Jews and Booze, a fascinating new history of Prohibition-era bootleggers, barmen, rabbis, and cops, picks up where HBO’s Boardwalk Empire leaves off
A devoutly puritanical FBI agent and his Jewish partner, staking out a suspected marine bootlegging operation, stumble instead onto a rural black church’s river baptism ceremony. The Christian agent, Nelson Van Alden, whose monomaniacal enforcement of Prohibition is animated by evangelical zeal, ends up drowning his Jewish partner, Eric Sebso, after calling him into the river to be baptized in the presence of the stunned members of the Shiloh Baptist Church. This spectacle of a Christian government agent enforcing the 18th Amendment to the American Constitution by cleansing a Jew of his perceived sins by murdering him in a primal act of religious fanaticism—Van Alden forcibly holds the struggling Sebso’s head under water for what seems like an eternity while incanting Christian liturgical promises of eternity—is horrifying. It is, thankfully, also fictional, one of numerous sensational scenes featuring Jews, crime, and violent death from the first season of HBO’s hit series, Boardwalk Empire.
Prohibition—the catastrophically misguided national experiment with legally enforced temperance that began with the ratification of the 18th Amendment (commonly known as the Volstead Act) in October 1919 and ended with its repeal in December 1933—has been brought back to life brilliantly over the past two years by Boardwalk Empire. While its main protagonist is the corrupt Prohibition-era gentile treasurer of Atlantic City, Nucky Thompson (based on the historical crime boss, Enoch L. Johnson), numerous colorful Jewish characters, both historical and fictional, have played prominent roles in the series. Given the notoriety of Jewish bootleggers and gangsters during the Roaring Twenties, this should come as little surprise.
The baptismal murder of Agent Sebso, together with other scenes featuring Jews, illuminates important undercurrents to Prohibition that historians have not adequately explored. Among them are the disproportionate presence of Jews in the alcohol trade, bootlegging, and organized crime, as well as the major roles played by puritanical Protestantism, anti-immigration nativism, and blatant anti-Semitism in advancing and reinforcing America’s temperance laws. There were countless Prohibitionists who, like the fictional Van Alden, believed that for Prohibition to prevail, not only did the demon of alcohol need to be vanquished, but its Jewish manufacturers and purveyors needed to be purged as well.
The appearance, so soon after the conclusion of the second season of Boardwalk Empire, of Marni Davis’ new history, Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition, is just short of providential. This fascinating, academically sophisticated, and superbly written exposition of the intricate, often precarious, role that Jews played in every aspect of the American alcohol industry—from production in industrial stills to retail sale in bars and speakeasies across the land, and finally to bootlegging, a crime that created the fortunes of some of North America’s most prominent Jewish philanthropic families—turns out to be a wonderful historical companion to HBO’s most explosive series since The Sopranos and to the recent PBS airing of Ken Burns’ documentary Prohibition. More important, Jews and Booze is a major contribution to the economic history of the Jews in the United States. The book also offers an original and rich exposition of the social and political importance of alcohol—particularly the puritanical fear and loathing of it—in the development of anti-immigration and anti-Semitic sentiments in late 19th- and early 20th-century America.
While Sebso, the fictional Jewish FBI agent, is depicted in the series as half-hearted, inept, and ultimately corruptible, Davis’ study brings back to life the amazing career of the colorful, and incredibly successful, Jewish enforcer of the dry laws, agent Izzy Einstein, whose astonishing record—4,932 arrests in five years, with a 95 percent conviction rate—made him by far the most prolific agent of the Prohibition era. Described by Time magazine as a “fat little Austrian Jew,” Einstein, together with his partner Moe Smith, employed a large and comical array of contrivances—from blackface to drag—to enforce the law, all wonderfully culled by Davis from Einstein’s sensational autobiography, Prohibition Agent No. 1.
The narrative arc of Jews and Booze is astutely limited, beginning with the rapid rise of Jews in the American whiskey trade in the late 19th century to the repeal of the Volstead Act in 1933. The establishment of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in 1874 serves Davis well as an opening point of reference in her exploration of the inherent tensions between the puritanically motivated advocates of a “dry” America and American Jews’ cultural values, political convictions, and economic interests. Davis competently, if at times too superficially, records the religious role played by wine in the practice of many of Judaism’s rituals, as well as the historical involvement of European Jews in wine production and the liquor trade going back almost a millennium, from medieval Franco-Germany to the late 19th-century Russian Empire. This deep historical Jewish involvement with alcohol combined with liberal modern Jewish political sensibilities, especially American Jews’ dual commitments to both religion-state separation and free-market enterprise, did not sit easily with the Prohibitionists’ deeply conservative agenda of Christianizing America. Davis makes it obvious why Jews—as a vulnerable immigrant group and religious minority, as adherents of a religion whose rituals require the use of wine, and as a community with a highly disproportionate representation in the alcohol trade—aligned themselves with the “wets” in their decades-long battle to keep alcohol legal and available.
The book’s first half focuses on the surprisingly prominent role played by Jewish immigrants to America in the production, wholesale distribution, and retail dispensation of alcohol, all across the land, from the industrial stills of Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Illinois to the barrooms of crowded, lower-class neighborhoods of America’s major cities, from Atlanta and Charleston to Manhattan’s Lower East Side and Newark’s Third Ward. Davis’ depiction of the numerous alcohol industrialists from among American Reform Judaism’s leading philanthropists during its initial period of development in the United States is particularly rich. That the fortunes made by Jewish whiskey distillers—particularly in Cincinnati, home to this day of the world Reform movement’s flagship rabbinical seminary, the Hebrew Union College of America—endowed some of the country’s most important institutions of Jewish higher learning, including the greatest Judaica research library in the Diaspora, is illustrative of how respectable the alcohol industry was before the agitations for temperance by evangelical Christian polemicists began to take root in the final decade of the 19th century.
Davis culls from the sermons of America’s most distinguished Orthodox and Reform rabbis, such as Marcus Jastrow and Isaac Mayer Wise, in fashioning a compelling portrait of the regnant Jewish position in the increasingly heated political debates about alcohol regulation. The title of her chapter on Jewish attitudes to alcohol during the pre-Prohibition period, “Do As We Israelites Do” (a quotation from an essay by Rabbi Jastrow), succinctly captures that position, namely that alcohol ought to remain legal and widely available, while those who partake of it should practice moderation, as the Jews have done from time immemorial.
Judaism rejects the notions of beauty that underscore Christian classical music, from Bach to Mozart—but the music still speaks to us