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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)

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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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

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