‘Jews and Booze’ tells of a people’s involvement with liquor
Jews and Booze: Becoming American In the Age of Prohibition , by Marni Davis. New York University Press, 248pp.
By David Strom
SAN DIEGO — At the next family simcha (joyous occasion) as I raise my kiddish cup, I might think about the Jewish connection to alcoholic beverages, realizing that wealthy Jews, prior to the Common Era, were associated in Persian Babylonia with the beer trade. Or I might think about medieval and early and modern Europe where Jews “produced beer, wine and distilled liquor.” The vast majority of the Jewish people in the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries opposed the anti-alcohol movement that resulted in Prohibition. An increased awareness of the controversy surrounding the cultural and traditional use of alcoholic beverages among American Jews comes from a reading of the book Jews and Booze by Marni Davis.
American Jews were fierce critics of the anti-liquor advocates. “They sensed its underlying moral coercion and cultural intolerance.” Also, many Jews emigrated from countries where making and use of alcohol was a routine part of the daily lives of Jew and gentile alike. Since the American Civil War, wine, beer, and liquor commerce served “as a source of both individual and communal mobility.”
As late as 1918, Jews, as a group, still opposed Prohibition. By 1920 that position, if they continued to openly oppose the imposition of Prohibition it would make them pariahs in American society. The industrial giant and anti-Semite Henry Ford declared, “Jews are on the side of liquor and always have been.” Jews’ involvement in the liquor trade was now a liability. The candidly Jewish view on Prohibition helped fuel the fire of anti-Semitism, especially in the Deep South. Jews now faced a difficult choice. Do they abide by the law and change their historic views on alcohol manufacture and consumption to fit the mood of the times? Or do they risk marginalization? Prohibition forced a difficult choice for Jews and some other immigrant groups, such as the Germans, Italians, Irish and others.
Who were the main supporters of Prohibition? The Bible Belt Southern Christians, women, industrial employers, many mid-westerners, White native-born Protestants increasingly approved of the anti-alcohol movement’s most absolute objectives, and, for its own self-serving reasons, so did the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The different groups generally had differing reasons for supporting Prohibition. Some thought that by supporting the elimination of alcohol they were supporting the family. Others believed worker productivity would increase with less time lost on the job. Still others of a religious conservative bent believed drinking liquor was evil and should be eliminated for health and moral reasons.
Marni Davis’s book Jews and Booze is worth reading. It is divided into three sections. The first part examines the growing presence of American Jews’ in the alcohol industry during the nineteenth century. During the early part of that century most of the Jews were from Germany. Some were involved in the liquor business and were upwardly mobile thanks, in part, to the liquor industry. “These Jews regularly spoke out against organizations like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, which sought to impose Protestant values on American politics and culture.”
The second section covers, “Alcohol and Anti-Semitism” during the great wave of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Many of them took up the alcohol trade in the places where they settled. In a sense they arrived at the wrong time, when the temperance movement was gaining strength in Congress, and among the Protestant public at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The temperance movement, along with the Protestant conservative agitation exacerbated the already existing anti-Semitism of the nation. Historian Richard Hofstadter’s assessment of the anti-alcohol movement iterated “the growth of both the alcohol industry and the growth of the American Jewish population were manifestations of the erosion of white Protestants’ political, economic, and cultural dominance.” (Does this sound familiar today with the growth of anti-immigrant feeling in Arizona and elsewhere? Are whites, in general, fearful that they may not be in the majority in twenty-five to fifty years?)
The third portion of the book maps “Jews and the Prohibition Era.” The book focused on the events leading up to the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment and the years it was in effect. Most Jews did not suddenly become “drys” (those that don’t drink alcohol). Some, like Izzy Einstein, became enforcers of the Prohibition law, while others like Meyer Lansky and Longy Zwillman became famous as bootleggers.
The Volstead Act was Congress’s way of interpreting the Eighteenth Amendment. It allowed the making and distribution of wine for religious and sacramental purposes. This meant Jews and Catholics could legally drink wine. Jews, historically, use wine to make Kiddush on the Sabbath. They drink it at Passover and other holidays and other joyous occasions i.e. bar mitzvahs, briths, and baby naming. For those who wanted to break the law it seemed rather easy. Become a rabbi and have a congregation and get the wine for your congregants.
Today it may seem strange to have a rabbi with the last name being O’Reilly, or Lennon. But it wasn’t strange during Prohibition. They could drink liquor, sell it to “congregants” and, most of all, have a way to make a living. With a beard, dark suit, and a funny accent, someone could become a “rabbi.” Along with the status as rabbi came a “congregation” and wine for them to drink. Thus, hundreds of new shuls started up. Legitimate rabbis of all persuasions opposed this flaunting of the law.
The Jewish community did not speak with one voice. Rabbi Stephen Wise, a leading Reform Rabbi in the nation, urged Jews to vote dry and stay dry during the era of Prohibition. As one of the leaders during the Progressive era, he hoped his voice would lend clout within the American Jewish world. Louis Marshall, a well-known secular Jew, urged Jews to obey the law. He feared, as did others, that the age-old stereotype of Jews being “money hungry” would reappear in a more virulent form if only Jews were arrayed against the “dry” movement.
Once the law went in effect, it was almost impossible to enforce. It was a law that came directly into the home, attacking personal rights and religious beliefs. If a person was wealthy, the year before the law went into effect, he or she would stock up on all the booze he or she could buy. The rich would have enough liquor, or so they thought, for the duration of Prohibition. Flaunting of the law was popular. The wealthy were well-stocked. Poorer people made homemade brew and sold much of it to liquor merchants. Speakeasies were everywhere. A reporter traveled around the nation to see if he could get liquor to drink and how long it would take him to get it. He found in one city he visited it took less than a minute. Many politicians, who voted for Prohibition, broke the law and drank. Drinking alcohol took place in the White House. The law proved to be unenforceable.
By the end of the twenties, many former supporters of Prohibition had doubts about the efficacy of the law. The law didn’t stop the worker from drinking, nor did it stop the rich. It wasn’t working. Lawlessness associated with alcohol was now being blamed on the prohibitionists, at times. Congressman Adolph Sabath of Illinois denounced the prohibitionists “and their allied forces and co-workers, the Ku Klux Klan fanatics,” of engendering the crime and violence that plagued the nation, and his Chicago district. Sabath openly opposed Prohibition by introducing bills to amend the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act. He responded “to prohibitionists’ claims that Jews and other immigrants were responsible for era’s surge in crime…” Sabath turned the blame back on them. “The bootlegging and gang killings… are not the by-product but the direct product of the Volstead Act,” he said in a speech to the House, “and the supporters of this crime breeding legislation must claim this new cult of American criminals entirely as their own.”
Jews responded to Prohibition inconsistently. Collectively they never repudiated their connection to the alcohol trade. This put them in a difficult position in regards to Americanization and acculturation. They weathered this precarious position as part of the process of becoming American.
Strom is professor emeritus of education at San Diego State University. He may be contacted at email@example.com
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