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.