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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

Allan Nadler
February 07, 2012
Library of Congress
Izzy Einstein (left) and Moe Smith sharing a toast in a New York bar, 1935.Library of Congress
Library of Congress
Izzy Einstein (left) and Moe Smith sharing a toast in a New York bar, 1935.Library of Congress

A devoutly puritanical FBI agent and his Jewish partner, staking out a suspected marine bootlegging operation, stumble instead onto a rural black church’s river baptism ceremony. The Christian agent, Nelson Van Alden, whose monomaniacal enforcement of Prohibition is animated by evangelical zeal, ends up drowning his Jewish partner, Eric Sebso, after calling him into the river to be baptized in the presence of the stunned members of the Shiloh Baptist Church. This spectacle of a Christian government agent enforcing the 18th Amendment to the American Constitution by cleansing a Jew of his perceived sins by murdering him in a primal act of religious fanaticism—Van Alden forcibly holds the struggling Sebso’s head under water for what seems like an eternity while incanting Christian liturgical promises of eternity—is horrifying. It is, thankfully, also fictional, one of numerous sensational scenes featuring Jews, crime, and violent death from the first season of HBO’s hit series, Boardwalk Empire.

Prohibition—the catastrophically misguided national experiment with legally enforced temperance that began with the ratification of the 18th Amendment (commonly known as the Volstead Act) in October 1919 and ended with its repeal in December 1933—has been brought back to life brilliantly over the past two years by Boardwalk Empire. While its main protagonist is the corrupt Prohibition-era gentile treasurer of Atlantic City, Nucky Thompson (based on the historical crime boss, Enoch L. Johnson), numerous colorful Jewish characters, both historical and fictional, have played prominent roles in the series. Given the notoriety of Jewish bootleggers and gangsters during the Roaring Twenties, this should come as little surprise.

The baptismal murder of Agent Sebso, together with other scenes featuring Jews, illuminates important undercurrents to Prohibition that historians have not adequately explored. Among them are the disproportionate presence of Jews in the alcohol trade, bootlegging, and organized crime, as well as the major roles played by puritanical Protestantism, anti-immigration nativism, and blatant anti-Semitism in advancing and reinforcing America’s temperance laws. There were countless Prohibitionists who, like the fictional Van Alden, believed that for Prohibition to prevail, not only did the demon of alcohol need to be vanquished, but its Jewish manufacturers and purveyors needed to be purged as well.

The appearance, so soon after the conclusion of the second season of Boardwalk Empire, of Marni Davis’ new history, Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition, is just short of providential. This fascinating, academically sophisticated, and superbly written exposition of the intricate, often precarious, role that Jews played in every aspect of the American alcohol industry—from production in industrial stills to retail sale in bars and speakeasies across the land, and finally to bootlegging, a crime that created the fortunes of some of North America’s most prominent Jewish philanthropic families—turns out to be a wonderful historical companion to HBO’s most explosive series since The Sopranos and to the recent PBS airing of Ken Burns’ documentary Prohibition. More important, Jews and Booze is a major contribution to the economic history of the Jews in the United States. The book also offers an original and rich exposition of the social and political importance of alcohol—particularly the puritanical fear and loathing of it—in the development of anti-immigration and anti-Semitic sentiments in late 19th- and early 20th-century America.

While Sebso, the fictional Jewish FBI agent, is depicted in the series as half-hearted, inept, and ultimately corruptible, Davis’ study brings back to life the amazing career of the colorful, and incredibly successful, Jewish enforcer of the dry laws, agent Izzy Einstein, whose astonishing record—4,932 arrests in five years, with a 95 percent conviction rate—made him by far the most prolific agent of the Prohibition era. Described by Time magazine as a “fat little Austrian Jew,” Einstein, together with his partner Moe Smith, employed a large and comical array of contrivances—from blackface to drag—to enforce the law, all wonderfully culled by Davis from Einstein’s sensational autobiography, Prohibition Agent No. 1.

The narrative arc of Jews and Booze is astutely limited, beginning with the rapid rise of Jews in the American whiskey trade in the late 19th century to the repeal of the Volstead Act in 1933. The establishment of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in 1874 serves Davis well as an opening point of reference in her exploration of the inherent tensions between the puritanically motivated advocates of a “dry” America and American Jews’ cultural values, political convictions, and economic interests. Davis competently, if at times too superficially, records the religious role played by wine in the practice of many of Judaism’s rituals, as well as the historical involvement of European Jews in wine production and the liquor trade going back almost a millennium, from medieval Franco-Germany to the late 19th-century Russian Empire. This deep historical Jewish involvement with alcohol combined with liberal modern Jewish political sensibilities, especially American Jews’ dual commitments to both religion-state separation and free-market enterprise, did not sit easily with the Prohibitionists’ deeply conservative agenda of Christianizing America. Davis makes it obvious why Jews—as a vulnerable immigrant group and religious minority, as adherents of a religion whose rituals require the use of wine, and as a community with a highly disproportionate representation in the alcohol trade—aligned themselves with the “wets” in their decades-long battle to keep alcohol legal and available.

The book’s first half focuses on the surprisingly prominent role played by Jewish immigrants to America in the production, wholesale distribution, and retail dispensation of alcohol, all across the land, from the industrial stills of Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Illinois to the barrooms of crowded, lower-class neighborhoods of America’s major cities, from Atlanta and Charleston to Manhattan’s Lower East Side and Newark’s Third Ward. Davis’ depiction of the numerous alcohol industrialists from among American Reform Judaism’s leading philanthropists during its initial period of development in the United States is particularly rich. That the fortunes made by Jewish whiskey distillers—particularly in Cincinnati, home to this day of the world Reform movement’s flagship rabbinical seminary, the Hebrew Union College of America—endowed some of the country’s most important institutions of Jewish higher learning, including the greatest Judaica research library in the Diaspora, is illustrative of how respectable the alcohol industry was before the agitations for temperance by evangelical Christian polemicists began to take root in the final decade of the 19th century.

Davis culls from the sermons of America’s most distinguished Orthodox and Reform rabbis, such as Marcus Jastrow and Isaac Mayer Wise, in fashioning a compelling portrait of the regnant Jewish position in the increasingly heated political debates about alcohol regulation. The title of her chapter on Jewish attitudes to alcohol during the pre-Prohibition period, “Do As We Israelites Do” (a quotation from an essay by Rabbi Jastrow), succinctly captures that position, namely that alcohol ought to remain legal and widely available, while those who partake of it should practice moderation, as the Jews have done from time immemorial.

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.”

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.

Allan Nadler, a professor of religious studies and director of the program in Jewish Studies at Drew University, is currently a visiting professor of Jewish Studies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.