Tequila Dreams and Yiddish Teens: A story about the Texas Border and Prohibition

The Texas Story Project.

Famous actor, Will Rogers once said, "Prohibition is better than no liquor at all." That is a great way, to sum up the illegal sale of alcohol in the United States from 1920-1933. Although liquor was illegal, that did not stop the good people of the United States from partying, nor did it stop smugglers from prospering. According to Moshe Vidal, the father of the man I am interviewing and the protagonist of this story, there were three major players in the liquor business: the Irish, the Italians, and the Jews. Mordecai Vidal told me the story of his father and his quest to keep the speakeasies of the tri-state area flush with booze.

"It all started when he was a pitseleh[1]." Mordecai explains. "In the city [New York],  we had to take care of each other. A lot of us, even when I was a kid in the neighborhood, were immigrants. The goyim[2] hated us. They wouldn't hire a Jew! The Protestants would spit at us. They couldn’t stand that we breathe the same air. 'Hath not a Jew eyes?'[3] I always said." I ask Mordecai about what his father did for money. "He did what any poor kid would do — try to schmooze up to the big shots." I asked him if that helped at all. "Yes! He schmoozed all the way up to the milk drinking schnorrer[4], Arnold Rothstein."

Mordecai listed the small jobs his father did for Mr. Rothstein. Rothstein was a big deal, especially after he got away with fixing the 1919 World Series. Not many people liked him. He was rude, cheap, and liked to gamble. Mr. Rothstein also was one of the few, if not only men in the bootlegging business, who did not drink. He preferred a glass of milk. However, his distaste for a drink did not stop him from making a fortune off the habits of others.  

I asked Mordecai about his father's time in Texas. "Oh yeah, that was some shady stuff." Apparently, Rothstein was making a fortune importing rum from Cuba and dope from Europe. Two of Rothstein's associates, "Lucky" Luciano and Meier Lansky, began talks with some Mexicans and Texans to get tequila up north. The market was dominated by Canadian whiskey, homebrew liquor, and Cuban rum. Rothstein's associates saw a chance to make money on the side. "It was very down-low stuff," Mordecai explained to me. "They told my father, who was supposed to drive the stuff back up north with a crew, that if anyone found out, they gut everyone." "So how was the deal set up? What happened?" I asked. "No one knows!" Mordecai exclaimed, laughing. "Some Mexican man was supposed to meet them at an old warehouse with five hundred crates of liquor, but he never showed up." What did Meyer and Lucky do? "After a day of waiting, they yelled at everyone to go home and didn’t pay them!" Mordechai paused for a minute, "My father didn’t have money to get home. He was in his 20s. He was counting on the money. So, he drove to Galveston that night with a few friends to a hidden warehouse stocked with booze. The man who made my father drive there handed a Texas Ranger some money, and they started filling up the trucks with boxes." I asked him what the boxes were filled with. "Only the Ranger and the man with the money knew." "Did they drive the shipment back to New York?" I asked. "No! They drove it back down to where it originally came from. The man gave everyone who helped a fraction of what they were promised and sent them on their way." It was enough for Moshe to get back home, but after that whole ordeal, Moshe stopped working for everyone involved in "Murder Inc."[5] He soon met Mordecai's mother and started working at her father's shop in Brooklyn. He eventually inherited the business and stayed in Brooklyn till he died in 1980 at the age of 81.

"So, did your father ever visit Texas again?" I asked. "Oy vey[6]!" Mordecai busted into laughter again. "My father always said, 'You’d think you would find some Jews wandering in the Texas desert but the goyim there think kosher is just a kind of pickle.'" Although our bootlegging friend, Moshe, never brought the agave elixir back east, his adventures certainly gave him a connection to the great state of Texas and a story to hand down for generations.

Dylan Coons’ family hails from New Jersey, but they have been living in Texas for 7 years. He is a political science major at St. Mary's University, with a focus in Public Administration. His interest in Jewish history started at an early age, hearing the stories of his grandfather who helped liberate the prisoners in Buchenwald, a concentration camp a few miles outside of Weimar, Germany. Seeing the exhibits that were created thanks to his grandfather’s donation of items that he brought back from the war and hearing his grandfather’s lectures at universities around the United States inspired Dylan to offer as much as he can to the history of the Jewish people — no matter how big or small the impact might be.

[1] Pitseleh- Yiddish for "little one"

[2] Goyim- Yiddish for "gentiles" (plural)

[3] Quote from William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice

[4] Yiddish for "cheapskate"

[5] The name of the crime syndicate Rothstein, Luciano, and Lansky where members of.

[6] Yiddish expression used to mean something like "Oh my G-d". It literally translates to "woe is me"

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