Jews and Booze, a fascinating new history of Prohibition-era bootleggers, barmen, rabbis, and cops, picks up where HBO’s Boardwalk Empire leaves off
While vile and inexcusable, the anger of Protestant preachers such as John Cawhern at the “flat heeled, flat nosed, course-haired, cross-eyed slew-footed Russian Jew Whiskey vendors whom the old Georgia politicians have licensed to poison our boys” was not entirely without cause. Cawhern surely went too far in his complaints about Jewish commercial unscrupulousness in writing that “commercialism controlled by these pagan devils called Jews has wrought its curse to American patriots … with no Christ, no conscience, no hope of heaven nor care for Christian manhood and civilization.” Still, conspicuous bad behavior by Jews both before and during Prohibition certainly gave vile anti-Semitic oratory much traction.
Davis is at pains to point out that Protestant white Americans’ anxieties about alcohol had diverse political and ideological repercussions:
The Jew saloon was seen as a symptom of mass immigration. Angry and anxious accusations against immigrant saloonkeepers, Jewish or otherwise, were expressions of worry about the relationship between immigration, alcohol and crime in American cities.
Once Prohibition became law, the behavior of Jewish alcohol merchants became not only illegal, but far more egregious. That the single largest provider of illegal foreign alcohol was also the most prominent Jewish community leader and philanthropist in Canada, Samuel Bronfman (founder of Seagram’s) was not lost on America’s nativists and anti-Semites. So prolific was the Bronfman bootlegging enterprise, a trade that involved America’s most notorious Jewish gangsters, that Lake Erie, the major marine route for Seagram’s bootlegged products, earned the moniker “Jew-Lake.”
And then there was the truly shameful “Sacramental Wine Scandal” that involved the abuse of Section 6, the exemption written into the 18th Amendment that allowed for the consumption of wine by Jews and Catholics for religious ceremonies, by scores of American Orthodox rabbis, as well as dozens of bootleggers pretending to be rabbis. Attempts to regulate this exemption were spectacular failures. As Davis notes:
Violation of Section 6 was often as flagrant and egregious as could be. “Rabbis” (some of whom were not in fact Jewish) claimed new and enormous congregations filled with members named Houlihan and Maguire. Real Rabbis requested wine on behalf of fictitious or long-dead congregants, or sold their legitimately acquired wine permits to bootleggers. The sacramental dispensation also made available a far wider variety of alcoholic beverages than is traditionally present in Jewish practice. The Prohibition agent Izzy Einstein claimed to have busted numerous rabbis (and “rabbis”) dispensing “sacramental” sherry and vermouth. Rabbi Jerome Mark of Knoxville, Tennessee complained that a local Jew has “assumed my name as an aid to peddling moonshine corn and mountain-juice.”
Even at the depths of its disrepute, with new scandals emerging regularly, Rabbi Moses Zevulun Margulies, who was crowned “dean of the American rabbinate” by his Modern Orthodox devotees—and after whose acronym, RaMaZ, Manhattan’s poshest Jewish Day School is named—lobbied strenuously with government officials and FBI agents to secure a total monopoly of the tremendously lucrative Sacramental Wine trade for the organization he founded and served as president, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada. This brought him into serious conflict with the Haredi Agudat Ha-Rabonim and dozens of his rabbinical peers.
So, while American Jews’ remarkable early successes in the alcohol industry served them well as an entrée into respectable society, and while America’s leading distillers played prominent philanthropic roles in Jewish communities across the land, by the turn of the 20th century the image of the Jewish alcohol magnate had been seriously sullied. By the time temperance became the law of the land, Jewish opposition to Prohibition had become far less unanimous. Widespread abuses, mainly by Orthodox rabbis, of exemptions granted to Jews with the noble intention of protecting their religious liberties proved terribly embarrassing to liberal American Jews.
The extent of the reversal of reputation, if not always of fortune, suffered by American Jewish alcohol distillers and distributors is most vividly captured by contrasting the postures struck by the two greatest leaders of American Reform Judaism, two rabbis both named Wise. Isaac Mayer Wise’s passionate opposition to Prohibition in the late 19th century ultimately gave way to Rabbi Stephen S. Wise’s outspoken defense of the 18th amendment, documented by Davis. In a widely publicized address, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise wrote:
The Jew has been temperate, but he has been cold to Prohibition. The tender and precious memories which wine plays in the religious life in his home and synagogue account for his passive attitude. But no fundamental rights of life and liberty are endangered by Prohibition, and the Jewish attitude must become one of active opposition to alcohol. Always a moral pioneer, the Jew must not in this case be a moral laggard. Not to prohibit the use of liquor is to sanction it.
Wise’s position ultimately became that of the American Jewish establishment, as Jewish leaders from Louis Marshall to Judge Felix Frankfurter, leading rabbinical scholars such as Louis Ginzberg, and the members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis all came out in support of Prohibition and ruled that unfermented grape juice replace wine in Jewish ritual ceremonies.
The Prohibition era is a distant one that most Americans understandably prefer to forget. This is precisely why Davis’ superb study is so valuable, if only to remind us of the many complex lessons—not least for Jews—of this unique chapter of American history. Alas, even in our era, when alcohol is legal and kosher wine is available in greater assortment than ever before, Orthodox bootleggers continue to operate all over North America, if only to evade the government taxes levied on the sale of liquor. 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. The scandals that will result from their inevitable discovery lends credence to the old warning about the consequences to those who forget their history.
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