Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition

New York University Press  2012

 
Jewish identity is the great theme of American Jewish historiography, and Marni Davis’s engrossing and well-written book belongs to this genre. It originated as a doctoral dissertation at Emory University under the direction of Eric Goldstein, whose own book, The Price of Whiteness, is a brilliant exploration of the theme of race and Jewish identity in the early twentieth century. Davis argues that Jewish participation in the alcohol business, a business disdained by much of the dominant Protestant population, “exacerbated the inherent and inevitable tensions” between the Jews’ efforts to blend into American culture and their efforts to stand apart from it. 

Alcohol was a significant element in the American Jewish economy. Some of the most important distillers were Jews, Jews were conspicuous in the wholesaling and retailing ends of the business, and several of the most prominent bootleggers were Jews. I. W. Harper bourbon whiskey and Rheingold were just two of the major alcohol products created by Jewish entrepreneurs. According to Davis, Jews in Cincinnati, Louisville, and Atlanta in 1900 were overrepresented in the alcohol business by a factor of four or five times, and Jewish businessmen in the trade were an important source of funds for Jewish communal institutions. The role of Jews in the alcohol business was complicated by the growing popularity of the Prohibition movement, which most Jews disdained, but which became the law in 1920 with the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment. As loyal Americans, Jews did not want to appear as law-breakers, but, on the other hand, they saw nothing wrong with a moderate consumption of alcohol, particularly at holiday times. Looming in the background was the anti-Semitic charge of Henry Ford and others that Jews were behind the nefarious liquor trade. Jews naturally rejected such accusations since they challenged their identity as loyal Americans. “Jewish responses to Americans’ inconstant relation to alcohol,” Davis concludes, “encapsulated their efforts to clarify and defend their communal and civic identities, both to their fellow Americans and to themselves.” 

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Marni Davis



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