Raising a Glass to America

How Jews Stayed in Good Spirits During Prohibition

One for the Road: Speakeasy patrons, notably both men and women (mixed drinking was one unintended consequence of Prohibition), offer a farewell toast.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
One for the Road: Speakeasy patrons, notably both men and women (mixed drinking was one unintended consequence of Prohibition), offer a farewell toast.

By Jenny Hendrix

Published January 24, 2012, issue of January 27, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition
By Marni Davis
NYU Press, 272 pages, $32

Sociologist Nathan Glazer has written that “a people’s relation to alcohol represents something very deep about it.” That this statement rings especially true for Jews is the premise of University of Georgia professor Marni Davis’s new book, “Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition.” As Davis explores the cultural meaning of alcohol in Jewish life at the turn of the century, and in the decades surrounding Prohibition, she doesn’t pass judgment on the motives of the anti-alcohol movement. Instead she focuses narrowly on the way debates over what Prohibitionists called “the sum of villainies” impacted the acculturation of Jewish immigrants and played a role in their “becoming American.” The book, while academic in tone and occasionally overburdened by data, is a comprehensive look at a little-discussed historical subject that can’t help but have a spring in its step.

The issue of Jewish acculturation in the 19th century was a thorny one. Group identity and a sense of distinctiveness were as much a part of the American Jewish experience as was the desire to be — and be seen as — a good American citizen. Alcohol, equally thorny at that time, exacerbated this tension as Prohibition created incompatibilities between the law of the land and Jewish religious law. Jews’ tendency to side with the “wets” unearthed deep-seated ambivalences over what it meant to assimilate.

Armed with a mass of archival information that’s rather dry for all its soggy subject matter, Davis reaches the broad conclusion that American Jews were opposed to the anti-alcohol movement from the start because they “sensed its underlying moral coercion and cultural intolerance.” She notes that Jews had a reputation as a historically temperate people whose upstanding American values made them “staunch defenders of the Constitution and champions of religious pluralism and political liberalism.”

Of course, liquor and simchas had always been part of the Jewish experience. Witness such joyful Yiddish hymns to mashke, liquor, as Davis cites:

Mir zenen nichter, mir zenen nichter (We are sober, we are sober)
Trukn iz bay undz in halz! (Our throats are parched!)
Git a bisl mashke, git a bisl mashke (Get a little liquor, get a little liquor)
Veln mir zingen bald! (And we’ll soon begin to sing!)

As much as such paeans to merriment enliven the book, red flags begin to rise when drinking songs meet with historical generalizations. Still, Davis is so evenhanded (one might venture to say sober) in her approach as to make this sort of conclusion inoffensive. Because, for instance, the temperance movement sought the Christianization of the American state, Jews would naturally have feared that it would imperil their equal status. So it makes sense that they should oppose Prohibition as much as advocates of a more tolerant and open politics as for the purposes of being able to sell and produce liquor — which, Davis finds, they did in spades.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.