If you think anti-vaxxers are fierce, you haven’t encountered the temperance advocates of yesteryear. Unshakable in their belief, sustained by “torrents of speech, of statistics and excited proof,” that alcohol was bad for the body, the soul, and the state of the union, they sought its elimination—and, for a number of years between 1919 and 1933, succeeded: The 18th Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors into the United States was their handiwork.
With its roots in Christian evangelicalism of the 19th century, the temperance movement grew shriller and shriller over time, supplanting its initial call for moderation and restraint with an insistence on criminalizing both those who enjoyed and those who made a living from the fruit of the vine and the wheat field.
Here is where America’s Jews come into the story, rendering this chapter as much a part of Jewish history as of American history. A hefty proportion—by some accounts as much as 25%—of those involved in the distilling, blending, wholesaling, and distribution of whiskey in Louisville, Kentucky, and Cincinnati, Ohio, two of the major hubs of the distilled liquor business in the United States, were Jews. As historian Marni Davis vividly recounts in her book Jews and Booze, the “whisky industry in particular proved most attractive” to German Jewish immigrants and their descendants, many of whom went on to become leaders of their respective Jewish communities.
Willy-nilly, then, the “temperance question” became a “Jewish question,” a matter of pressing concern for the American Jewish community at large. Even though Miss Frances Willard, the formidable head of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, a powerhouse of an organization with hundreds of thousands of dues-paying members, had made overtures to “the Hebrews,” inviting them to join its ranks, many of their number felt that Americans who, like Willard and her followers, practiced “abstinence as a religion” had it in for them.
But, and it’s a big one, unlike other moral reform campaigns of the modern era such as animal rights, temperance didn’t anathematize Judaism per se as much as individual Jews. Its animus was directed against the manufacturers of “spirituous liquor” who happened to be Jewish, not against the theological beliefs they might have held or the rituals they practiced such as downing four cups of wine at the Seder or ushering in, and celebrating, the Sabbath with Kiddush (the benediction over wine).
Besides, as those intimately familiar with Jewish life liked to point out, Jews were known to drink in moderation, not to excess. Among them, drunkenness was an anomaly rather than a feature of daily life. The “practical tenor” of Jewish life and with it, the cultivation of a “wise moderation in all things,” proudly declared Esther Jane Ruskay in Hearth and Home Essays, her 1901 celebration of American Jewish domesticity, kept Demon Rum and its counterparts at bay. In a chapter titled “Sobriety in Jewish Life,” crafted to keep the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union equally at bay, she insisted that the contemporary Jew lived a “temperate, well-ordered life, with none of the evils and none of the fears of this modern age to puzzle or to threaten him.” So there!
Despite Ruskay’s reassuring language, American Jews at the grassroots as well as those businessmen and their families caught in the crosshairs of temperance’s “Blue Ribbon,” women found the distinction between Jews and Judaism of small comfort. From their perspective, born of history, the targeting of people whose last name was Bernheim, Block, or Freiberg was tantamount to targeting all Jews as well as their values.
For some of American Jewry’s cultural custodians, however, the distinction between Judaism and Jews, between history and sociology, mattered a great deal, freeing them to assail temperance on entirely new grounds: as a threat to civil liberties. Cautioning against the potential erosion of the boundaries that separated church and state were abstinence to become the law of the land, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, among others, redefined—and broadened—the terms of the discourse around drinking.
In an impassioned, prescient address given in the 1870s before the Friends of Inquiry, a Cincinnati civic association, the Reform Jewish leader set forth a litany of reasons as to why temperance was wrongheaded and ill-advised. It wasn’t just that teetotalers sought to be “more orthodox than Jesus and his apostles,” or that temperance was a movement spearheaded by women, fueled by their unruly emotions and hence to be eschewed. (“We must refuse to be governed by them,” or to give in to “female dictation,” Wise wrote.)
What troubled him even more was the assumption on which temperance was based. Chafing at the prospect of prohibiting drinking simply because it opened the door to excess, Wise wondered, “is there anything in his wide universe, however blessed and necessary, that cannot be abused?” Should we outlaw money, say, because it “makes rogues of honest men?”
Warming to his topic, he then got down to the heart of the matter by highlighting the slippery slope on which temperance rested. “If religion and prayer are abused to wage war on liquor to-day, they may be abused to-morrow on the same principle precisely, to persecute and pray out of their houses and homes, Freemasons, Catholics, foreigners, infidels, or anybody who is not fashionable.” Lest his longwindedness get in the way, Wise put the matter even more succinctly: “The abuse of religion and prayer,” he predicted, “is worse than the abuse of liquor.”
And that was just for starters. Drawing on language that is just as timely today as it was nearly 150 years ago, the American Jewish leader concluded that
If the passions may be ignited with impunity to override and defy the law and the Constitution … we stand at the brink of lawless despotism and the gates are ajar for all sorts of violence and persecution, oppression and destruction of all personal rights.
His multipronged message hit home. “Asked for by many,” it was subsequently published as a pamphlet and widely advertised within the pages of the American Israelite.
The rabbi’s response to temperance was not without its flaws. Its hostility to women now seems jarring, disturbing, and misplaced; one wonders how the ranks of his many female supporters took to it. (Reading this in 2022 made me cringe.) More glaring still was the proverbial elephant in the room—the absence of any references to the investment which so many American Jews, especially his own congregants, had in the liquor business. That economic interests, not just moral and ethical ones, may well have lubricated Wise’s fulminations is hardly a stretch.
And yet, despite its limitations, his cautionary perspective made clear that a lot more was at stake than a nightly tipple. Wise’s message was stark and hard to miss: When the line between church and state is blurred, let alone crossed, Lord knows where America’s Jews might find themselves.
Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.