(Page 2 of 2)
Jews and booze have gone hand in hand since the beginning of the Diaspora. Although she admits that data on early American Jewish occupations is hard to find, Davis nonetheless manages a well-documented history of Jews in the distilling and liquor wholesaling industries, an area of economic activity that apparently has barely been studied. Davis concludes that in the 19th century the liquor business provided Jews an entrée into American life — especially through whiskey, which was (and still is) seen as an unambiguously American product. Successful distillers became prominent, valued members of their communities (Davis notes that the trade publication Bonfort’s Wine and Spirit Circular often included a little Yiddish for its readers) at the same time that business networks and in-group hiring strengthened Jewish communities within the trade.
When a second wave of Jewish immigrants arrived between 1880 and 1920, many of these also turned to the liquor business. Now, though, attitudes toward both immigrants and alcohol were in decline throughout the country. “Jews became a symbol, a stand-in for complex and discomfiting socioeconomic dynamics,” Davis writes. For Prohibitionists, “characterizing these changes as a conspiracy hatched by Jewish capitalists and middlemen was a way to regain some amount of comprehension and control.” This rhetoric cast the Jewish liquor producers, wholesalers, distillers and saloon keepers as villains, creating a new set of loathsome Jewish stereotypes. What was once a source of pride as a defense of personal liberty was made to seem downright un-American.
Jewish bootlegging during Prohibition only worsened this tendency: Davis quotes a Baltimorean reader of the Jewish Times who after hearing in 1923 that the city had jailed 35 Jewish bootleggers worried that this presented evidence that “a Jew is a law-breaker and one who does not care where he gets his money as long as he gets it.” Of course by then it was too late: To many, the fact that Jews routinely flouted the Volstead Act suggested that they were unpatriotic, or even that they intended to control America by controlling its booze (something that, given the amount of drinking going on at the time, didn’t seem unfeasible). That most Jews had always thought alcohol should be legal made these sorts of slurs especially hard to dismiss out of hand. In fact, Jewish leaders themselves were divided: Some believed that becoming fully American meant accepting the law as passed; others believed the law itself to be un-American; still others worried that the sacramental wine exception to the Volstead Act meant that they were held to different moral standards from those of the rest of the country. Davis, for her part, sees the fact that Jews participated in the illegal alcohol trade as evidence of acculturation, since “flouting of Prohibition law was practically a national pastime.”
In the end, Davis concludes, “Prohibitionist anti-Semitism had always been a manifestation of other anxieties.” Since Repeal, she writes, Jews have largely moved away from service and craft jobs and toward white-collar professions, and the “malevolent Jewish alcohol entrepreneur disappeared from the cast of American Jewish stereotypes.” Davis cites the kind of kitschy ethnic pride displayed by the beer “He’Brew” (marketed by Shmaltz Brewing Company under the slogan “The Chosen Beer, est. 5757 (1996)”) as evidence of how comfortable American Jews now are with their long past in the liquor trade. And drinking certainly no longer divides the country the way it once did. But as odd as such divisions now seem, “Jews and Booze” shows how early debates about alcohol shaped the American Jewish identity while it was in the process of being refined — both inside the Jewish community and by the country at large — and offers an unusual yet compelling perspective on what we might call its “distillation.”
Jenny Hendrix is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.