As Woody Allen helpfully reminded us, man cannot live on bread alone; frequently, there must be a beverage. This is particularly true when December rolls in, bringing with it a host of reasons to drink, from celebrating divinely inspired miracles to commemorating the end of one calendar year and the beginning of another to overcoming the challenges of spending three or four days cooped up with family members and their familiar anxieties.
But what to drink? The gentiles, of course, have their traditional toast, the venerable eggnog, a terrible option for those of us for whom the very thought of lactose raises both figurative and literal bile. Just in time for the holidays, then, comes a sign from above: Belvedere Vodka, the world’s first super-premium vodka, has recently received the Orthodox Union’s kosher certification, making it a great choice for those chilly Hanukkah nights in need of just a touch of levity.
It’s not just the smoothness and the lively rye flavor: Poland’s leading vodka brand, Belvedere is a reminder that Polish Jews have always had a long and spirited history with the beverage. Study the census of Polish Jews in 1764-1765, for example, and you’ll see that an overwhelming 80 percent of Jews living in villages, and 14 percent of those living in cities and towns, were employed as tavern keepers.
This occupational designation, favored by the authorities as a way to keep the lucrative liquor trade stable by handing it off to a fragile minority, was not without its perils. Often, having consumed their fair share of shots, the local clientele would turn their ire toward the poor men and women behind the bar, showering them with invective. And Jews, in turn, composed a host of ditties that portray their gentile neighbors as drunks and themselves as pious teetotalers.
Thankfully, the reality is more nuanced and more pleasurable. Many are the documented cases of a Yankel or a Shlomo or a Moishe coming home late with good cheer. Still, the myth of the sober Jew has persisted for centuries, hardening into stereotype.
It’s time to bid it farewell. Whatever the historical complexities of Jews and booze, we should also remember that vodka served as much as a lubricant for social relations between Jews and their neighbors as it did anything else, and celebrate it with a cocktail.
Why, then, not turn to vodka for a new holiday tradition? It’s not as far-fetched as it may sound. Several of our Hanukkah customs are already derived from historical Jewish life, particularly in Poland. Gelt, for example, those foil-covered chocolate coins that are staples of the holiday, come to us from 17th-century Poland, where Jewish parents were in the habit of giving their children coins to tip their teachers each holiday season. The children, nobody’s fools, eventually asked for a coin or two to keep for themselves; observing this tradition, a crafty American chocolate maker decided, early on in the 20th century, to produce a version of the customary Hanukkah payoff made not of gold but of cocoa and sugar, giving generations of American Jews a beloved treat.
We could easily reclaim vodka in much the same way. For one thing, several Jewish holidays already command us to drink copiously, from the four requisite cups of Passover to Purim’s exhortation to drink until we can’t tell the difference between blessed Mordechai and cursed Haman. Hanukkah, heavy on fried foods, could use a strengthening in the beverage department, and parents might appreciate the opportunity to sip on a cold drink while their children argue over who’s winning at dreidel. But even beyond the point of utility, welcoming vodka onto our Hanukkah table is one more way of reminding ourselves that Jewish life back in the old countries from which so many of our ancestors hailed was not only the series of sepia-toned images we imagine when we think of life in the shtetl. In taverns and in homes, Jews drank and fraternized, hopeful and cheerful even—or especially—while facing prejudice and persecution. A celebration already dedicated to Jewish survival would only be enhanced by a historical reminder of our perseverance, especially when it is not merely symbolic but literally the manifestation of the pursuit, tavern keeping, that kept so many Jews alive.
With terrific Polish kosher vodka now available, as evidenced by Belvedere’s recent designation, it’s time to give Hanukkah the makeover it so dearly needs. We’ve already outdone our neighbors by offering eight nights of presents rather than one; swap that milky, eggy concoction with a perfectly distilled shot, and you’ve a celebration that can’t be beat.