By Harriet P. Gross
I recently read that, despite our country’s current economic downturn, the sale of alcoholic beverages hasn’t missed a beat. In fact, purchases may be on the upswing. Seems people have decided it’s better to buy a bottle of wine to swig at home than to pay inflated by-the-glass prices in restaurants; drinkin’ money brings more in supermarket six-packs than at bars; and cheaper brands of vodka are almost as good in Bloody Marys or Screwdrivers as Stoli.
Not just a matter of drowning one’s sorrows, either, the survey-taking experts say. This drinking thing is just a continuation of an ongoing pleasure, an indulgence that endures no matter the economic climate. No wonder Prohibition never really had a chance!
In case you haven’t noticed, tomorrow will mark the 75th anniversary of its repeal. The 18th Amendment, which took effect on Jan. 16, 1920, was shot down by the 21st Amendment on Dec. 5, 1933. That’s when Temperance finally lost out to Depression — the Great Depression when then, as now, Americans really craved their liquid refreshments.
Well, I have a personal debt to Prohibition which has nothing at all to do with my personal drinking habits. I owe it my life. Literally. Because without it, I would not exist!
You see, my grandfathers-to-be, the quintessential poor Jews of their time, went into the bootlegging industry together during the Depression. My mother’s father, Zeyde Dave, was the plumber with the “technical” knowhow to build a still in the family bathroom. (“Bathtub gin,” you may not realize, was an actual commodity in those days.) My father’s father, Zeyde Harry, was the huckster who had a wagon and the horse to pull it. So Dave brewed the hooch, and Harry toted it around town, under his fruits and vegetables. A classic combination of production and distribution!
My parents, both of them born in 1905, were just kids when Prohibition started. They recognized each other from school, but they’d never been formally introduced, although later both admitted to unrequited interest from afar. They were, however, well acquainted with each other’s fathers, because Dave was a frequent visitor at Harry’s house, and vice-versa. Why not? They were business partners, weren’t they?
It wasn’t unusual for these guys to get hauled off for short stays in the pokey, but it was sheer coincidence that their two teenagers turned up on bail-paying jailhouse runs one day at the very same time. And here’s the conversation our family tradition says ensued:
Mother-to-be: “Is that your dad?”
Father-to be: “Is that your dad?”
Both together: “I didn’t know you were Jewish!”
Thus acquainted, the two married right out of high school, right in the middle of Prohibition. Family lore does not note what was served at their wedding — from the picture I have, they both look quite sober. But let the record show I entered the world, and their lives, less than a year after the amendment went its inevitable, ill-conceived way.
So I celebrate tomorrow, and will also celebrate Sunday, the 67th anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day. Fewer and fewer of us are around each year now to recall personally that “day that will live in infamy”; it really doesn’t anymore, certainly not in all the Japanese cars being driven around America. Beyond the one President Roosevelt was trying to teach, there ought to be a lesson in this: Beware of history’s rewrites as time, with its inevitable new experiences, passes on.
But I remember that fateful day because I was with my whole family, a child witnessing Zeyde Dave receive great fanfare and a gold watch from his lodge, to whose members his excellent service over many years overrode his spotty Prohibition record (or, who knows? Maybe, provision of liquid refreshment to the Knights of Pythias during those 13 years was at least part of the reason for his honoring?). Anyway: The shouts of “War!” and tears of the honoree as he saluted each of his five sons, all of whom went quickly into military service (and all of whom, praise be, returned safely afterward), forever mingle for me on Dec. 7. Now I wear that gold watch on that date every year, in his memory.
Unfortunately, Zeyde Harry wasn’t there to celebrate with us; he had passed away not long after Prohibition ended. I never even met him. But I remember him too, in a very special way: I was the first one in the family to be named in his memory. Maybe I should lift a glass to that!
By Harriet P. Gross