"No whisky Amazons in the tents of Israel": American Jews and the gilded age temperance movement.

Author:Davis, Marni
Position::Essay
 
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In November 1874, a collective of temperance-minded women gathered in Cleveland, Ohio. Their goal: to establish a national political organization that would work toward the total eradication of beverage alcohol from American life. They named their confederation the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), though they engaged in a brief debate over whether it was politically wise to include the word "Christian" in the organization's name. Some of the women present feared that by referring so explicitly to their religious affiliation, they would "shut out the Jews," whom they hoped to enlist in the struggle. In the end, this concern was dismissed. Though the organization's founders understood their overarching mission to be the defense of Christian (by which they meant Protestant) moral values, the general consensus was that "since there was no creed test" for joining the WCTU, the alienation of Jewish women "need not be feared." (1)

Twenty years later an editorial in the American Jewess, a monthly periodical edited by journalist and clubwoman Rosa Sonneschein, suggested that American Jewish women had, in fact, come to see the WCTU as contrary to their religious and cultural sensibilities. Sonneschein's 1895 column reported that at a recent WCTU conference, Frances Willard, the group's president, had urged the organization to create alliances with Jewish and Catholic women. This indicated "tolerance and progress," the editor of the Jewess proclaimed. Still, she predicted that Jews would steer clear of the organization, in part because "the name Christian indicates too narrow a sphere." (2)

Yet Jews' main objection concerning the WCTU, Sonneschein emphasized, was not its sectarian name but the cause it espoused. While Jews consumed alcohol in their weekly religious rituals and in their home-based social gatherings, the editorial noted, "drunkenness is amongst them ... only encountered in a few isolated cases." Alcohol abuse, in other words, was not a Jewish concern, and Jews' moderate drinking habits indicated that the problem with alcohol wasn't located in the alcohol itself but in the drinkers who failed to exercise self-control. As a result of their distinctive cultural relationship to alcohol, Sonneschein concluded, Jews would remain "loath to subscribe to total abstinence" and would never join the ranks of temperance activists. (3)

This was, comparatively speaking, one of American Jewry's more courteous rejections of the late-nineteenth-century temperance movement. Though they supported moderation as a personal virtue and an admirable trait, American Jews of both genders regularly voiced disdain for postbellum anti-alcohol activists' insistence that morally right-minded people never touched a drop. Further, they protested the movement's call for the total prohibition of the manufacture and sale of alcohol and regarded such laws as posing unjust restrictions upon personal behavior and commercial enterprise. In sum, they regarded the anti-alcohol movement as ridiculous--even repulsive--and certainly as a threat to the civil liberties guaranteed by the Constitution.

Jews were not the only Americans to dismiss or express contempt for the temperance movement. Granted, anti-alcohol activists numbered in the hundreds of thousands and accumulated some notable achievements during the Gilded Age. The WCTU boasted 150,000 dues-paying members in 1890, and their influence on educational curriculum was felt nationwide. (4) They and other post-Civil War anti-alcohol organizations, such as the Prohibition Party (founded in 1869) and the Anti-Saloon League (founded in 1893), lobbied municipal politicians and local leaders effectively enough to help pass laws that limited, and in some cases prohibited, traffic in liquor in hundreds of towns, cities, and counties. But despite these successes, the movement's ultimate (though short-lived) victory--the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919--was far from a foregone conclusion in the nineteenth century. Anti-alcohol activists lost most of their Gilded Age legislative battles, and clashed with critics and enemies all over the country. Urban denizens, immigrants and their native-born children, and businessmen were among those most likely to fight against temperance legislation. The American Jewish population at this time was primarily urban and entrepreneurial, and most were either immigrants from central Europe or their descendants. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Jews were among the movement's most vocal critics.

In the years between the "Women's Crusade" of 1873-1874 and the beginning of the twentieth century, American Jews attacked the temperance movement and its organizations from several angles. One of their quarrels with the movement hinged on gender conventions: American Jews dismissed the women of the anti-alcohol movement as a wretched and debased lot who had turned away from their natural role as keepers of the private realm. They insisted that Jewish women would never behave so recklessly. In addition, American Jews took umbrage at calls for "total temperance," and often pointed to their own widely held reputation for sobriety not only to prove alcohol's essential harmlessness, but also to imply that Jewish self-control and moderation of habit could serve as a model of enlightened citizenship in a pluralistic liberal democracy. Finally, they constructed a political argument that asserted the citizen's right to behave according to private conscience and morality, characterizing temperance activists as religious zealots who sought to tear down the wall between church and state.

Jews regarded the anti-alcohol movement as a potential threat to their own ancient religious rituals and social practices. But Jewish criticism of the temperance movement was an act of communal self-protection with objectives beyond the right to drink; it was a defense of the nonsectarian state that American Jews held dear. Jews' experience in the United States--where they could participate in economic and political life and join civic institutions to an extent impossible elsewhere--had facilitated the creation of a group identity that was acculturated and proudly American but also unapologetically Jewish. But the temperance movement's religious commitments signaled the expansion of nineteenth-century efforts to "Christianize" American life and reorganize its laws around Protestant values and morality. Jews feared that if these movements achieved their goals, their equal status, even their citizenship, could be in peril. (5)

Jews could have responded to the temperance movement merely by denying its legality and disputing its claims to be consistent with American political values. Instead, they went a step further: by rejecting the temperance movement and presenting themselves as a preferable counterpoint to both the drunkard and the teetotaler, American Jews sought to bolster their claim to American citizenship.

"The Sex Specially Aggrieved": Temperance Women and Jewish Women

When Rosa Sonneschein wrote her 1895 editorial in the American Jewess, she was likely unaware of a petition circulated by the women of Philadelphia's Congregation Rodeph Shalom in early 1874. The document contradicts Sonneschein's declaration that Jewish women would never participate in temperance activism, though it is an extremely rare example of them doing so. The petition, addressed to the city's mayor, expressed hope that municipal laws forbidding the sale of alcohol on Sundays would be more strictly enforced. As members of "the sex specially aggrieved by the traffic in alcoholic drinks and the consequent intemperance of husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons," the women of Rodeph Shalom begged the mayor to ensure that "the Lord's Day may no longer be desecrated by the traffic in strong drink." (6)

This is an extraordinary document, not only because it presents Jewish women in alliance with the anti-alcohol movement, but also because its authors referred to Sunday as "the Lord's Day." By the 1870s, a small number of those Jewish congregations oriented toward religious reform had switched their Sabbath worship to Sundays or added a Sunday service in order to align Jewish religious life with American socioeconomic practices, although Rodeph Shalom--which had adopted other reforms--had not. Even within such congregations, Jewish participants rarely if ever referred to Sunday in traditionally Christian theological terms, or parroted evangelical Protestant demands to ban alcohol commerce, or commerce altogether, on Sundays.

The ladies' petition was inspired by the Women's Crusade, a grassroots direct-action protest against the liquor trade. Though women had been an important force in the antebellum temperance movement, they found themselves mostly excluded from formal membership in temperance groups such as the American Temperance Union and the Washingtonians. At best, they were relegated to women's auxiliaries, such as the "Martha Washingtonians." This marginalization frustrated many temperance women, who insisted that since members of the "gentler sex" were too often at the mercy of drunken men (usually their husbands), denying women the right to fully participate in the movement was not only an injustice but injurious to the cause. (7)

In December 1873, middle-class Protestant women in Ohio and western New York State began to demonstrate against the American liquor industry, which had increased its production, expanded its distribution, and exerted considerable pressure upon elected officials over the previous decade. Armed with bibles and church hymnals, and willing to put their own safety in jeopardy, groups of women preached and sang outside local saloons and liquor stores, stoically withstanding the humiliation--and occasional physical abuse--meted out to them by saloonkeepers and patrons. By the crusade's end in 1874, tens of thousands of women had participated in theatrical displays of...

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