By Zach Selwyn
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Ratified in 1920, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution – which is America’s only Amendment to later be repealed – federally prohibited the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol.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…
“Baruch Hashem,” I said.
STREAM ZACH’S NEW SONG “Red Fuckin Wine” NOW!
And with that, Pete took me to a beautiful house with 40 acres of land in the woods, where we knocked on the door and met Pete’s buddy Andy who was extremely tired and reluctantly thrust the trailer keys into my hand. He also passed me a Romancing the Stone-like treasure map explaining how to find the forest Airstream… Pete left and I slugged through the dark forest, absolutely fearing for every second of my life, before coming across what was a beautiful 1950-something converted Airstream “Cabin.”
Re-Examining the 1997 NBA Draft – If I Had Been Selected…
(Originally published @Nerdist Sports 2017)
At the end of my senior year in college – despite having not played organized basketball since high school and maintaining a 1.8 blood alcohol level for four years straight, my friends dared me to declare for the NBA draft. I wrote an official letter the NBA commissioner David Stern and presented my accolades: Six-foot-two. 3.8 G.P.A. Fraternity scoring leader and dunk contest winner on the 8-foot hoop in the parking lot.
I wasn’t selected.
Looking back now, I have to argue that I might have been a better pick than 75% of the players in the 1997 NBA draft. Sure, the draft produced perennial all-stars Tim Duncan (#1), Chauncey Billups (#3) and Tracy McGrady (#9), but for every one of those guys, there are three Ed Elisma’s (#40), Bubba Wells’ (#34) and Ben Pepper’s (#55). Who’s to say that if I was chosen in the late second round I wouldn’t have made a better impact than a guy like 44th pick Cedric Henderson?
I was too short to be a forward, my high school position. My handle wasn’t strong enough to compete for a point guard slot, so basically, my only shot was to be drafted as a shooting guard – and my guess is I would have been picked somewhere around 46 – where Orlando took Alabama marksman Eric Washington. (Whose best year came with the Idaho Stampede in the NBA D-League in 2010).
Due to some late garbage time minutes, I estimate I would have averaged roughly 1.2 points a game… Which is more than draft picks C.J. Bruton (#52), Roberto Duenas (#57) and Nate Erdmann (#55) ever averaged in their careers.
The 11th pick of the draft was a guy named Tariq Abdul-Wahad. Nobody past the top 10 picks truly ever made a big statement in the NBA. Sure, Stephen Jackson (#42) was a key piece to the 2003 Spurs, Bobby Jackson (#23) was a sixth man sparkplug and Mark Blount (#54) was a dependable center for a few teams – but overall, 1997 was pretty mediocre… Even though I once bought into the ESPN theory that Jacque Vaughn (#27) would be the next Allen Iverson.
My own personal draft journey began after a two-game playoff run in the annual 1997 fraternity basketball challenge.
It was in a game against Pi Kappa Alpha. Their starting point guard tried to take me off the dribble to the left. I stuck my arm just above his bounce and poked the ball free into the open court. I ran after it, scooped it up and laid it in for the victory. My fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi had won our first play-off game in 10 years. In our next contest, we gave the brothers of Sigma Alpha Epsilon a good run, and I poured in 21 points. Ultimately, we lost on a late technical foul call when I got kicked out for calling the referee a “dickbag.”
It was after that game, while consuming a lot of Natural Light beer, that I decided to declare for the draft.
On draft day 1997, I sat on my mother’s couch with baited anticipation as the others had their moments. I ordered some pizza for my family. My mother thought I had lost my mind.
As the evening progressed, I had seen enough of the long, tailored mustard and pinstriped suits making their way to the podium to shake David Stern’s hand. I watched as guys like Tony Battie (#5), Danny Fortson (#10) and Antonio Daniels (#4) put on those crisp new NBA caps. I accepted the inevitable as the first round telecast came to an end.
The second round was only on the radio, so I sat in my Civic, listening in.
“And with the 48th pick in the 1997 NBA Draft, the Washington Bullets select Predrag Drobnjak from KK Partizan, Serbia.”
Really? A guy named Predrag was taken? Nobody could even pronounce his name. So what if he was a six-foot-eleven three time Euro League National Champion? I played on the frat tournament second runner-up team!
Most of the players from the ’97 draft ended up overseas, injured or, in Ron Mercer’s (#6) case, involved in a strip club assault or two. I was no different – except for the fact that I never played one minute in the NBA.
Then again, neither did Serge Zwikker (#29), Mark Sanford (#30) or Gordon Malone (#44).
I still think I would have had a shot.
Ed. Note: Zach Selwyn currently averages 15.2 points per game in his over 40-YMCA league.
Missi Pyle and Zach Selwyn are back at it this week performing live from the legendary Hotel Cafe – 1623 Cahuenga Blvd. in Los Angeles – special guests from Missi’s new YouTube Red show! $10 at door
I had been at the Great Wolf Lodge for roughly an hour when a drunk and angry ex-firefighter threatened to kick my ass at the indoor water park. He was pissed off at me for disrespecting the “sanctity” of the Great Wolf Lodge… I am 100 percent serious. Let me start at the beginning…
Spring Break. These are two of the most beautiful words in the English language… if you are a child. To parents, these words concur up feeling of hopelessness, anguish and despair. And for some reason? Today’s elementary school kids get two whole weeks off for “Spring Break…” TWO WEEKS! When I was a kid we got TWO DAYS. In college we only got a week. And as far as I recall, it wasn’t even a thing in high school.
But sure… the rigorous schedule of counting, handwriting and connect the dots can be so gruesome and torturous for a second grader – that a two-week vacation at the end of March is exactly what the school nurse ordered… So, if you’re like me, you suddenly begin scrambling to find activities for your kids to do during this gratuitous vacation. So, you make plans…
You drop $75.00 to go see shitty movies like Sherlock Gnomes.
You gain 12 pounds by not being able to go to the gym on your regular schedule. And, in some extreme cases, you agree to take your kids to the GREAT WOLF LODGE for two days…
Which is exactly where I found myself last week, riddled with anxiety as I nibbled on a chicken finger ten feet from a wave pool full of screaming children. Praying for death.
If you have never heard of a Great Wolf Lodge, let me put it this way… Consider yourself lucky. With 13 locations across the country, the kid-friendly indoor water park is to people like me the end of the fucking world. Known for its indoor water park and “wolf-themed” decor, the franchise has drawn families from far and wide to spend their entire monthly paychecks on shitty food, arcade games and the guarantee that you will contract the Norovirus within three spins in the “Lazy River.”
I mumbled something under my breath as I loaded the car, preparing to journey down to the hotel with my wife, our second grade girl and my very unenthusiastic pre-teen who was pissed because he was missing roughly 48 hours of the video game Fortnite.
The drive down was actually somewhat exciting. I was anticipating the water park summer days of my youth, when I met a cute girl in line at the snack bar, chatted up an 8th grade crush and passed a Sony Walkman around with my buddies listening to Straight Outta Compton. Those days were nothing but innocent and fun… and I was hoping my kids might make some amazing memories of their own…
When we arrived, however, my entire demeanor changed. After looking for a space in the self-parking garage for 30 minutes, I was met with the sudden reality that there were a lot of people here during Spring Break. I mean, a lot of people. Like, thousands. And all of them had kids. Small, sweaty, stinky, gross, fat, weird, uninhibited kids…
My first moment of clarity happened when I was presented with a pair of felt “wolf ears” as I entered the lobby.
“HOWL you doing today!?” A bubbly 20-something dude named Bryan asked.
“PAW-SOME!!!” I responded sarcastically.
“Woah! Someone’s got the Great Wolf spirit!” He screamed. “AWWOOOOOOOO!”
I looked around at the hundred of fathers traipsing through the lobby wearing these ridiculous wolf ears… The looks on their faces all read the same: FAILURE.
There is a certain look a man knows when he runs into another man at a place like the Great Wolf Lodge. It is a look of defeat. Of mediocrity. Of deficiency. Like we all expected to be the dads who take our kids in Hawaii or something, but ended up at the Great Wolf Lodge in Anaheim. I recognized this look on every man’s face I encountered.
We checked in and got to our suite, which we were sharing with another family we knew from from LA. Everyone changed into bathing suits to go hit the indoor water park. A small part of me was hoping it would be a fun day, and after all, as long as they had a jacuzzi I figured I could kill a few hours relaxing and hanging out with strangers.
There was no jacuzzi.
And the water park was massive. And loud. And it smelled like feet.
“Daddy! Come in the lazy river with me!” My daughter squealed.
I took a deep breath and stood up. I took off my shirt and walked over towards the lazy river. The first thing I noticed about the water park was that somehow, I had THE BEST BODY THERE.
In my 42 years, I have never been the “ripped” guy at the pool. Ever. Even when I was 18 I had the beginnings of a dad bod and now, at my age, I had been keeping trim and eating well to the point where at the Great Wolf Lodge in Anaheim, California, I was a SWIMSUIT MODEL. Seriously. I was 30 pounds lighter than the average man. My wife, who has always been in terrific shape looked like Hannah Jeter posing for Sports Illustrated. We were “Anaheim 10’s…” and pretty proud of it.
As I strutted around my new Adonis-like physique, I watched as my daughter slowly dipped into the lazy river among what seemed like hundreds of other kids. I put my leg in, noticed it was much colder than I had anticipated, and began walking around the river behind her.
And then some kid’s fleshy leg rubbed up against mine under the water. I froze. It was like in Star Wars when that Dianoga Monster rubs up against Luke in the trash compactor. A gross little bare human leg rubbing against my inner calf. I stopped to gather myself. I felt like a part of the #metoo movement. I was rattled… And then another kid wrapped himself around my chest for support as he floated by… I shuttered. Looking around, I suddenly became keenly aware of little yellow swirls of urine accumulating in certain areas. I also counted three loose Band-Aids and numerous clumps of hair floating in the water. A few more kids hit me with inner tubes as they raced by and finally, when a little girl wiped her snot off of her face and tossed it into the water beside me, my afternoon at the water park was OVER.
“Baby, I’m getting out,” I yelled as she floated down the river.
Her frown broke my heart, but the place was already too much for me. I was done. I had been at the Great Wolf Lodge for less than an hour.
After drying off, I noticed the small line of men waiting for beer. I grabbed my “Wolf Band” which had my credit card and room number on it, and bought my first beer of the day. It was 3:30, but if I was going to get through this place, a buzz was certainly needed. Looking around, I noticed that day-drinking was certainly the norm here, like the way it is in airports when people order beers at 7:00 in the morning and nobody thinks twice about it.
After paying, I turned around, noticing three men behind me waiting for drinks. Two of them had “Lakeland County Fire Department” shirts on. The other was shirtless, proudly showing off a fading Tazmanian Devil tattoo from the early 90’s… I toasted the guys with my beer.
“Gentlemen,” I said. “What happened to us? We were all once virile men… with dreams, passions, desires… goals. NOW? We’re on vacation at the fucking Great Wolf Lodge. What the fuck, am I right!!?”
Suddenly, the shirtless man took a threatening step my way and got directly in my face.
“Are you disrespecting the LODGE, bro?” He asked in an accusatory way.
I wasn’t sure if he was serious. I laughed.
“Sounds like you are,” he continued aggressively, the vapor of liquor prominent on his breath. I felt scared. I backpedaled.
“No, man.. I was just, you know – joking-“
I was taken aback. If I said the wrong thing here, there is no doubt in my mind that this guy would start throwing punches. And whereas a pool fight might be the perfect excuse to get banned from the Great Wolf Lodge forever, I decided to lay off. Meanwhile, his friends tried to calm him down.
“Don’t get into another fight, Jim,” his friend told him.
Another fight? Holy shit… this guy Jim was out here kicking dad’s asses all day.
“No, man, I was just joking around, you know…” I mumbled.
“No, I don’t know, bro,” he said. “I’m a retired firefighter… I don’t back down from shit.”
And then, suddenly, there was an extremely loud wolf howl coming from the wave pool – This was the signal to swimmers that a fresh set of waves was about to begin… 200 kids screamed in delight as the call of the wolf echoed through the waterpark.
“Ohhhh shit, what’s that?” I asked the guys.
“That means the waves are starting up…” Jim said. “That’s the call of the Lodge, bro… you better embrace your inner wolf… because like it or not? You made the decision to come here.”
He was right. I could make the most of this experience and embrace my inner wolf… or make myself suffer.
“Hey man, I’m sorry – it’s my first time here… I was just making a bad joke…”
Jim calmed down. His whole demeanor changed and he became aware that he was not in the octagon, but was at the Great Wolf Lodge. If he had wanted to kick my ass, he would have… but my honesty seemed to have chilled him out.
“Screw it,” he said. “Sorry to get up in your face, bro… come on, I’ll buy you a beer.”
Jim and his pals bought me another beer and I returned back to our deck chairs and told the story to my wife and her friend. They weren’t interested. They were concerned about something much more important.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
Apparently, another mom had just told my wife that Pink Eye was going around the lodge that weekend… The woman’s two kids had been infected on the water slide and her husband was in the hotel room with his eyes swollen shut.
“Welp, I’m fucking out of here,” I said.
I took my beer upstairs and went to the bar to watch a baseball game. As I walked back through the water park, I began observing a few things.
I never realized how many adults have tattoos of their children’s baby footprints.
I had no idea that BIG DOGS Clothing was still a thing. There were also a lot of “Exercise…Eggsercise…Eggs are sides… Eggs are sides for Bacon” t-shirts and ‘water pun’ shirts. Like a picture of a snail holding up a seashell to his face beneath the words “SHELL-FIE!”
Finally, the majority of these adults seemed fine eating garbage for breakfast, lunch and dinner. One dad in line at the snack bar even highly recommended the pork nachos.
I thought we were in Anaheim. Somehow we ended up in Wisconsin.
Upstairs, I found a few other dads watching the Dodgers game. I made some new friends – including a pest control guy from Alhambra and a Target general manager from Riverside. We drank a few beers and talked baseball. As a way to make my new pals laugh, I recognized Bryan, the same guy who had checked me in earlier, eating on his lunch break. I approached him.
“Hey Bryan, quick question… do they have a Great Wolf Glory Hole up in this piece?”
The bar got silent. My new pals hid their laughter. Bryan did not seem amused. Within 30 seconds the bar manager tapped me on the shoulder.
“Just a reminder, sir…” He warned. “This is the Great Wolf Lodge… not the Great Wolf of Wall Street Lodge.”
My afternoon concluded in the arcade, where the kids have given up on video games requiring any sort of skill in favor of games where you spin a wheel,… and win tickets. It’s not even a challenge. It’s just a prize wheel. When I arrived, I found my daughter hoarding what looked like 15,000 prize tickets.
“I’m saving up for the stuffed wolf!” She said. I saw the wolf on the wall. At any CVS store across the country, this dumb little stuffed animal would cost $3.99. My wife told me they had already spent $60.00 trying to win it. I went back to the bar.
That night, after ordering pizza to our room, my wife and I shared some wine as the kids fell asleep. At that moment, we heard a rustling in the hallway. Peeking outside, I noticed two security guards dragging a very drunk man from his room.
“How long has he been drinking today?” They asked his wife, who looked terrified.
“Since brunch, I think,” she said.
“We’ll take him to the first aid area and get him some fluids… We’ll check back in 30 minutes.”
I asked the lady what had happened.
“It’s just my dumb husband… every time we come to this place he gets blackout drunk.”
“That makes two of us,” I said, raising my wine glass.
She shut her door on me.
The next day we were set to check out. I was excited to get home and back outside – as we had been indoors for roughly 18 hours straight. The Great Wolf Lodge is like fucking Vegas in that way. You have no reason to ever leave the place… I started packing and preparing to head back to LA.
“Wanna meet us at the pool?” My wife said.
“We’re not leaving?” I said.
“I figured the kids would want another day at the pool,” she said. “I mean we paid for it.”
And just like that, we did a second day at the water park. At this point I officially gave up. I began day-drinking at 11:00. I howled every time that dumb wolf noise started in the wave pool. I contemplated buying a Great Wolf Lodge t-shirt in the gift shop that was on sale from Halloween (Or as they put it… HOWL-ween…)
Deep down I knew that finally, I had reluctantly embraced my inner wolf.
I looked around the pool again. I was a little bloated from the first day and slightly hungover. I was no longer had the best body there. I was one day into my “Midwest” period.
I went over to our deck chairs and ordered the pork nachos…
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written by Zach Selwyn. Dir. by Adam Siegel.