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How I Learned To Drink

Long before I discovered Bloody Marys and martinis, I loved Manischewitz Concord grape wine

Daphne Merkin
September 14, 2012
Photoillustration Ivy Tashlik; original photos Shutterstock
Photoillustration Ivy Tashlik; original photos Shutterstock
Photoillustration Ivy Tashlik; original photos Shutterstock
Photoillustration Ivy Tashlik; original photos Shutterstock

I can still remember with resounding clarity all these years later the note of horror in my mother’s voice the first time she called me and I sounded audibly drunk. I must have been in my early 20s, I was living in a dark little apartment all the way over on the less genteel reaches of the Upper East Side, and had come home after an evening in which much alcohol had been imbibed. I was delighting in the feeling that being drunk gave me—that floaty, nothing-can-get-at-you sensation of being freed from the usual confines of your mind. I was happy being drunk, and I suppose this—as much as the fact that I was slurring my words—is what took my mother aback.

“You sound drunk,” she said, in a tone heavy with accusation.

“Really?” I said. “I think I am.”

There was silence for a moment, reverberating across the wire like a scream.

“Daphne,” she said. “Jews don’t drink.”

It was a statement, not an implicit question, a categorical imperative born of ethnic pride and a hierarchical sense of differentiation: Jews don’t drink. It was something other people—goyim, to be exact—did, to their detriment. It was something people like us didn’t do, to our betterment.

True, there was Purim, the one holiday when Jews were encouraged to drink to the point of muddledness—until they could no longer distinguish between the heroes and the villains of the Purim story, between the phrases “arur Haman” (cursed is Haman) and “baruch Mordechai” (blessed is Mordechai). And there was the 3-week period beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Simchat Torah in which wine featured in a more consistent way than it did at any other time of year: Wine was served with yontif dinner and lunch, as it was on Shabbos, to fulfill the kiddush requirement but also as a festive touch; it was almost as if we were briefly transformed into French folk who didn’t consider a meal complete without an accompanying glass of wine. It always surprised me that we didn’t incorporate wine into our weekday meals after its being in such regular attendance throughout the yontif lineup, but as soon as they were over, it went back to putting in an appearance on Shabbos only, leaving those few holidays as the exceptions in a largely teetotaling religion.

No, to drink was to fall out of Jewishness into a sea of unruly impulses and ungovernable behavior. Who knew what I might take up next?

I grew up in a religiously observant home, one where the laws of kashrut and Shabbos were rigorously adhered to and cocktails were unheard of. We ate something called Smokey Bear cookies instead of Oreos, for instance, because Nabisco didn’t specify vegetable oil in their ingredients and there was the chance Oreos contained animal fat. In the 24-hour period from Friday night to Saturday night when Shabbos ended, we didn’t use electricity—no phones, no lights, no TV or music. Friday night was the one night the family in its entirety—my parents and the six of us kids—sat down to eat together; the rest of the week my parents ate on their own in the dining room while my siblings and I had dinner in the kitchen. It was an odd, slightly upstairs/downstairs arrangement, true to the Victorian coloration of our family life, but it highlighted the totemic significance of those Friday night dinners.

The table was always beautifully set—my mother was stronger on aesthetics than she was on providing a feeling of familial warmth—with a linen tablecloth and napkins, flowers, good china and stemware; the last included matched water glasses and wine glasses. The chandelier glistened, the sterling silver cutlery and candlesticks gleamed, and the very atmosphere seemed to shimmer with anticipation. The kiddush benediction my father made before the meal called for the first introduction of booze into our weekly menu. This took the form of a bottle of Manischewitz when I was very young, although in later years when the manufacture of kosher wines came into its own we moved on to the more sophisticated Israeli label of Carmel, which in turn was succeeded by other labels like Yarden and Kedem.

Man O Manischewitz! What a Wine! That’s how the tag line of the TV and radio commercials for this generic wine went, blunt as could be. I liked everything about Manischewitz’s Concord grape wine, from its deep burgundy color to its cloyingly sweet taste—like a heightened, fermented form of grape juice. I liked that you didn’t have to get used to it, the way you had to work your way into a fondness for other adult libations, from Scotch to coffee. Its taste was immediately appealing, whether served up in little white paper cups at a synagogue kiddush after morning services on Saturday or in a large silver goblet that was passed around for everyone to take a sip from at the dinner table. I even liked the definitive stains it used to leave on everything, from the tablecloth to my best Shabbos dresses, letting you know of its presence.

Jewish laws around wine and wine-making are complex, having been refined and codified over centuries by the rabbinate so as to ensure maximal sanctity for this beverage. The regulations governing kosher wine basically stem from a fear of drinking leading to a letting down of the guard between Jews and non-Jews (and from there leading to a breaking of the taboo against intermarriage). Accordingly, my family’s non-Jewish help weren’t allowed to handle the wine bottles; these were always taken out of the fridge and placed on the table inside a silver container by my mother. (The exception to this rule is wine that is boiled, called “yayin mevushal,” which can be served by non-Jews.) I eventually moved on from Manischewitz and developed an affection for some of the lighter white wines, which were served on Friday night and again at Shabbos lunch. I don’t remember there ever being more than two bottles opened at a single meal, which suggests very restrained amounts were imbibed since we were a large family and there were usual several guests in attendance as well.

There were a few other times of the year when wine was featured at meals, mostly having to do with Jewish holidays major and minor, ranging from Rosh Hashanah to Shavuot. The Passover Seder, of course, called for drinking four full cups of wine over its duration, but I remember many of our guests opting for grape juice after the first two cups, fearful of the stupefying effects too much wine would have on them. There was one regular Seder guest, my mother’s close friend Hilde, who would barrel her way through the four cups of wine with great application; she would invariably end up a bit tipsy at the Seder’s end, much to my mother’s visible annoyance. Indeed, I think of Hilde to this day as one of the few robust drinkers among my parents’ acquaintance but I’m sure she only appears to me in this light by contrast to the feeble level of inebriation around her.

There was also one dessert on my mother’s very repetitive Shabbos menus—written down by her on white notepads every week for our cook, the faithful Iva, to put into effect—that was memorable for me in part because it called for a splash of alcohol. The dessert was a very good, nondairy chocolate mousse, made with egg whites rather than heavy cream, and the liquid in question was Schnapps. I always thought Schnapps referred to a particularly potent kind of German liquor but have just discovered, after looking it up on Google, that in fact, although German in origin, Schnapps “can refer to any strong alcoholic drink” and that “its appearance and taste are the same as eau de vie.” Perhaps this explains why I had so much trouble locating a bottle of Schnapps when I tried to duplicate the chocolate mousse recipe as a young woman living on my own and insisted to various bewildered liquor-store owners that I was looking for a very specific drink.

The only other exceptions to Shabbos and holiday wine were the discreet bottles of liquor that were housed in a small wine cabinet that was built into one of the bookcases that lined my father’s study. This cabinet lit up when you opened it, to my childish delight, and usually contained one or two gift-wrapped bottles of wine cordials or Chivas Regal that had been brought by grateful dinner guests as well as a bottle or two of the plum brandy known as Slivovitz and the occasional bottle of whiskey or port. When my Belgian grandmother came for visits from Israel the collection expanded to include a bottle or two of Bols, the bright yellow eggnog drink she favored.

I suffered from insomnia as a young girl, and sometimes when I couldn’t fall asleep at night, my mother would pour me a shot of Slivovitz; I loved standing with her in the darkened study with just the illumination from the cabinet, having her all to myself, dawdling over my drink so as to delay going back to bed for as long as possible. This was my first—and only—exposure to the consolations of alcohol, but being the fairly compliant creature I was it never occurred to me when I became older to nip at the port, much less break into the liquor cabinet and have a serious go at its contents.

Then again, for the longest time, possibly because it was neither entirely prohibited nor explicitly embraced, the mind-altering potential of hard drinking didn’t present itself as all that enticing to me. This was in direct contrast to what I witnessed taking place during my daughter’s high-school years, when all the parents’ at her private girls’ school were up in arms lest a drop of alcohol be consumed at any social gathering. This zealously phobic attitude toward the dangers of drinking could only, I surmised, be the product of parental backgrounds where an alcoholic relative or two lurked in every other corner. At the Jewish day-school I attended throughout the ’60s and early ’70s, I remember discussions about sex and drugs but I don’t recall the perils of drinking ever coming up as a subject to be contended with.

My first serious encounter with the phenomenon known as cocktail hour came through literature rather than life—via the writings of O’Hara and Updike and Cheever, whose depictions of WASP suburban angst wouldn’t be complete without the clink of ice-cubes and the burbling sound of alcohol being poured in the background. It was through reading that I discovered the crucial, even sacrosanct place the rituals of drinking held in the American imagination, the ingenious way alcohol seemed to lubricate everything from onerous chitchat to self-conscious sexual advances. I also came to realize the tragic grip “the sorrows of gin,” to borrow the title from a Cheever story, exerted on those who succumbed to its baleful influence; I was sufficiently intrigued by the special lure it held for writers to seek out a book called The Thirsty Muse, about the destructive effect alcohol had on four American writers.

This familiarity remained largely theoretical, however, until my 20s, when I became friendly for the first time with people who actually observed the cocktail hour in its full regalia. These included my friend Beth Howe, whose parents were assimilated Jews to such an extent that Beth herself hadn’t been aware she was Jewish until high school. I would go to her parents’ spare modernist house in Rye for the weekend and be riveted when the afternoon drew close to the five or five-thirty hour and arrangements for pre-dinner drinks would begin with the setting out of cheese and peanuts in the living-room and the much deliberated-over selection of some piece of classical music.

We would gather, just the four of us (Beth was an only child) with drinks—generally wine, as I recall—in hand and settle in for a painstakingly impersonal conversation about some suitably cultural topic, be it books or art or the latest theater. I felt incredibly adult in a way I never felt in my parents’ home, but at the same time there was something discordant about the intimacy of the setting and the mellowing effect of the wine as it played out against the formalized tenor of our interaction. Here I had associated alcohol with forays into sloshy emotions and unwarranted confessions; indeed, I had thought that was partly its purpose, to unleash the previously confined Id into a room of no- longer-watchful superegos. Having drinks with Beth and her parents made me realize that you could enter the convivial realm of social drinking and still remain tight as a clam inside, that alcohol loosened you up only if you gave it your tacit permission to do so.

I would go on to be present at many more cocktail hours over the next three decades and learned that in the world outside Orthodox Judaism, Jews drank with gusto. I discovered that my own tolerance for alcohol, notwithstanding my mother’s cautionary remarks about the natural non-fit between Jews and drinking, was pretty high. There were a couple of years when I worked in publishing during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that I regularly downed two or three Bloody Marys before lunch was served but I don’t remember ever feeling more than a tiny bit overrun; certainly I never had any problem going back to the office after lunch and continuing where I had left off.

I eventually counted two bona fide alcoholics among my friends: one an Irish woman writer who thought nothing of gulping down a glass of whiskey with her breakfast, and the other a radio personality who required that I carry his preferred brand of Scotch in my nearly nonexistent wine cabinet for when he came over. Nowadays there is a staggering variety of kosher wines, both domestic and imported, to choose from, should one wish to. And although it’s not something I’d readily admit to among the wine-snobs I know, the truth is that despite my more contemporary affinity for Rieslings from Alsace and Sancerres from the Loire Valley I have never lost my love for Manischewitz. Unrefined and oft-ridiculed, it’s still the softest hard drink I know, redolent with memory and pure grapey pleasure.

This essay is adapted from Drinking Diaries: Women Serve Their Stories Straight Up, edited by Caren Osten Gerszberg and Leah Odze Epstein.

Daphne Merkin, a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and a contributor to the TLS, The Times Book Review, Bookforum, and Departures, teaches writing at Columbia University. Her latest novel,Twenty-Two Minutes of Unconditional Love, will be out in June, 2020.