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!
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • 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.