history when more NEW Jews suddenly showed up out of the woodwork to embrace Judaism in our nation’s history. No wonder we say prayers over the wine…
A few years ago, my grandmother Florence passed away. Readers of my stories should be familiar with our adventures together in her later years, which included a trip to the Ace Hotel, smoking medical marijuana and leafing through her old photo albums so she could announce who was presently, “Dead.” When she passed, it was a sad moment, and a week later, our family went through her home to get rid of old useless items…(My grandfather’s 5000 VHS tapes of classic movies) and save valuable ones… (My grandma had always claimed that she had hidden “thousands of dollars in cash” all over the house and that it was our job to find it when she died.)
Of course, knowing this, we tore open her home like Jesse Pinkman looking for hidden cash in that drug dealer’s condo in the film El Camino…
My mom and I found some money, but the “thousands of dollars” my grandma promised turned out to be something more like 220 bucks. We also uncovered a lot of jewelry and a stamp collection valued at about $39. So, if you’re the new couple that bought the place? If you ever find some ungodly wad of $100 dollar bills in a crawl space, hit me up…
Aside for a few of my grandma’s stray Vicodin, which I squirreled away in a jacket pocket, the only other item in the home that really intrigued me was my grandmother’s birth certificate. On it was listed her parent’s names and occupations – (Ruth Brauer-Kaplan – housewife. Jacob Kaplan- Dentist) – as well as her GRANDPARENT’s names and occupations… What intrigued me was the job description as reported to the state of New Jersey by JACK JOSEPH BRAUER –
His job: RABBI.
“Wow so Grandma’s story was true?” I asked my Uncle Steve who was helping my mom go through Florence’s old belongings.
“Yes indeed,” he answered.
“So was he really a Rabbi?” I asked.
“Do you know what a ‘Rabbi’ was back then?”
“I’m guessing a bootlegger?”
“It’s great getting to know your family, isn’t it?”
I went into the kitchen and poured myself a large glass of wine. I toasted my grandma on her final journey and raised my glass up to Jack Joseph Brauer – my great-great grandfather who kept so many families buzzed during the dark years of Prohibition…
Out of Touch at The Dream Hotel * 2015 By Zach Selwyn
It was two-o-clock in the morning and I was standing on the street outside the Dream Hotel in New York City when a slick looking hustler in a Panama hat sided up to me.
“You looking for girls tonight?” He said.
“Naah man, I’m just trying to get some air.”
“You sure? Just up those stairs across the street is all kinds of hoes… I’m talking Thai girls, Russians, Mamis… You ever bang a bad bitch?”
“What exactly is a bad bitch?” I asked.
“If you don’t know, then you’ve never banged one…”
I have been in New York City for roughly 36 hours. In that time, I have averaged 4 hours of sleep a night, eaten 7 street hot dogs and drank close to 19 cups of bad deli coffee. I have also realized that I am the most out of touch loser in the city. The average Manhattan man around my age is sporting a hundred dollar undercut and a long beard – which is eerily similar to L.A. (With only a few less Man-Buns). The difference is, these guys are also rocking 3,000 dollar Ted Baker suits and wingtips. As for me, I am wearing a 1970’s – era Wrangler cowboy shirt, some Lee Riders from the early 80’s and a pair of ¾ boots I scored from a TV show wardrobe department about 4 years ago. My hair is pretty tame and I still have Beverly Hills 90210-era sideburns. I’m also wearing a trucker cap that reads “Roy Clark” on it, bellbottoms and a belt buckle that features Chester the Cheetah riding a Harley motorcycle beneath the inscription “Cheesy Rider.”
I feel a little like Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy because NOBODY is dressed like me. Funny thing is, this is how I have been dressing for 15 years. A few years back, in the early 00’s, everybody started dressing like this. Now, those days are long gone and I’m the only guy on 8th Avenue wearing a shirt that unsnaps when you tear it apart and a turquoise ring.
And apparently, I have no idea what a “bad bitch” is.
I realized I was grossly under-dressed when I attended the first business dinner with the company I am working for. I figured it would be a quick bite at a local bar, but it turned into the type of place where they asked me to remove my hat as I sat down. The next day, at the company’s request, I made my way to a J. Crew to try and find something respectable that I would feel comfortable wearing. I settled on a checkered red, white and blue button-down and some horrendously skinny jeans. The price? $254.
When the sales associate asked me “how my sock game” was, I told him, “Fine. I buy all my socks at Ross: Dress for Less.”
“How’s your shoe game?” He asked.
“I have these nice ¾ boots,” I said.
“Uggh, please – nobody is wearing ¾ boots anymore,” he retorted. “You need some wings!”
I walked out of the store.
I couldn’t place my finger on it, but Manhattan had begun to seem too cookie cutter. I guess I was aware of the Duane Reade explosion and the Starbucks on every corner, but I was not prepared for the fashion clones that had sprouted up everywhere. Sure I was ten years older than the average guy out on a Wednesday night, but even I could sense a lack of originality. New York City, which was once full of punk street kids, trendsetters and Mapplethorpe-worshipping leather daddies sticking whips in their asses and walking into a Saks Fifth Avenue, had become somewhat tame.
I recently read an interview with AdRock of the Beastie Boys talking about how the “New York of his youth had disappeared.” I was beginning to understand what he was talking about. Manhattan in the 70’s and 80’s – before the crackdowns and the $8200 a month rent – was an artistic and fantastic place to be. These were the days before the smelly Times Square Jack Sparrows. Before Hell’s Kitchen was a gentrified hipster paradise. In the late 80’s I would visit my second cousin and roll down Canal Street to buy fake Gucci jackets, leather African medallion necklaces and a bootleg cassette of LL Cool J’s Walking With a Panther. The tape-dealers would offer me “smoke,” which scared the crap out of me. At one point, my mom dragged me away from a couple of black guys who were standing around Washington Square Park discussing the new Bobby Brown On Our Own song from Ghostbusters II. I tried to inject some white boy wisdom by saying I thought Bobby should’ve written a second rap verse instead of repeating the “Too hot to handle, too cold to hold” line and they ignored me as if I was “Chester the Terrier” following around the bigger “Spike the Bulldog” in the Looney Tunes cartoons.
The only exception I could find was in the Dream Hotel. The first couple of nights I was in town, I took it easy, stayed in my room, watched TV and had sex with the full-length pillow. However, a hotel room can only hold you captive for so long and eventually I came downstairs to find out where the notorious dark side of this fantastic city had wound up. I now believe it all centers around the Dream Hotel. Within an hour of hanging in the lobby, I was propositioned by more pimps, hustlers, hoes and drug dealers than I have seen in 20 years in Los Angeles. Methy looking skinny teenagers were offering me weed, cocaine and what they claim is “Government pure MDMA.” The lobby was crawling with hookers and late night denizens of the rooftop nightclub, which is named “PDH.” An acronym for what I can only imagine is “Pimps, Drugs and Hoes” based on the army of thick women standing around comparing 9 inch Indian weaves and elastic black twat-length skirts that barely cover their clitori. (Is that the plural for “clitoris?”)
The new Manhattan underbelly had become what Jay-Z sang about in Empire State of Mind. “Ballplayers, rap stars, addicted to that limelight…” Everywhere I went folks were talking about money, cars and rap music. If Los Angeles is supposedly a vapid, material city full of superficial idiots, New York City has embraced a lifestyle full of flashy watches, bottle service, velvet ropes and hangers on… So much so that when I tried to get access to the PDH nightclub on the top floor, the bouncer looked at my “shoe game” and instructed me to “please wait in the other bar.”
I didn’t really want to go up to PDH, but it did seem like it had to be part of my Dream Hotel adventure. So I waited in the bar drinking 17 dollar glasses of shoddy tempranillo wondering how anyone can listen to this much house and trap music in one day. The hotel sort of felt like Miami, but it was 40 degrees cooler and Pitbull wasn’t here singing some shitty song about how “white girl got some ass.”
Finally a large Puerto Rican man came over and told me that since I was a guest of the hotel, all I needed to do was show my room key and I could gain access to the club. I sauntered up towards the door, bypassing the line of desperate gold diggers and club kids and flashed my hotel room key. It was the first time in my entire trip that I had felt somewhat cool.
The nightclub was everything I always hated about nightclubs. Expensive drinks, a DJ mixing Calvin Harris with Blondie, hairy men pouring vodka-cranberry drinks for girls who were most likely being paid to hang around them and intimidating looking security guards who mad-dogged anybody ordering a single beer instead of a 2500 dollar bottle of Grey Goose.
I stayed for 8 minutes.
On my way downstairs, I decided I had to get outside and just see the street. I was sick of the lines, the attitude and the fact that a cast member from Real Housewives of Atlanta had demanded to cut the line… and was placated with a free bottle of vodka. I had to walk to a deli and buy some water and eat a sandwich and try to get some sleep before my work event the following day.
I came back to the hotel with my snacks and drinks – which, by the way, were shoved into about 11 plastic bags by the deli owner as if the plastic problem doesn’t exist in New York – and stopped to listen to the sidewalk pimps do their thing. They were like the dude selling Eddie Murphy’s gold hair dryer in Coming to America. I heard some remarkable stuff:
“You wanna table shower my man?”
“I got one tranny but she visiting her brother at Riker’s right now.”
“Playa, I can get you three at once, but you gotta wear three rubbers.”
I guess Manhattan hadn’t changed that much. Instead of bootleg tapes, men were looking for the booty. These hipster hotels had become infidelity dens and the cops just seemed to look the other way. And as for the falling crime rate – well – as this night was coming to a close, NBA player Chris Copeland was actually stabbed in an altercation outside of 1OAK nightclub just a few streets away from where I was staying.
As I strolled towards the entrance, I passed by my friend in the Panama hat one last time.
“Yo, son – I got you. I know you wanna find out what a bad bitch is,” he propositioned.
“I’m good, man,” I said. “I gotta get to bed.”
I went up to my room and had sex with the full-length pillow.
In the late 90’s I was lucky enough to sleep with a Playboy
Centerfold. For the sake of this story, let’s call her “Miss July.” She
wasn’t the current centerfold by any means, in fact her issue had
already been off the racks for nearly seven years at the time of our
tryst, but she had been a popular Playmate in the 90’s… and one that I
had admired for years. For some reason, the planets aligned and she
and I shared a three-night fling at our respected apartments doing all
we could to pretend that we had anything in common outside of our bed
Following our little hook up, I rifled through a used bookstore for
her back issue, buying at least six copies to give to my high school
friends. I called nearly every guy I knew to share in my glory and
walked on air for a good three months after our encounter, knowing
that I had achieved one of the ultimate male fantasies. I even sent a
back issue to my dad. After all, Playboy was my bible growing up and
bedding one of the world’s most beautiful women suddenly made me feel
like I could accomplish anything in my life.
Last week, while walking through a grocery store with my 10-year-old
son, I ran into Miss July in the produce section. At first, I stopped
and stared at her, like every man in the store had been doing since
she walked in the vicinity. She was still gorgeous and shapely and
wearing an outfit that only a Playmate can get away with.
Her breasts were still high and on display. He hair still blonde and
bountiful, with ringlets cascading beneath her shoulders – as if she
was currently in the middle of a photo shoot. I ogled for a minute,
before coming to the realization that she was, indeed, Miss July. My Miss July. The girl I had slept with all those years ago. I hadn’t
thought of her in so long, I assumed she had moved to the other side
of the country where I would never see her again.
And now here she was fondling a pair of avocados.
“Why are you staring at that girl?” My son asked, snapping me out of
the coma my 40-year-old mind had drifted into.
“Oh, I think I know her,” I said, secretly hoping that he might
recognize her beauty and high-five me after we left the grocery store.
“Cool,” he responded. “Can I play on your phone?”
I gathered my thoughts and strolled around to the coffee aisle. I
wasn’t sure if I was going to say hello to her, afraid that she would
think I was some stalker from her Playmate days. I also didn’t want
her to blurt out something stupid, like “Oh my GOD! You were that guy
I slept with in the 90’s!” Worst of all, I thought, she wouldn’t
remember me at all. I let my son pick out some cereal as I mulled over
my next move.
Like most happily married men, I still harbor the memories of my
single years when one-night stands were so daring and fun and
whimsical. After all these years, they hold a nostalgic place in my
heart as something fantastic and perfect – when in reality they were
normally panic-riddled and led to health concerns and loneliness.
My week with Miss July began at a nightclub in Hollywood. She was
gorgeous, fending off the masses with her icy stare and constantly
turning down drinks from potential suitors clamoring to be in her
airspace. I had no idea she was a Playmate at the time, but she
certainly had the look. She was dressed to the nines in a fur jacket
and sipping on a vodka drink when my friends dared me to go speak to
her. As I was in my cups, I waltzed directly up to her and began
rubbing her jacket.
“Interesting. A New Zealand back country field rabbit coat… Very
rare,” I said.
She laughed and stared me deep in the eyes.
“Are you on ecstasy?” She replied.
“No,” I exclaimed. “Not at all… why?
“Normally when I wear this coat out a bunch of druggies just want to pet it.”
I laughed and thought of a quick comeback.
“I’d rather pet you,” I blurted out confidently.
She actually laughed and wrote her number down on a bar napkin. I told
her I’d call her and I did – the next day – breaking any rules which I
had learned from popular movies like Swingers. She was surprised to
hear from me. We made plans to go out to a Casa Vega, a Mexican
restaurant in the valley for margaritas the following night. When she
cancelled on me two hours beforehand, I thought I was doomed. When I
asked her why she had to cancel, however, my eyes lit up.
“I have to fly to Iowa for a Playboy convention in the morning, I’m so
sorry,” she said.
“Why? Do you sell advertising for them or something?” I inquired.
“No, silly – I was Miss July a few years ago! I thought you knew…”
I didn’t know. Now I did. I immediately called my friends and sang
them J. Giels Band lyrics through the receiver. Yes. My baby was a centerfold.
A week later, we hit Casa Vega. At one point she went outside
to smoke and I let her go alone. (I was trying to quit at the time).
When a guy at the bar saw this, he motioned to me and said, “Dude, you don’t let a girl that hot out of your sight for any amount of time.”
I ignored him, assuming she would brush off any potential creeps and
return back to our bar stool where we’d finish our drinks and continue
our evening. After 20 minutes, however, I began to grow nervous.
I went out to the smoking section, and sure enough, there they were:
MEN. All kinds… Guys who had intended to come inside for dinner but
were so mesmerized by her beauty that they decided to hang outside a
little longer. Guys who didn’t even smoke were bumming cigarettes from
her and chain smoking. One guy even flipped her a business card and
said, “I scout for Playboy, if you ever want to be in the magazine,
let me know…”
She laughed and to my surprise grabbed me by the arm. All the men’s
faces dropped as they saw this 23-year-old kid with a Strokes haircut
coyly slip his hand around the top of her waist. Dejected, the guys
all walked inside with their heads down, preparing to settle for
baskets of chips and salsa and not the ravishing creature who I was
lucky enough to be spending the night with.
We went to another bar and then went to my place. Two nights later, I
joined her at her place. We went out once more, on a Saturday, but she
got swept up in a crowd of famous actors and I stood around waiting
for her to return to me, feeling like the unpopular kid in junior high
who can’t muster up the balls to ask a girl to dance. Eventually, when
she began partaking in their bottle service vodka, I grew frustrated,
knowing my time was up. Without even saying good-bye, I grabbed my
jacket and made a quick exit, calling my buddies to meet me for a
heartbreak beer at Coach and Horses, my old favorite dive bar.
“So what if it’s over?” My buddy said. “You were with a Playmate!”
“Yeah dude, my last hook up was with the hostess at Yankee Doodles in
Agoura Hills,” said another.
As the drinks flowed, my confidence returned and I quickly got over
the fling with the help of some good friends. The next day Miss July
and I exchanged a few phone messages, but never reconnected.
Even though it was over, I was still waking on air, feeling as if I
had done all I could and was now exuding an air of confidence that
nobody could touch. I even kept two of her back issues for myself. One
to put on the coffee table, and one to put in a pristine cellophane
folder where it would remain intact on my bookshelf until the end of
my days… It still sits there today.
As I rounded the bread aisle, I saw her again. As luck would have it,
we were approaching the check out line at the same time, inspecting our carts and reaching into our wallets for ATM cards. I purposefully took the spot in line directly behind her and noticed as she unloaded
an unusual amount of dog food onto the conveyor belt. She also bought butter, apples, avocados, bananas, Kombucha and a pre-made tray of
sushi. I was still staring. My 10-year-old took advantage of my distant
gaze and slipped two packs of M & M’s into my cart. I didn’t care. I
had butterflies in my stomach as if I was back in that Hollywood
nightclub 17 years earlier… But then it hit me: I was married. I was
standing with my child. I had no reason to not say something. If
anything, I thought, it would extend the memory a few more years. I
decided to go in for the kill.
“Is your name Taylor? (Not her real name)” I asked.
She looked up at me and smiled.
“Yeah, who are you?”
“My name is Zach,” I said. “Not sure if you remember me, but we sort
of dated about 17 years ago… we met at a nightclub and went to Casa
She looked me over, perplexed.
“Were you that drummer?” She asked.
“No, but I play music…”
“Oh, you were the guy who knew Green Day!”
“No,” I said.
“Oh. Did you know Quentin?”
“Nope,” I responded, realizing that I was barely a flicker of memory
in her mind all these years later – whereas she had held the top spot
in my gallery of former flames for close to two decades. I was a bit
“Oh, wait!” She said. “Did you used to have long curly hair? And you
lived on Harper Avenue and you played me Crash into Me by Dave
Matthews Band on your guitar?”
The cashier chuckled.
“Uhh, yeah, that was me,” I said, blushing.
She hugged me as if we were long lost siblings. I felt my wobbly arms
go around her body once more, immediately wondering what would have
happened if I hadn’t been so stubborn at that bar all those years ago.
My chest pressed against hers and for a brief moment I was 23 again,
stupidly running around Hollywood with a group of horny friends
worrying about nothing but a 10 a.m. commercial audition and where I
was going to be drinking that night. She pulled away and paid for her
groceries and stood behind the bag boy waiting for me to pay and
rejoin her. When I did, we caught up briefly and I introduced her to
my son… who seemed to not have any interest in this beautiful woman
that his dad was talking to.
As it turns out, Miss July still did Playmate conventions. She was
living in the valley, had been married for a year but was divorced and
was raising her 3 small dogs, Gucci, Dorito and Mr. Farts-A-Lot. She
didn’t go out anymore, was disappointed with Tinder and loved The Big Bang Theory. I felt like she was reciting her “Turn-On” list
from her Centerfold interview page – but had updated it as a
We exchanged numbers and she remarked on how handsome my son was. I
told her I’d invite her out to see my band if we ever played again and
I watched her speed off in her Prius. I thought back to the nights we
had shared together and then looked back at my son, blissfully playing
on my phone, seemingly unaware of what had transpired between his father and
that mysterious girl in the produce section 17 years earlier.
As we drove home, he handed me back my phone and stared out the
window. As I watched his eyes dart around the city, I thought of his
future and how he was still so young and innocent and had the entire
world ahead of him. I realized how happy I was to be spending my life
with my wife, my daughter and him, and not a smelly pug named Mr. Farts-a-Lot.
And then, after a few minutes of driving, he broke the silence.
“Dad, I wanna learn some Dave Matthews Band songs on guitar,” he said.