Jews and Booze: Becom­ing Amer­i­can in the Age of Prohibition

Marni Davis
  • Review
By – January 3, 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.

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

Discussion Questions