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Ratified in 1920, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution – which is America’s only Amendment to later be repealed – federally prohibited the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol.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…