Jews and Booze, a fascinating new history of Prohibition-era bootleggers, barmen, rabbis, and cops, picks up where HBO’s Boardwalk Empire leaves off
The insistence on protecting the legality of alcohol by America’s most influential rabbis, as well as leading Jewish civic organizations such as the B’nai Brith and the American Jewish Committee, was animated by more than a concern over the availability of wine for Jewish ritual purposes. Jewish leaders were legitimately concerned that the broader agenda of an array of organizations pushing Prohibition, that included the Ku Klux Klan, threatened civil liberties and economic freedoms more generally. Rabbi Jastrow warned his constituents to “beware at some future day that many-headed tyrant may confiscate all your property … this is a question of liberty as against tyranny, a question of the unwritten human rights as against the usurpation of power which assumes the name of right.” In a similar spirit, Rabbi Wise cautioned in 1880 that “if religion and prayer are abused to wage war on liquor today, they may be abused tomorrow, on the same principles to persecute … Freemasons, Catholics, foreigners, infidels, or anyone who does not conform to vulgar prejudices.”
Unfortunately, the idyllic image of the Jews as responsible drinkers so central to the arguments advanced by anti-Prohibition polemicists, which, Davis writes, “suggested that their distinctive historical and religious relationship to alcohol made them model citizens whose presence benefited the nation,” was severely undermined by the reprehensible behavior of numerous Jewish purveyors of alcohol both before and during Prohibition. Davis recounts the sleaziness of the Jewish saloons that proliferated in working-class neighborhoods, from Atlanta’s Decatur Street to Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The drunkenness of the denizens of these taverns (derided by their detractors as “Jew-saloons”), most often poor black men, was exacerbated by other forms of debauchery associated with whiskey consumption. Davis notes the “Jewish immigrants’ involvement in urban prostitution … because it seemed to confirm Jews’ eagerness to derive commercial gain even by the most vile means,” adding that “the fact that prostitutes procured, or even attended to, customers in saloons exacerbated anxieties about Jewish saloonkeepers.”
The advocates of Prohibition gained ground over the course of the first two decades of the 20th century largely by pointing to the morally and socially destructive consequences of the explosion of the whiskey industry. In so doing, they frequently pointed to the ubiquity of Jewish liquor merchants. One of the most explosive accusations was that these Jewish manufacturers and purveyors of alcohol were responsible for unleashing a torrent of violent criminality among the blacks to whom they sold their demonic product.
In the South, cases of violence, most notably alleged rapes of white women by blacks, were often cited by journalists who favored Prohibition. That Jews operated a wildly disproportionate number of “colored only” bars in southern cities, and that black public drunkenness was visibly on the rise at the turn of the 20th century, fueled the racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric of the “drys” richly documented by Davis. She cites the sermon of a Methodist minister and official of the Georgia branch of the Anti-Saloon League: “Tank him up and the black brute makes towards a white woman.” That it was Jews who were doing the “tanking” created an incendiary situation that reached a tragic climax with the Atlanta Race Riots of September 1906, a bloody two-day pogrom sparked by the assault on a white woman by a black man who confessed, “I got drunk with another Negro and the last thing I remember was when I was in a barroom on Decatur Street.”
Although Jews were not the immediate victims of the riots, in which dozens of blacks were killed and several hundred injured, the fact that the majority of Decatur Street’s saloons, and almost all that were “colored only” establishments, were Jewish-owned was hardly lost on the champions of temperance. Less than two years after the Atlanta race riots, the notorious murder of Margaret Lear, allegedly by a black man named Charles Coleman, sparked a series of sensationalist, anti-Semitic articles in Collier’s that shined a terribly unflattering spotlight on the leading producer of the most popular cheap gin among Southern blacks. Among the numerous cases of egregious behavior on the part of Jewish alcohol merchants documented by Davis, none rival the sickening story of St. Louis-based whiskey entrepreneur Lee Levy. Will Irwin, the author of the Collier’s series, argued that the person most at blame for Lear’s killing was Levy, whose cheap booze Coleman was alleged to have been drinking before committing the murder. Irwin went so far as to argue that since Coleman was intoxicated with “Levy’s nigger gin” the real murderer of Margaret “wears a white face instead of a black” and to suggest that his readers be willing to “grease a rope for him.”
While the racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric of Irwin’s writing—along with numerous other articles from the press of that era cited by Davis—was repugnant, the recklessness of Jewish distillers and saloon-owners was hardly beyond reproach. The walls of “colored only” saloons operated by Jews were frequently decked with murals displaying erotic images of scantily, if at all, dressed, voluptuous white women, which understandably scandalized religious Protestant advocates of Prohibition. It did not help that the packaging of Levy’s cheap alcohol was so pornographic that he and his partner, German Jewish immigrant Adolphe Asher, were convicted in 1908 of sending obscene materials through the mail. Oh, and the name of Levy’s best-selling beverage? “Black Cock Vigor Gin.”
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