Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition, M. Davis (New York, New York University Press: 2012) x + 261. [1]

 

Religion performs, not just in sacred space, but in public space. Marni Davis’ book, Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition, illustrates this with depth, skill, and grace.

 

When Jesus offered drink to his disciples at the Last Supper, did he offer wine or raisin juice? And when he turned water into wine in Cana, was it the despised fermented brew or the blessed unfermented concoction? If you were a Christian temperance activist or a religious Jew, the answer was important.

 

More significantly, one’s attitude to the following questions, as a Jew and, more importantly, as a member of a formal Jewish organization, formed the basis of one’s Jewish religious / secular identity: Does one approve of Jews who work in the alcohol industry? What if they are working when it is illegal? What if they are exploiters, maybe even criminals? What is one’s attitude toward ‘the law of the land’ when it forbids the use of alcohol: must the law be enforced even if one disagrees with it in principle or, must one defy the law since it restricts one’s religious freedom? And, what is to be one’s attitude, as a Jew, toward Christian temperance movements, and later toward the Christian-dominated prohibition movement? Are they trying to Christianize America? What does one do about this, if anything?

 

Christian religion is also performing during this period: What does a ‘proper’ Christian think about the Irish and the Lutherans who drink liquor? Does prohibition forbid the use of wine in communion? Are the Jews, who are active in the alcohol trade, the embodiment of the anti-Christ?

 

Then there is the overlap of such issues as: race and religion especially in the South, anti-Semitism, Germanism especially as the United States enters into World War I, and “foreigners” who are muscling their way into “American” society. The exchanges got pretty intense, with references to “whiskey Amazons” and “nigger gin.”

 

Marni Davis has done a very good job of presenting this performance of religion, patriotism, bigotry, free trade, and immigrant anxiety. She distinguishes three periods in the history of Jews and the alcohol trade. The first, the early and mid-nineteenth century, is the period of growth. The American population drinks a lot and the Jews see the entrepreneurial opportunity and seize it, helping to create the production, distribution, and retail of liquor and beer (wine was not popular until later). This moment in history also allowed Jews to provide in-group, economic and social assistance to one another.

 

The second period, the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is the period of the growth of the anti-alcohol / temperance movement. Motivated by a Christian puritanical view of America as well as by a fear of the influx of German, Jewish, Irish, and Italian immigrants, the temperance movement took a strong stance against the production and consumption of alcohol. The attack of “modern amusements, mass production, and cosmopolitanism economically undermined the middle class, subverted gender roles, and encouraged youth to embrace a pleasure-seeking ethos” (160).

 

Matters become very complex: East European Jews, with long backgrounds as taverners, are streaming into the country, as are more Irish and Italians. In the South, the issue is deepened by beliefs about Negro drunkenness and sexual appetite, and the role of the Jew in the production, distribution, and retail sale of alcohol to Negroes. World War I adds to the complexity. So does consideration of such constitutional issues as the restriction of free trade and property rights. So does the fact that prohibition will deprive the government of the excise tax on alcohol that amounts to one third of the revenue of the federal government. The Great Depression is also part of this picture. But nothing deters the prohibitionist forces who intensify their work, envisioning it as a life-and-death struggle in which the purity of American Christian values and women does battle with the evil of alcohol.

 

The third period is that of prohibition: the passage of laws forbidding the production and sale of alcohol of any kind: Georgia is the first (1907) and the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution concludes the process with ratification in 1919 and enforcement in 1920. Two problems arose immediately: Those interested in continuing to ply their trade and those interested in continuing to drink, simply went illegal, which led to “bootlegging,” a phenomenon so widespread that, during the thirteen years that prohibition was in effect, it encouraged widespread contempt of the law and the formation of organized crime. Second, the Volstead Act that enabled enforcement of prohibition provided two exceptions: alcohol could be used for “medicinal” purposes and also for “sacramental” purposes. While completely legitimate, one can envisage what an imaginative producer, dealer, or seller could do. For the Jews, this meant a series of scandals involving rabbis and false rabbis who sold “sacramental” wine illegally and, in so doing, besmirched the established and the newly immigrant Jewish communities.

 

Davis clearly analyzes the end of prohibition: Alcohol proved not to be such a dangerous substance. Defiance of the law turned out to be worse. The “foreigners” integrated. Jews left the alcohol business and took up other entrepreneurial opportunities. Their children moved up into the middle class. The government legalized alcohol and re-imposed the excise tax. Racism and anti-Semitism got worse, but they no longer were connected with temperance and its teachings.

 

This book is a very good demonstration of the deep link between religious identity and social history. It is well researched and, thankfully for the non-professional reader, all the learned footnotes are at a good distance from the text. It should be read by all interested in this issue. [2]

 

David R. Blumenthal

Jay and Leslie Cohen Professor of Judaic Studies

Emory University



[1] Reviews in Religion and Theology, 1 (2013) 27-28.

Disclosure: I know Marni Davis. She was a doctoral student at Emory and, while I provided some support for her work, I was not on her doctoral committee and did not read her thesis.

[2] Ms. Davis should have noted, on page 107, that the “biblical” quotation, “Cursed be he who putteth the bottle to his neighbor’s mouth,” is not at all biblical.