- The Gambler's Daughter: A Personal and Social History by Annette B. Dunlap
I was asked to review The Gambler's Daughter, by former Pittsburgher Annette B. Dunlap, on the hunch that, as a Pittsburgh historian completing my own book about the Pittsburgh Jewish community, I might be interested. I hesitated, but I soon found myself reading this 185-page autobiography with keen interest and wide-eyed curiosity. While there was not too much information in it that could relate to my own book (with the exception of some material on vice in the immigrant Jewish neighborhood in Pittsburgh), Dunlap's discussion of the extent of gambling over the generations was compelling. Tracing the interface between her family's history and gambling behavior, she raises some interesting questions. How come gambling played such a major role in the lives of three generations of her family? Is there anything specific to the Jewish experience that prompted this gambling fix? Does gambling run in families? When does gambling become an addiction with toxic effects? What was it really like to be a compulsive gambler's daughter?
The book is divided into eight chapters, each dealing with a different subject. Thus, mercifully, it is not merely a drawn-out tale of woe. The Introduction begins with the 2004 funeral of Dunlap's father, Albert Moritt, and her determination, at age 50, to gain an understanding both of her father's addiction and of the trauma she endured as a result. The first chapter, "Recollections," is a poignant portrait of a young girl repeatedly forced by her father to lie as debt collectors persist in their angry calls to the house, on a fashionable street in a predominantly Jewish section of Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood. She claims he is not home. She is told to hide any bills arriving in the mail so that her mother will not see them. The climax to this tale of deception comes when some men arrive to take the family's furniture away. A terrible fight ensues between her parents, and the young girl is no longer able to deny the shattering effects of her father's gambling habit. Dunlap describes her father's withdrawal from the family as his gambling losses mount. For a time, while he attends Gamblers Anonymous, peace reigns, but it doesn't last.
In conversations, Dunlap learns that her beleaguered mother, although she didn't know about Albert's habit when she married him, was not only the wife of a gambler [End Page 156] but also a gambler's daughter: Her own father had been a bookie and a bootlegger. As Dunlap sees it, however, her grandfather's activity put a roof over the family's head, while her father's gambling threatened to knock down that roof.
Dunlap devotes a chapter to a short history of Jewish gambling, going back to Adam and Eve. She notes the importance of gambling in Jewish civilization and in "nearly every civilization tied to Jewish civilization." Among other examples, she points to the Hebrew Bible's multiple references to the practice of "casting lots"; to the all-pervasive game of "spin the dreidel" played at Chanukah; and to the Rabbis' growing concern, beginning in the Middle Ages, about gambling in the Jewish community. Dunlap considers it no accident that the Yiddish word for "ne'er-do-well" is schlimazel, a take-off on mazal, the Hebrew word for luck.
Having looked at the historical role of gambling in Jewish life, Dunlap then moves on to exploring the impoverished lives of her paternal great-grandparents and the "ready availability of gambling and its social acceptability in the Jewish immigrant community." She gives a powerful description of her great-grandfather's hard-knock life, from Russia to Boston to the tenements of the Lower East Side, where "gambling establishments blanketed the neighborhood." If, as she speculates, her great-grand father might have wagered to improve his financial situation, he must have lost, for he died still impoverished in one of the notorious...