“Jews and Booze” educates on the Jewish moral dilemma during prohibition

To introduce an annual lecture celebrating Jewish culture, a donated 1750’s Torah that survived the Holocaust was paraded through Cabell library with a boisterous klezmer band on March 30.

VCU’s Brown-Lyons lectures have educated the community on some of the most important topics in Jewish culture and faith for more than 30 years. This year’s lecture, “Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition,” was presented by visiting professor Marni Davis, an ethnicity and immigration historian who has taught at Emory and Georgia State Universities.

Davis showcased her book “Jews and Booze” in a talk detailing the Jewish community’s involvement in the alcohol trade during prohibition, and how this affected their collective identity within American culture at the time.

“I feel very lucky to have alighted on this particular topic because it does interest people, and not only because it rhymes, though that has certainly worked out in my favor,” Davis told the audience on Thursday night.

Davis’ book was a finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize in Jewish Literature; her lecture detailed the time period between the Civil War and Great Depression, but also commented on more modern Kosher libations as well.

According to Davis, the idea of “Jews and Booze” may seem counterintuitive at first — the faith traditionally stresses abstinence — but assimilation was key for Jewish immigrants in the late 19th century. This meant adopting the drinking habits of American cities at the time, and Jewish immigrants quickly established saloons and bars where they offered Kosher home-made wine.

“In the years leading up to and during national Prohibition, Jews who made a living selling liquor, or who defended alcohol’s legal availability, unwittingly acted as flash points for American anxieties about immigration and ­capitalism,” Davis wrote.

According to Davis, a sizeable portion of the Jewish community financially depended on alcohol sales for their livelihood. When the first inklings of the prohibition movement started seeping into politics, much of the Jewish community lobbied for “wet” politics in favor of legal alcohol to protect their common economic interest.

Despite wide-ranging protests, the Prohibition Act was added as the 18th Amendment in 1920. The law did include a clause that allowed alcohol use for religious ceremony, but unlike many Christian ceremonies, Jewish ceremonies took place in the home and not in the public sector.

Rabbis were responsible for distributing the sacramental wine to Jewish homes, but because there weren’t any official doctrines on American Judaism, some religious leaders exploited the loophole.

Some rabbis with last names such as “O’Malley” and “Jefferson” could pass as white-anglo saxons and would access and distribute alcohol for public sale. The latter soon became a nationally-renown scandal and was not well received by the whole community, particularly Jewish immigrants devoted to maintain a “good” reputation in the U.S.

“While many regarded Jewish bootlegging as proof that Jews were incapable of conforming to American values,” Davis wrote in her book. “One might instead regard it as evidence of Jewish acculturation, since the flouting of Prohibition law was practically a national pastime.”

Exacerbating the scandal were Jewish bootleggers and gangs across America, and by the time prohibition ended in 1933 the two largest distilling corporations were Jewish.

Today, nearly a century after Prohibition began, there is a re-emergence of Jewish-produced alcohol on the market. Brooklyn’s “Shmaltz Brewing Co.” is a well-known craft beer company whose Kosher “He’Brew” beer is available seasonally; the “Whiskey Jewbilee” is an annual festival highlighting kosher whiskeys annually in New York, Chicago and Seattle.

Dawn Scott, Contributing Writer

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