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Rabbi Wolpe’s Picks: Revisiting Prohibition

The role of Jewish bootleggers and the struggle for cultural acceptance

David Wolpe
November 15, 2013

Rabbi David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters. In a new Scroll series, Wolpe will examine a work of Jewish scholarship, either contemporary or classic, which has relevance for modern Jewish life.

Isaac Wolf Bernheim came to the United States with $18 in his pocket. He became one of the wealthiest men in Louisville, a local civic leader and a significant figure in national Jewish life. How does a poor Jewish boy become such a success? Bernheim did it by distilling whiskey. “If I had to choose my occupation over again, I should prefer to engage in some other line of trade,” he wrote in his memoirs, “but we are all creatures of circumstance.

“Jews don’t drink.” By now we all know that is not true. Not only do Jews drink, but they sell liquor. Always have, in fact—even in bootlegging days—and also generally opposed Prohibition. As Marni Davis shows in her deeply researched and often surprising book, Jews and Booze—a 2014 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature nominee—the relationship of Jews to alcohol in America is complicated indeed.

Allen Nadler reviewed the book for Tablet when it came out in 2012:

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 sinceThe Sopranos and to the recent PBS airing of Ken Burns’ documentary Prohibition.

Davis’ book is foremost the history of Jews during Prohibition, but there is also much revealed about the larger narrative of Jews in America. Telling her story from the late 19th century on, Davis traces Jews’ growing presence in the alcohol trade and their negative reaction to temperance and Prohibition. On the one hand, famous sermonizers like Isaac Mayer Wise insisted that the values of the temperance movement—sobriety, decency, family stability—were enshrined in Judaism. Jews who were eager to be seen as ‘solid citizens’ endorsed the general sense that alcohol had destructive capacities and had to be severely moderated. The familiar image of Kiddush wine was invoked repeatedly to prove that Jews could drink in moderation and that alcohol had a modest, sacramental role.

But Prohibition struck most Jews as inherently dangerous. Insisting that people not drink aroused the deep suspicion of attempts to control social behavior based on Christian principles. As Wise wrote: “If religion and prayer are abused to wage war on liquor today, they may be abused to-morrow, on the same principle precisely, to persecute … Freemasons, Catholics, foreigners, infidels or anyone who … does not conform to vulgar prejudices.”

If you hear the faint creak of a balancing act, trust your ears. Davis explains that Jews both needed to prove they were sober and respectable and defend their right to sell booze. Alcohol was not incidental; on Atlanta’s Decatur Street, “the most common occupation by far was saloonkeeper…by 1925…Jewish immigrants constituted half the saloonkeepers on the strip.” Jews made up less than five percent of the population and 50 percent of the saloonkeepers.

As you might expect, such involvement with alcohol and resistance to Prohibition evoked anti-Semitic imprecations. Jews were accused of intent to ‘dominate’ and seek ‘mastery’ of the liquor business; after all it was well known that there was an “unscrupulous type of Jewish mind.” Still Davis puts the reaction in proportion: “Compared to Jews’ experience in Europe, American anti-Semitism, while alienating and upsetting, interfered only minimally with the Jews’ ability to conduct their businesses.”

Jews and Booze brings us inside Jewish organizations and entrepreneurs, but also widens the camera angle to include the social tumult generated by Prohibition in America. Ultimately the Jewish struggle for acceptance was less a consequence of Jewish action than social conditions: the end of Prohibition meant that Jews could sell without the taint of moral corruption.

Studded with intriguing facts (did you know that the Magen David was also the symbol of the medieval brewers guild? That Rothschild joined European Zionists to form the Carmel wine company? That the original Manischewitz was a Rabbi?) and retailing familiar tropes—“Marriages within the whiskey industry facilitated the creation and enhancement of business partnerships”—Jews and Booze is an intriguing look into a sidelight of Jewish history that illuminates the main events.

Follow along with the Rabbi Wolpe’s Picks here.

David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and is the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiWolpe

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