My grandfather Henry Stark was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1917. His parents, Frank and Rose Stark, were Hungarian immigrants who opened Stark's Tavern at the intersection of 16th and Walker Streets on the south side of Milwaukee. The tavern was on the first floor, and the Starks owned the ten or so extra rooms on the upper floor, which were converted into bedrooms for the family, quarters for boarders, and a space for creating the home-brew for the tavern. Late at night, Henry and his siblings would have difficulty sleeping as the swing, salsa, and orchestral music from the tavern drifted through their bedroom floors. Henry's mother Rose, the tavern's chef and manager, was known as the "best cook in town" for her hearty Hungarian dishes, gefilte-chicken, and delicious desserts. When making the dough for her famous cherry strudel, Rose would lean her stocky frame over a ping-pong table, face severe in concentration, in order to stretch the dough for the thinnest crust possible. To this day, my grandfather can barely tolerate anyone else's cooking because he was so spoiled eating the leftovers from Rose's meal for the tavern.

Henry's childhood in, above, and around the tavern was anything but normal; in fact, the tavern was actually a restaurant and a "speakeasy": an establishment in which alcohol was illegally sold during the Prohibition of the 1920s. It is hard to fathom that my grandfather grew up intentionally flouting government regulations when his children and grandchildren's current occupations as doctors, teachers, and business entrepreneurs are accepted, even admired, by American society. During the Prohibition, however, the bitter resentment towards the government was palpable in nearly every home - as though all Milwaukee citizens pounded a shot of vodka, leaving a burning trail down the throat and an acidic twisting of the stomach.

On July 1st, 1908, nine years before the ratification of the 18th amendment banning the consumption of alcohol, 3,000 brewery workers marched through the streets of Milwaukee, Wisconsin in protest of the Anti-Saloon Society. Brandishing banners and signs, the men had weary down-turned mouths and eyes marred by deep bruises, a result of their brewing resentment toward the new government policies. Milwaukee, then affectionately known as "Beer Town," was suffering a tremendous economic and cultural blow due to the increasing popularity of prohibition. A city grounded in Germanic roots and spirit - called gemuethlichkeit - Milwaukee was overflowing with large brewing companies such as Pabst, as well as thousands of smaller saloons whose owners worried of a permanent alcohol blackout. In 1908 alone, 600 brewery union men lost their jobs and sat twiddling their thumbs as $450,000 worth of wages was wasted.

As prohibition became the major issue of the time, a tremor rippled along Milwaukee's snow-covered streets: a churning political and cultural revolution. The city's citizens no longer divided as republicans or democrats, but instead were distinguished based on their votes for a "wet" or "dry" candidate. In 1922, Robert "fighting Bob" La Follette, a fierce supporter of the wet cause, was voted the new Wisconsin senator by "the greatest majority that any candidate has ever polled at a primary in Wisconsin." Obviously, Wisconsin citizens worried that their states' culture would go down the drain along with the beer they were emptying into the kitchen sink. By 1932, some 2,000 smaller business establishments had closed their doors as Milwaukee's fourth greatest industry was put into a stupor.

When Henry was about ten years old, Frank decided to give him a role in the family business by teaching him to distill illegal moonshine, most tavern owners' response to the 18th amendment. Moonshine was made by mixing water and cornmeal together to make a mixture known as "the mash." Sugar and yeast were added to the mash, which fermented for several days before being filtered into an alcoholic beverage. "A little less water next time," Frank told my grandfather, his ever-present cigarette dangling between his lips. Blue eyes steely, he instructed Henry how to dilute the "panther's breath" and to pour the bitter liquid into bottles. After the alcohol was ready for consumption, Henry, with his baby cheeks and mischievous blue eyes, would wander about the tavern with the bottles clinking together in his pocket. When a customer furtively whispered to Frank "one bottle of moonshine, sir," eyes darting back and forth, Henry would slip a bottle from his pocket into Frank's large hand before resuming his perusal of the customers in the tavern that night.

It was important for a bootlegger to know his customers. It was too easy for a "G-man," government special agent, to enter the saloon under cover. One night, a regular requested a bottle of moonshine, and Henry promptly delivered a bottle to his father. Frank, too handsome, too confident, gave the man his drink.

"Put your hands up," the regular's voice suddenly cold and authoritative. "You're under arrest." A disguised federal agent, the man sobered Frank up by dumping him in a house of correction for three months. Rose, now the sole manager of the tavern, would bring the children to visit Frank, but it was paralyzing for the children to see their father in jail, as though they had all sipped from Jamaican Ginger and suffered from Jake-Foot.

During the upheaval of Hoover's "noble experiment," Milwaukee was also reeling from the influx of immigrants swarming the area, pouring into the neighborhoods like black ants scurrying into their anthill. Surprisingly, by 1910 Milwaukee was tied with New York for having the largest percentage of foreign-born residents in the United States. Seeking both freedom and inexpensive land, immigrants from Germany, Poland, Italy, and Ireland, along with many Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, flooded Milwaukee, including the neighborhood where Stark's Tavern was located. Still, the Stark family was one of the only Jewish families living on the South Side, making it difficult for Henry to make friends with the non-Jewish children who looked down on his family. This anti-Semitism first became apparent when a neighbor snidely called to Frank "hey, you…white Jew!" Though shamed and angered by the slur, Frank was unafraid to establish the new tavern and assume the presidency of the Hungarian temple.

Anti-Semitism was virtually unknown in the United States prior to the 1900s, yet as the dribble of Jewish immigrants from Europe became a deluge, the Jews were separated from the rest of the Milwaukee community. As the Jewish community more than doubled from 7,000 people in 1907 to 20,000 just ten years later, Jewish immigrants had greater difficulty assimilating into their new environment: universities invented quotas limiting the number of admitted Jewish students, country clubs refused to accept Jewish members, and many subdivisions forbade the sale of homes to Jewish buyers. Despite these setbacks, Jewish families had a fairly stable life in Milwaukee and were able to start their own businesses and even started their own newspaper, the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle. (This summer I will be working at the Jerusalem Post in Israel - I imagine myself building a bridge between my life and the lives of my ancestors with every word I will write).

I cannot comprehend growing up with this anti-Semitism as I have never been unafraid to display my Jewish heritage - I attended a Jewish middle school and participated in a Jewish youth group in high school. However, I once experienced the same sort of discrimination my grandfather faced on a daily basis when I first met a young man from northern Wisconsin. A sixteen year old boy with a heavy Wisconsin accent, he was my seat-mate on an airplane ride to Minneapolis when he learned of my Jewish background.

"Where are your horns?" he asked, eyes scanning my curly brown hair for lumps. "Don't all Jews have horns?" I remember pinching my right arm, checking that I had not entered a bizarre twilight zone. Finally, I began to understand why my grandfather so distinctly recalls the anti-Semitism of his youth and why my ancestors worked so hard to preserve their Jewish heritage: it is in the face of adversity that people most want to protect their traditions and culture.

In 1933, President F.D. Roosevelt repealed the prohibition of alcohol with the 21st amendment to the constitution. The Stark family was thrilled that they no longer had to live in suspicion of their customers and could openly sell their beer and whisky. The City of Milwaukee also rejoiced and toasted the repeal of the ban of alcohol - the city instantly began a revitalization process of pouring money, more than $10,000,000, into rehabilitating the breweries and malt-houses. The city looked to restore its beer gardens, open-air areas where people were served alcohol. The Schlitz Palm Beer Garden, one of the most popular beer gardens prior to the prohibition, was to be rebuilt because it had been converted into a film theatre. The beer gardens, especially Schlitz Palm, were important gathering places for families, politicians, and celebrities to celebrate the Milwaukee culture.

Stark's Tavern continued to flourish, but the neighborhood faced difficulty adjusting to the transforming Jewish identity. Not only did the Starks encounter discrimination as the only Jews in their neighborhood, but also prejudices between the Jewish neighborhoods on the eastern and western sides of town. Specifically, German-Jews on the East side were considered a higher status than the Russian Jews on the West. With the political climate of Nazi Germany, Jewish families in Milwaukee questioned: should we change how we relate to one another? This developing question was put on hold when, in 1941, Henry watched bombs drop onto Pearl Harbor, grey cotton candy blooming in the blue sky and sprinkles of ash dotting the grass. Soon after, Henry left the comfort of the tavern to don fatigues and a white headscarf to serve in Iran and Iraq, two of the very countries that threatened the fledgling Jewish movement in Palestine.

Henry was grateful, however, for his years in the army because the newly implemented G.I. Bill paid for his education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he earned his CPA in accounting. Upon graduating, even after the apparent consequences of the Nazi regime, Henry was told that his religious affiliation meant that he would never be able to find a job as an accountant in a non-Jewish firm. As upsetting as this idea is to me, the teacher's prediction was proved true when Henry moved back to Milwaukee to work for Bernie Meyers, a Jewish accountant. Despite the discrimination both inside and outside the Jewish faith, the Jewish people finally received an answer to their previous question when Israel was granted statehood, effectively uniting Jews across the world in recognition of their legitimacy.

Henry married a young Jewish secretary named Marian and they had three children, a sandwich of two girls and one boy. The family moved to the North Shore of Milwaukee, an area with a much greater population of Jews. Following the entrepreneurial spirit of his parents, Henry dabbled in every type of business possible as the owner or manager of a music store, candy factory, and cruise line. I credit much of my grandfather's resilience in business to his upbringing in the tavern. I find it amazing that a man faced with so much adversity - the Prohibition and anti-Semitism - could turn each situation to his benefit, displaying an ingenuity and determination that I now associate with all members of the Stark family.

Henry has been careful to pass on his strategy for directly confronting a challenge to his children and his grandchildren via his love of the stock market. I can imagine my grandfather pulling my father aside after the conclusion of the Shabbat meal, as he now does with me, to quiz him on the difference between a bear or bull market. I doubt, however, that my father desperately hoped for the answers to my grandfather's questioning to magically appear on the ceiling as I do. My grandfather turned 91 this March and has since slowed down considerably, yet his mind is still nimble as a tumbler, jumping with ease from scintillating debate to mathematical calculations over Friday night dinner.

Today, my family celebrates Shabbat with my grandparents nearly once a month. My grandma Marian, though not a professional chef like my great-grandmother, cooks a delicious chicken paprikash with dumplings, a Hungarian dish that takes hours of preparation to cook. We sing the familiar blessing over the candles - baruch atah adonai - the yellow flames casting shadows over our skin. I am like a caterpillar enwrapped in a cocoon made of the silk strands of Jewish tradition: the candle wax dripping and the ancient words spiraling towards the ceiling. My family no longer faces discrimination by our non-Jewish neighbors nor do we have to struggle to make a living in a forbidden tavern. So now during the blessings I watch my Grandfather Henry, bald but with the same mischievous eyes and sly grin, quietly recite the blessing l'hadlik ner shel Shabbat. Standing behind him I see the apparitions of Frank and Ruth and my ancestors from Hungary crooning the same old words, always the same despite the world's changing events: from the Prohibition to the present and to whatever comes next.

(1908, July 2). "Brewery Workers Protest; 3,000 to Parade in Milwaukee in a Demonstration Against Prohibition." The New York Times.

(1922, September 7). "La Follette Sweeps Wisconsin Primary: Renominated for Senator by Greatest Majority Ever Polled in State Contest." The New York Times.

Mickleson, Gunnar. (1932, February 21). "Famous Gardens and Wein Stuben Gave City its Charm in the Early Days." Milwaukee Sentinel, 42.

Illness that paralyzes at least one limb in the body. The disease was spread by the popular homemade alcohol "Jamaican Ginger"

Horne, Louther. (1933, April 16). "Beer Has Milwaukee Smiling and Booming." The New York Times, 2.


  • There are currently no refbacks.