Professor Marni Davis (University of Georgia) got the idea to write her Ph.D. thesis –subsequently a book – on the relationship between American Jews and Prohibition when, as a graduate student, she came across a newspaper caption to a picture showing Jews in front of a saloon. The paper – dating back to the 1920s –highlighted how Jewish immigrants in Atlanta constituted a high percentage of saloon owners.
As Professor Davis stressed during a recent conference at Georgetown University, between 1920 and 1933 discussions about Jewish involvement in the production and trade of alcohol – in particular whiskey – were quite frequent.
Why were Jews attracted to the alcohol market in the United States?
First, the majority of Jews living in the U.S. at that time were Eastern European immigrants who had been involved in the “spirits” business in their native lands—where legislation relegated them to a select number of professions (including tavern ownership). Second, American Jews were experts in winemaking. Wine, of course, was a product that Jews needed to produce by themselves in order to ensure it would be kosher. Apart from their own consumption, they also produced wine for sale to non-Jews.
In sum, a prior knowledge of the field, together with an aptitude for sales and the general environment of the 20’s, made Jews an ethnic entrepreneurial niche with control over a consistent part of the alcohol trade. Although just 2-3% of the population, Jews represented 25% of the “industry.”
Jewish involvement in the alcohol trade became problematic with the rise of Prohibition. As Professor Davis explains, with the Industrial Revolution alcohol began to be produced in massive quantities. That, it turned out, was not good news for everybody! At the time, women couldn’t legally possess anything, and were in a position of submission to the will of their husbands—who too often returned home drunk and violent.
Thus, Prohibition started as a movement led by women, and quickly became an element of difference between the overwhelming Anglo-Saxon population and the Jewish minority.
Jews were beginning to be seen as a group that continued to support the usage of wine during a period of rebellion against alcohol. Their need to produce kosher wine for the Sabbath put them in a position of advocating for certain laws which would allow them to continue. They succeeded in passing a law which allowed the consumption of wine for sacramental purposes. Differently from Christians, who drank wine only inside churches, Jews consumed wine outside of the synagogues as well, and sold it among themselves and to others. For this reason, people began to accuse them of manipulating federal law for their own purposes. In addition, Jewish children were frequently exposed to alcohol and wine, which was taboo amongst American Protestants.
When a proposal to allow Jews to buy and consume only wine imported from Palestine, they reacted strongly in opposition. In addition to totally destroying the wine market, the proposal seemed to stress the importance of the Promise Land as the only spiritual Jewish home. That was an idea to which American Jews, who at that time were anti-Zionist, were opposed.
All these differences created an equation between Prohibition and feelings of anti-Semitism and anti-Immigration. Some Rabbis tried to shrink the gap between Jews and Protestants by releasing hilarious and witty explanations. One of them was Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, who said that Jews drank under the control of rationality, while another rabbi admitted that, while it is true that Jews enjoy drinking, they know when to stop.
Unfortunately, Americans started to consider immigrant Jews as unscrupulous businessmen interested in their own profit rather than in the good of the society they were living in. For this reason, Jews were considered incapable of assimilating to the American mainstream.
Just as every story has its eccentric character, Professor Davis relates the history of Isidor Einstein. Einstein, a Jew who worked for the Federal Government, had a “special” technique with which he managed to arrest and incarcerate a large number of fellow Jews. He would dress as a Rabbi – with black hat and coat – and enter into a saloon where people were illegally selling alcohol, only to catch them red-handed!
Professor Davis’ book, Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition, shines a light on the lives and challenges of American Jews during the age of Prohibition, and shows the never-ending Jewish attempt to be “a people apart as well as part of the people”.