The Eighteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1919 and nullified in 1933, described the “manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors” as a criminal act.
Prohibition, as the anti-alcohol movement in the United States was popularly known, was vocally supported by the prominent American rabbi, Stephen Wise, and by Moses Alexander, the first Jewish governor of Idaho who had signed a law in 1916 banning the sale and consumption of liquor.
Nonetheless, American Jews generally opposed prohibition. The “liquor question,” one of the most decisive issues in 19th and early 20th century America, placed Jews in an awkward position, writes Marni Davis in Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition (New York University Press).
Although Jews are historically a sober people with little interest in “alcohol-induced stupefaction,” they disliked the underlying moral coercion and cultural intolerance inherent in prohibition. More to the point, the temperance movement clashed with their economic interests.
For American Jews, the manufacture and sale of liquor, wine and beer had been a vehicle of upward mobility, not only in the United States but in Europe as well.
But after the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, the involvement of Jews in the alcohol trade, “a resource for social integration, cultural adjustment and economic mobility,” became liability, notes Davis in this polished and readable work of social history.
“A new cast of villains emerged in prohibitionist rhetoric,” observes Davis, a professor of history at Georgia State University, referring to “the wealthy arriviste Jewish distiller and wholesaler; the Jewish saloon keeper and liquor-store owner… and after the Eighteenth Amendment gained force of law in 1920, the Jewish bootlegger.”
Since they had such a relatively high profile in the liquor business, she adds, prohibition became “a mark of marginality and a source of shame” for Jews, whose connection to alcohol production was both a function of religion and tradition.
As she explains, “Jews are linked to alcohol … by the dietary regulations of kashrut, which requires [them] to use wine in their religious rituals.”
From a historical perspective, Jews have brewed, distilled and sold intoxicating beverages to both Jews and gentiles since time immemorial.
In Islamic countries, Muslims relied on Jews and Christians as their suppliers. And in Europe, Jews produced distilled liquor, wine and beer. Indeed, as she points out, Belorussian Jews in the 19th-century Russian empire owned between one-third and two-thirds of the distilleries, and in Poland, the Jewish tavern keeper was a recurring figure in local literature.
“When Jewish immigrants took up alcohol entrepreneurship in the United States, they forged a powerful link between their past and their present,” Davis says.
In 19th-century America, the alcohol industry grew spectacularly. “Alcohol was the nation’s fifth-largest industry at the turn of the century, contributing one-third of the tax revenue in federal coffers.”
Jews were among the Americans who availed themselves of the opportunities presented by this burgeoning industry. “American Jews engaged [in] the trade visibly and vigorously.”
For Jewish producers, distributors and purveyors, alcohol commerce represented both a connection with their past and a means to improve the present, she writes. “Their pre-migrational familiarity with the processes of production and distribution dovetailed with the structure of the American alcohol trade, creating opportunities for aspiring entrepreneurs.”
According to Davis, the distilled liquor business and the whisky industry in particular, which had been the preserve of Scots-Irish distillers, proved most attractive to 19th-century Jewish immigrants.
Although a handful of Prussian Jews drifted into the beer industry, it was all but monopolized by Christians of German origin.
Like their counterparts in Germany, German American brewers branded their beer barrels with the brauerstern, the six-pointed hexagram, or Jewish Star, which attested to purity and balance.
Few Jews went into wine production, given American indifference toward wine. But Jews played a predominant role in the kosher-wine industry, which, like all sacramental brews, was exempted from the provisions of the Eighteenth Amendment.
Davis says that the earliest record of kosher-wine commerce in the United States dates back to 1848, when 42 casks arrived in New York City from Jerusalem. By the 1870s, most kosher wine consumed in the United States originated in central Europe, but a small share of this market was held by Benjamin Dreyfus, a Bavarian Jew who ran the largest and most technologically modern winery in California.
Jews, who usually consumed alcoholic beverages in a spirit of self-restraint, generally opposed the anti-alcohol movement as an unjust restriction on personal behaviour and commercial enterprise.
And as Davis observes, Jews were acutely aware of the fact that temperance movements were driven, in part at least, by a desire to “Christianize” America and reorganize its laws around Protestant values and morality. “Jews feared that if these movements were successful, their equal status, even their citizenship, could be in peril.”
Jews, too, were upset by the tendency of some prohibitionists to inject dollops of antisemitism into the debate.
Interestingly enough, German Americans were also in the forefront of opposing prohibition, regarding it as an ill-advised attempt “to inhibit their leisure practices” and attack their culture.
Prohibition, of course, spawned a thriving underground economy, and Jews participated in it as purveyors and customers. One survey of the illicit alcohol trade cited by Davis suggests that 50 per cent of the bootleggers were Jews, 25 percent Italian, around 10 per cent Irish and the rest mainly Polish and native-born Anglos.
Many bootleggers bought their wares from the Bronfman family of Montreal. When Canada passed prohibition legislation, the Bronfmans took advantage of a loophole in the law that allowed contraband liquor to be sold for “medicinal purposes.”
When prohibition ended, Jews were among those who flocked into the revived industry. Samuel Bronfman, the patriarch of the Bronfman clan, hit the ground running, moving his corporate headquarters to New York City.
With Jewish occupational trends shifting after World War II, American Jews gravitated toward white-collar professions. As a result, the proportion of Jews in the distilling industry dropped considerably.
In Jews and Booze, Davis tells this story resoundingly well.