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Vigor Juice

Jews and Booze, a fascinating new history of Prohibition-era bootleggers, barmen, rabbis, and cops, picks up where HBO’s Boardwalk Empire leaves off

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Izzy Einstein (left) and Moe Smith sharing a toast in a New York bar, 1935. (Library of Congress)

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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M. Burgh says:

Excellent article. I only question your statement that Prohibition is something we’ve left behind. Not so. We live in a far more violent and disturbing era of anti-drug laws that have filled our jails and destroyed many lives.

Carole Bender-Resnick says:

Word is that Samuel Bronfman loaned $10,000 from his father-in-law Samuel Rosner of Winnipeg to start his business. Samuel Rosner was my father’s uncle and Samuel Bronfman’s wife Sadie was my father’s first cousin.

Izzy Einstein was asked how he and Moe were so good at infiltrating and busting speakeasies. His response: “Nobody suspects a fat man.”

(source: Karen Blumenthal’s brilliant Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine and the Lawless Years of Prohibition — a truly lively, eminently readable, photo-filled YA book I desperately wanted to include on my list of Best Jewish Kids’ Books of 2011, but alas, it wasn’t QUITE Jew-y enough. But it won a zillion awards, and adults will enjoy it as much as kids. Not to diss Davis’s more academic book, of course.)

“Indeed, within just a five-mile radius of my current abode in Montreal, Canada, there are more than a dozen Hasidic operations selling strictly kosher wines and moonshine, from the back rows of shtiebels to the corridors of mikvahs.”

Canada, specifically Montreal and the Provence of Quebec, have a number of laws, including those about government-controlled retailers, which make it difficult for Orthodox and Chasidishe Jews to get wine and alcohol that they would use (for reasons of kashrus etc).

There have been a number of arrests and convictions, including among a congregation of Chasidim of Skver. These are working there way through the courts and facing challenges of religious discrimination etc.

Allan Nadler says:

The sale of alcohol is regulated in Quebec by the Societe d’Alchohol du Quebec, known as the SAQ. SAQ stores in Jewish neighborhoods in Montreal carry wide assortments of kosher wines, from the United States, France and Israel, and other alcoholic beverages popular among Orthodox Jews. Eli’s claim that there is “religious discrimination” involved here is preposterous. The only aspects Quebec laws that one could argue “make it difficult for Orthodox and Chasidishe (sic) Jews to get the wine and alcohol that they would use” is that, like all other citizens of Quebec, they are expected to pay taxes. The widespread bootlegging of kosher wines in Outremont and Mile-End, sections of Montreal with large Hasidic communities, are nothing more and nothing less than illegal tax-evasion operations. There is nothing anti-Semitic involved, but there sure is something that foments resentment of Jews…

What a strange essay. It seems to me it offers a defense, justification really, of antisemitism. e.g.
“…conspicuous bad behavior by Jews both before and during Prohibition certainly gave vile anti-Semitic oratory much traction.”
“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. ”

Many more examples.

1. All Jews? Babies? Senile old people? The whole problem with antisemitism (or any other bigotry) is that it conflates individual malefactors with the ethnic community from which they spring.

2. The author suggests that violating prohibition was immoral because
a. it is inherently wicked to drink alcohol. But see Malum prohibitum versus Malum in se.
b. it was wrong to sell alcohol to blacks.

A very interesting book no doubt but a very odd review.

Mildred bilt says:

Mr. Sucher seems to sweep Jewish history under the rug. He is gently lulled in the conviction that each individual is judged on his own merits. That may be the dictum for non-Jews but it doesn’t apply for Jews, African Americans or Moslems. Reality dictates that minorities are all judged by their worst members. Just a statistic to raise awareness of where we rate: 310 million people in the US-Jews constitute less than 6 million. Another unpleasantry; anti semitic incidents are increasing. It’s very dangerous to wrap oneself in the myth that Mr.Sucher propounds. The Jews of Germany also felt that they were recognized as true patriots who were fully accepted for their individual attributes and valuable contributions to their country. They were imbued with dedication to Deutchland. It would seem from lessons learned to heed the greatest lesson: haben acht. Watch, listen, keep your eyes open. We are ultimately vulnerable.

Bennett Muraskin says:

What is surprising is that most advocates of Prohibition did NOT use anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Their anti-immigration rhetoric did not target Jews and with so many Catholic immigrants entering the US, “Jew” was not synonymous with “immigrant.”

Jewish criminals were also the kingpings of the “white slave trade” bring mostly Jewish women from East Europe to South America for purposes of prostitution.

Simon DelMonte says:

Why were Jews given an exemption? Grape juice works for any use wine works for.

Personally, if I stuck with grape juice for kiddush, I’d be happy.

@ Mildred bilt

Just for the record: Obviously I did a bad job of writing or you did a bad job of reading.

Marty Janner says:

Coming from a neighborhood in Brooklyn, where many, were involved in criminal activity, these same people, were the ones that stood up physically, against the many oppressive anti-semitic activities of their Christian Neighbors.

At that time, it was impossible for a Jew to go to certain public beaches, Manhattan Beach, being one. The Dance Halls where many young people attended, was a no go, for Young Jews. Just walking down the street with a beard, one, would be accosted and intimidated! This was eliminated, by the actions of these young men, whom were of the criminal nature. This at that time, was done with their G-D given fists, no knives, no guns!

For many, it was impossible for them to get out of the Gang. They were challenged with death, because they just knew too much! My father was one, that was fortunate, he was able to get out, and lead a normal productive life. However he was the exception, due to his fighting ability.

This was the same group that ripped Capone, and told him, “never to set foot in Brooklyn”! Of course he went on to Chicago, where he became the Kingpin of Crime!

At 80 years of age, I fully understand what transpired, and the motivation of these individuals, and their reason for being what they were!


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Vigor Juice

Jews and Booze, a fascinating new history of Prohibition-era bootleggers, barmen, rabbis, and cops, picks up where HBO’s Boardwalk Empire leaves off