Marni Davis had me with the title of her book, “Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition” (New York University Press: $32). But the book itself, an academic monograph that is also highly readable, is an eye-opener.
Davis, a history professor at Georgia State University, focuses on the surprising subject of Jewish bootleggers during Prohibition in the 1920s. But her monograph also offers some unaccustomed insights into Jewish attitudes toward alcohol — “the Jew drinks,” said one American rabbi in the 19th century, “but he knows when to stop” — and, especially, the liquor industry as a point of entry into American commerce and culture.
Prohibition, first enacted in 1919, was seen as a problem by the Jewish community. “American Jews had been fierce critics of temperance,” she reports, and for more than one reason. To be sure, “they sensed its underlying moral coercion and cultural intolerance,” she explains, but they also acted out of economic self-interest: “Beer, wine, and liquor commerce had served as a source of both individual and communal upward mobility for American Jews since before the Civil War.”
Now, however, Jewish participation in the liquor industry was the target of anti-Semitic propaganda. Henry Ford, a relentless Jew-hater, propagandized that “the Jews are on the side of liquor and always have been.” Davis points out that some old and hateful Jewish stereotypes were dusted off and some new ones invented by Prohibition activists: “the wealthy arriviste Jewish distiller and wholesaler; the Jewish saloon-keeper and liquor store owner who sold alcohol in impoverished communities; and, after the Eighteenth Amendment gained the force of law in 1920, the Jewish bootlegger.”
Davis reveals some Jewish traditions that will come as a surprise to most of her readers. Jews were prominent in brewing, distilling and selling alcoholic beverages in ancient Babylon under Persian rule, and they played the same role in the Middle Ages, both in the Christian and Islamic worlds. Perhaps more familiar is the fact that distilling and tavern-keeping were among “the few occupations to Jews in the crowded and impoverished Pale” in tsarist Russia. When Jewish immigrants arrived in America in the 19th century, the business opportunities in the liquor trade— starting with kosher wine but quickly moving into beer, wine and spirits — represented what Davis calls “a powerful link between their past and their present.”
Business success opened the way for Jewish participation in American politics and culture. Ben Dreyfus, the “wine king of Anaheim,” was elected to the city council and then the office of mayor of his adopted Southern California community. Charles Fleishmann, a distiller in Cincinnati, served in the Ohio state senate. And Cassius Tillman, a Jewish saloonkeeper in Natchez, Miss., served as town sheriff. At the same time, however, the Jewish presence in the liquor trade attracted unwelcome attention from critics who associated alcohol and the places that sold it with vice, crime and race-mixing. Even the iconography of liquor advertisements — the ads for the Rosenfield Bros. distillery in Chicago featured a bevy of alluring women, some scantily clad and some naked — was condemned in some circles on the grounds that “such images inflamed the lust of the ‘black beast rapist.’”
Putting aside such slanders, it is also true that the advent of Prohibition brought Jews into the underground economy of bootlegging, not only Jewish mobsters like Meyer Lansky and Moe Dalitz but also “the Bronfman family of Montreal, via Saskatchewan and, before that, Bessarabia.” Davis reports that “[t]he Jewish bootleggers [they] supplied ran so much Canadian alcohol across Lake Erie that locals referred to it as ‘the Jewish Lake.’”
Davis grapples with some of the most volatile issues in Jewish identity when it comes to the famous Jewish gangsters like Lansky and Dalitz, whose exploits are sometimes celebrated as “models of rough, devil-may-care Jewish masculinity.” She wholly debunks the sentimental myth that has come to be attached to these “tough Jews” by pointing out, among other things, that “they regularly exploited Jewish merchants through extortion.”
She points out, too, that the Jewish community faced an awkward problem during Prohibition precisely because wine is so central to Jewish ritual. Negotiations were opened with Prohibition officials, and the result was that rabbis were authorized to distribute wine to their congregants, and licensed shops were opened where “Kosher Wine for Sacramental Purposes” was available for purchase.
Even Jewish observers, however, questioned whether the millions of gallons of wine that were purchased by Jews were actually for ritual use. “If these figures were a true index of Jewish devotion to the historical customs of their forefathers,” cracked one Jewish publication, “it would indicate a rapid growth of Judaism.” And Davis points out that “rabbis” of dubious authenticity “claimed new and enormous congregations filled with members named Houlihan and Maguire.”
By 1933, America’s troublesome experiment with Prohibition was over, and Jews re-entered the legalized liquor industry with even greater success. “The Canadian distiller Samuel Bronfman,” for example, “hit the ground running,” and so did Lewis Rosensteil of Schenley Distillers. But the damage that bootlegging had inflicted on the reputation of the Jewish community remained and needed to be repaired. “Bronfman and Rosensteil sought to further their respectability through philanthropy,” explains Davis, “and both men were effusively generous in their charity to Jewish organizations.”
Prohibition is shown to have both a dark side and a bright side in the pages of “Jews and Booze,” and it is to the author’s credit that she has produced a work of serious scholarship that is also witty, funny and smart.
“Commercialism Controlled by these Pagan Devils called Jews,” ran one racist tract, “Has wrought its curse to American Patriots.”
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in 2013 under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.