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Jews and Booze in the Kingdom of Poland

The Friday Review of Books

Liel Leibovitz
December 06, 2013

One of the central tragedies of our lives is that there are more books out there than we’d ever have time to read. But we’re not going gently into that good night: Each Friday, Liel Leibovitz will be reviewing a title lost in the never-ending book pile, robbed of well-merited attention, or deserving of a second look.

Haim Nachman Bialik, Israel’s national poet, wrote many stirring lines of verse, but for any Jew deeply enamored of alcohol, few are more potent than his recollection of life in the tavern run by his father. “Silently I stood between his knees, my eyes hanging on his lips,” goes the poem, “Drunks rumbled around and drinkers sated themselves amid vomit,/ Monstrous faces corrupted and tongues flowing with invectives.” The father, however, is unmoved by the hellish scene, and whispers to his child “Torah and prayer and words of the living God” as he pours another thimbleful of vodka.

The sacred, the profane, and the 45-percent proof are at the heart of Glenn Dynner’s new book, Yankel’s Tavern: Jews, Liquor, and Life in the Kingdom of Poland. Like all fine scholarly work, this slim volume contains multitudes. For those enamored with the historicity of Polish Jews, the book offers a fascinating alternative to the recent emphasis on what Dynner calls “secularizing, urban, cosmopolitan types”; drawn from recently revealed archival materials, Dynner’s barkeeps often seem as if they’d emerged from the mists of our collective memories, smart and tough and pious men who dispense wisdom, loans, and shots of the strongest stuff. The same sources, deftly combed and analyzed, also prove that the Polish crackdown on Jewish tavern-keeping, fueled by anti-Semitism and informed by the worst of stereotypes, was far from successful: the local nobility, which owned the taverns, often helped the Jewish proprietors at the employ evade the official decree and keep their institutions alive.

And it’s in the descriptions of life in these taverns that the lay reader will find the greatest pleasure. The accounts Dynner collected are varied, and his selections demonstrate a keen ear for the great turn of phrase. On one of his travels, for example, the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham came across a tavern and was appalled by what he saw; leaving his attendant “to bask in the straw inhaling the fumes of Judaism,” he spent the night shivering in his carriage. Others were more kind: a transcript of a conversation between the Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz and his non-Jewish coachman reveals the begrudging admiration the tavern’s patrons often felt toward the bearded men on the other side of the bar. “He’s a good man,” the coachman says of Moshke, who runs the local tavern, “a jack-of-all-trades: first aid, medicine, law. He knows everything, and he does business everywhere.”

Such observations, of course, are never free of prejudices, and Dynner points them all out, from the myth of perpetual Jewish sobriety (often false) to the fear that the Jewish tavern keepers were secretly spies (sometimes true). By choosing the lively tavern as his focal point, these otherwise abstract debates, still very relevant to us today, come roaring to life.

Check out the rest of the reviews here.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.