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“Who’d want to hurt an artist?” Typically, no one……….unless it’s Bugsy Siegel, Joe Masseria and any number of bloodthirsty gangsters who’ve hired Charlie Stark to decorate their speakeasies. Diving under tables and dodging bullets was trouble enough. But in the heat of the American Great Depression, Charlie, a son of Jewish immigrants, a self-taught artist and theater set designer, needs the money. So does his family. Eleven Starks endure a crowded two-room flat, a tenement slum, one of many that riddle the squalid, Lower East Side of New York City in the 1920’s. In this arena, Charlie can only rely on his wits and humor to overcome poverty, danger and despair. His father, a penniless pushcart vendor, can’t help him. His mother is overwhelmed with nine children, one of them dying from a grisly congenital disease, and the love of his life, Opal, an African-American aspiring school teacher, has her own issues. It’s all she can do to make a living, and shield Charlie and herself from a racist world. Based on Charlie’s real life memoir, Karen Stark’s fictional World On A String allows us to explore her father’s s rollicking escapades, his talents and flaws, his perils and pleasures, his hopes and unrequited dreams. Sweet and bittersweet, World On A String is a lusciously rich, entertaining and enlightening study of America’s most challenging era from the perspective of one of America’s most resourceful young men: a twenty-two year old slum kid, a Jewish Huck Finn named Charlie Stark.
In exploring her father’s own gambling addiction, Annette Dunlap uncovers a hidden history of gambling in the Jewish community. Screening calls from her father’s creditors, hiding his mail from her mother—being the child of a compulsive gambler wasn’t easy, and Annette B. Dunlap thought for years that her experience was a singular one. In early adulthood, she was fortunate enough to learn that she was not unique, that other children had grown up with parents (usually fathers) addicted to gambling. But when she learned, shortly before her mother died, that her grandfather had also been involved in gambling, she realized the extent to which gambling was a part of her family history. As she delved further into the subject, she also discovered the extent to which gambling is, in her words, “a peculiarly Jewish addiction.”
Framing the issue of gambling in both historical and sociological terms, Dunlap examines the struggle between the “official” Jewish community—Jewish leaders have long either condemned or ignored the evils of gambling—and the significant number of everyday Jews who continue to gamble, many at a level that would be considered addictive. Gambling continues to be a serious problem within the Jewish community, Dunlap argues, regardless of whether the person is Orthodox or a Jew in name only. The Gambler’s Daughter is both a personal story of a father’s gambling addiction and a more general inquiry into the hidden history of gambling in the Jewish community. Readers who either live or have lived with an addictive family member will find the book useful, as will those students of Jewish social history interested in a long-ignored facet of American Jewish life.
Annette B. Dunlap is an independent scholar and journalist. She is the author of the award-winning Frank: The Story of Frances Folsom Cleveland, America’s Youngest First Lady. She lives in North Carolina.