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

Jews and Saloons: Two Pictures, Many Questions

by Marni Davis

I began the research project that eventually became Jews and Booze because of a book I found in the library stacks. Actually, it was because of a single page in a single book—a page I didn’t know about when I started, and, on another day, might have passed over without a second thought. I was in my first year as a doctoral student at Emory University, and I wanted to know more about the history of black-Jewish relations in the South. But I’d only just moved to Atlanta, knew very little about this history, and didn’t have any particular figure, event, or question in mind. So I went to the area of Emory’s library where the books on American race relations lived and browsed the shelves for a long afternoon, hoping to find something that would suggest an interesting story.

Following the Color Line, a collection of travel essays written by a muckraking journalist named Ray Stannard Baker between 1906 and 1908, was one of the books I stumbled upon. These were horrendous years for African Americans in the South: dozens of black men were victims of murderous racial violence; southern legislators passed Jim Crow laws (which legalized the separation of the races in public facilities) and jettisoned black men from voter rolls. Racist hysteria inspired mob brutality in several cities—including Atlanta, where an anti-black riot had staggered the city in September of 1906.

Baker began his investigations there, and consideredseveral causal factors in his efforts to explain the race riot. One factor was a rapidly metastasizing fear of black men’s alcohol consumption.The problem, according to many white Atlantans, was black men’s access to alcohol; in fact, the riot had started in the city’s saloon district, initially targeting businesses where black men were known to drink. Baker included photographs of two of the neighborhood’s saloons in his essay. Both had the proprietors’ name stenciled on the glass window: Abelsky on one, Cohen on the other. Beneath the two photos was the caption: “Many of the saloons for Negroes were kept by foreigners, usually Jews.”

This stopped me in my tracks, for two reasons. One, I’d never thought of saloonkeeping, or the alcohol trade at all, as an American Jewish entrepreneurial niche. Clothing and dry goods, sure; the movie and music industries, you bet. But not beer or booze. And two, why was this even worth mentioning? What would it have meant to readers that Jews were selling alcohol to black men? Was this, as we say today, dog-whistle politics? I spent the next decade thinking and writing about that caption, responding to the questions it posed.

What I discovered was that indeed, Jewish immigrants were present, and in many cities and towns quite prevalent, in the American alcohol trade, as whiskey distillers, liquor wholesalers, and brewers of beer, as well as saloonkeepers. Not only that: American Jews had long been vocal and visible opponents of the political movement to make alcohol illegal. They were known to be, as an ethnic voting bloc, on the “wet” side of the wet/dry divide. This was partly a reflection of their pre-migrational culture and experience, as well their commercial interests. But they also intended their anti-prohibition politics to serve as a force for inclusion and acculturation. American Jews’ criticism of the temperance and prohibition movements gave them the opportunity to demonstrate their ideological adherence to American liberalism, and to defend a laissez-faire and secular interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, even as they proclaimed that their attitudes toward alcohol consumption were fundamental to their ethnic and religious identity. In other words, Jews’ engagement in alcohol commerce and in the prohibition debate allowed them to realize their aspirations to be both a part of the American people and “a people apart.”

But as the prohibition movement gained power and adherents during the early twentieth century, discussions of Jewish involvement in American alcohol commerce came to reflect and amplify broader cultural concerns about Jews’ presence in the U.S., anti-Semitism, and prohibitionism, I discovered, each provided a framework for Americans to express alarm about the increasingly urban and commercial nature of the American economy. Negative attitudes toward alcohol commerce overlapped, and eventually intertwined, with animosity toward Jewish commercial conduct. Jews’ visible involvement in the alcohol traffic, and their criticism of prohibitionist ideology, seemed to confirm American suspicions about Jewish economic behavior.

In the process of writing Jews and Booze, I came to realize that American Jews’ relationship to alcohol significantly shaped their efforts to both acculturate to their new status as Americans and to preserve a meaningful Jewish identity. It is a book about an immigrant group’s processof adapting to life in the U.S., and it focuses on a time when alcohol became one of the main sources of conflict between Jewish immigrant communities and native-born, white Protestant Americans. Jews and Booze asks: what happens when the cultural attachments and economic practices immigrants bring with them to their new home are seen as incompatible with American conventions? An examination of Jews’ relationship to alcohol, as both a commodity and a political symbol, during the years of the prohibition movement’s rise and fall provides us with an opportunity to watch acculturation, and the redefining of Jewish identity and tradition, in action.

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