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My Grandmother the Bootlegger

Cynthia Weisfeld
September 9, 2015

Bathub Vodka & Underage Rum-Runners

by Cynthia F. Weisfield

From the Summer 2015 issue of Jewish Currents

ce8769a31c744ab5a36af006b6e58f70NO ALCOHOL? It’s illegal? What kind of mishegos is that?” My grandmother Tzipporah had quickly adapted to her new world in the sheyne medine, the beautiful land that was the America of Jewish immigrant dreams. It was easy, as the area around her apartment on Crotona Park North in the Bronx was predominantly Jewish and Yiddish-speaking. But she could not fathom Prohibition, still going strong when she came in 1927.

She never did get a rational explanation for America’s grand social experiment. No matter: What registered was the news about alcohol not being readily available. Where others saw deprivation, my entrepreneurial grandmother saw an opportunity. And she took it.

Within two weeks she had established a Prohibition Era industry, making what we would today call “artisanal spirits,” but was then generically known as “bathtub gin.”

She was well qualified to do so, having been the proprietress of the sole tavern in Scierpc, Poland, for twenty-five years (for ten years prior to that, her mother-in-law Tereza had run it). That Jewish women owned such an establishment was not unusual: Most Polish taverns in small towns and villages, for whatever combination of socio-political reasons, were owned by Jews and usually run by women.

Grandma served the standard East European selection of beverages: beer, vodka, and those elegant fruit liquors called schnapps. Jews were legally enjoined from brewing beer, although serving it was allowed. The fact that Grandma learned how to make beer anyway, by watching Polish brewers, was quietly tolerated. “I had to learn how to judge a good beer,” she stated matter-of-factly.

She became most skillful, however, at producing vodka in a shed behind the tavern. Another shed was for the summer production of schnapps. That was Grandma’s fun, her great pride, the stuff of delicious memory for those fortunate enough to have sampled it.

All those distilling, brewing, and fermenting skills were at her fingertips in her new world. It was just a matter of fitting them into an environment that included a bathroom with a large, lion’s paw-footed bathtub, a kitchen with a four-range gas stove, and ready access to the roof of the apartment building.

BEER WAS CUMBERSOME to brew, so that was eliminated. Grandma got the building superintendent to give her exclusive use of the roof in exchange for keeping it free of debris. That locale became the site of summer schnapps production.

Vodka was fabricated in the apartment. The kitchen was the site of distilling, which required the stove as a heat source. Extremely small batches of a very clear, high-proof product resulted. It sold at premium prices.

The second production method was fermentation in the tub, in large glass vessels with stoppers. Alcohol rises above vegetable matter, gathering flavor “on the lees,” to use a sophisticated phrase. The liquid can be siphoned off for further aging and purification, or bottled directly; either way, the bathtub vodka was cloudier and less high proof than its kitchen cousin, therefore much less expensive, so it became the high-volume money-maker.

FAMILY MEMBERS WERE assigned tasks. Her son Milton, 20, who worked in a hardware store, scrounged equipment. Max, 9, salvaged bottles from the street and trash cans behind stores. Ruth, 17, Sylvia, 13, and their older sister Pearl, 22, cleaned and filled bottles. Quality control was the province of the two boys, who were charged with tasting the brew to determine optimum drinkability. “I sometimes went to school a bit tipsy,” recalled Max.

Grandma herself got the vegetable matter. She rented a horse and cart from a nearby pushcart owner as needed, then drove to what she called “the country” — nobody ever knew exactly where — to get ingredients. “Everybody thought she had pure potato vodka,” recalled my mother Dorothy, the youngest sibling at 7, “but we threw anything into the pot.”

Those who had other jobs brought the occasional bottle to colleagues, but it was Dorothy who made most of the “drops.” Yes, it really is true: Mom was a child rum-runner, on her own in New York right after arriving from a semi-rural Polish shtetl.

I once asked how she managed without knowing English. “I learned landmarks like the stoops of the buildings or the awnings of stores. Besides,” she added, “I had to do it. Momma always said that the police wouldn’t suspect a little girl.”

There was virtually no possibility that anybody in the community was going to report Mom. Jews had brought with them to America an ingrained prohibition against mesira, informing on any Jew to the authorities for any reason. That mindset perfectly protected my family’s entire illegal operation. Besides, the products were much appreciated.

So the years passed, business getting better and better. The family even managed to weather the start of the Depression, until one shabes day early in 1931, when they heard ominous pops, then whooshing sounds, from the bathroom.

Grandma opened the door carefully and stopped short. The bathroom walls, floor and ceiling were painted with a layer of vodka and vegetable matter from the still-gushing glass vats. The goo was on towels, on clothes drying on the shower bars, on the window blinds, and filling the sink, commode, and tub.

Cleanup during shabes was forbidden by my ultra-pious grandfather, so everybody waited and watched as the brew oozed into the hall and found every unseen crevice. By the time cleanup began, roaches were crawling all over the area, anxious for a chance at a feast. Hungry rats and mice were spotted as well. It took a full day, with the entire family pitching in, to bring the rooms back to normalcy, not to mention the walls of the downstairs neighbor’s apartment, where the liquor-to-be had also found its way. Nobody ever figured out what caused the eruptions.

GRANDMA HAD REALLY BECOME an enviable capitalist in a country that had perfected that economic system; she had free labor, cheap raw materials, easy distribution, and a ready market. Yet production was not restarted after the shabes debacle. Her empire was breaking up as Pearl and Ruth looked to get married and as Milton spent more time at work.

But there was a new opportunity. The head of the local Jewish gang, who had left Grandma alone because her activities had not impinged on his, had a proposal for her. Her habit of driving around was a useful cover for picking up cartons of illegal booze in secluded spots. Unloading would be done at various locales along the trip back. So she became a classic bootlegger. The money was not quite as good as before, but it put some food on the table.

That job ended with the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1933. Unfortunately, Grandma was not able to replicate her business success, so the family was plunged into the cruel poverty of the era.

She died in 1940. She had never stopped making schnapps for the family. The last bottle of the cherry, everybody’s favorite, was opened to celebrate Max’s return from the Pacific and the end of World War II.

Sadly, she had never written down a recipe for the schnapps, or told it to anyone. Making it down the generations would have been the ultimate memorial to a woman whose efforts to sustain her family were inextricably bound up with the social history of the country she had grabbed onto with such gusto.

Cynthia F. Weisfield is a writer for multiple print and web-based publications, specializing in food and art. She is currently at work on a biography of abstract expressionist artist Sonia Gechtoff.