Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition
Marni Davis. Illustrated.
New York University Press.
2012, $32, pp. 272
Prohibition is hot. Why this is so, eight decades after the end of America's failed "Great Experiment," will be left to sociologists, but the modern fascination is unmistakable. In 2010, journalist Daniel Okrent provided a splendid history of Prohibition's rise and fall in his book Last Call. That spawned a three-part Ken Burns documentary on the subject, which PBS broadcast a few months ago. HBO is tapping this keg with its Boardwalk Empire series, a fictionalized tale of real-life bootleggers and corrupt politicians in 1920s Atlantic City.
In this climate, it was probably inevitable that someone had to ask if Prohibition was good for the Jews. Sure enough, Marni Davis has come along not only to raise the question but also to provide intriguing answers in Jews and Booze, whose saucy title has a more sober modifier: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition. All in all, Davis argues, the temperance movement that took off after the Civil War and led to the 18th Amendment's ban on "the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors" had American Jewry, if you will, over a barrel.
The heart of the problem was that most Jews were "wets," opposed to Prohibition, at a time when anti-alcohol forces, the "drys," were ascendant.
In the late 19th century, Jewish distillers were prominent in places like Cincinnati and Louisville. Davis, an assistant professor of history at Georgia State University in Atlanta, ably traces the rise of these businessmen, whose flourishing went hand in hand with a disproportionate Jewish ownership of saloons. The liquor trade may have been a carryover from the old country: "Alcohol production and purveyance was one of the few occupations available to Jews in the crowded and impoverished Pale." When early Jewish newcomers to America became barkeepers, later arrivals followed their lead. So it goes with immigrants. Witness all the Indian-run newsstands and Korean-owned dry cleaners in latter-day New York.
What's more, alcohol, in the form of wine, was an essential component of Jewish rituals, though Jews, as a group, were not known for drinking to excess. "Do as we Israelites do," a prominent Orthodox rabbi in Philadelphia, Marcus Jastrow, advised in 1874. In other words, the problem lay with alcohol abuse, not with booze itself.
Throw in a few more...