Purim beckons, and it is really the only time Jews are encouraged to get drunk, and it is all in the name of religion. You need to become so drunk that you can’t tell the difference between the words “Blessed be Mordechai” and “Cursed be Haman.”
Drunkenness is not regarded well in Judaism. Noah tarnished an unblemished reputation by becoming drunk from the wine he produced. The story of Lot and his daughters is another biblical story where overindulgence is an issue.
Jews throughout history have been regarded as an abstemious people, a people that don’t drink. If you attend a Scottish wedding, the guests will all be congregated at the bar. At a Jewish wedding, the bar is empty because it is the food that is the attraction. I suppose whereas the Greeks regarded wine and overindulgence as a divine state, even creating a wine god called Dionysus (Bacchus to the Romans), wine in Judaism was always measured by caution and respect.
Even in Israel, where we have developed a drinks culture in the last 20 years, consumption remains low. Wine consumption is as low as four liters per head, compared to nearly 50 liters a head in some European countries. The Israeli beer industry has really developed recently with a blossoming of new microbreweries and an expanding of imports. However, Israeli consumption remains a paltry 12 liters per head, which pales when compared with the 144 liters per head in the Czech Republic.
Even though the phrase “Jews don’t drink” has less validity these days, it was certainly true historically. However, conversely, Jews have always been deeply involved in the drinks trade.
Wine is an ongoing thread throughout our history, from Noah who planted the first vineyard, through Rashi, a vintner in France in the Middle Ages, to Baron Edmond de Rothschild, founder of the modern wine industry in Israel. Wherever Jews reside, there has been domestic winemaking.
Always. So those who talk about Israel’s first boutique wineries in the 1990s forget that the Jewish household has always made wine to allow the family to make kiddush.
In the Old City of Jerusalem in the middle of the 19th century, there were no fewer than 26 wineries. The revival of wine in Israel is nothing short of a revolution, but it is not new. Wine was being made in ancient Israel 2,000 years before the vine reached France and Italy! In the Middle Ages, Jews were forbidden to do many jobs, but to be distillers, brewers or tavern keepers was not only permissible, but it almost became the preferred profession for Jews in Poland and Russia.
In America, when the country in an act of self-flagellation decided to introduce Prohibition (of alcohol), it was the new immigrant Jews who became bootleggers, importing and producing alcohol to break the ban. In those days, the Jews were the producers and traders, and the Italians were the drivers. Together they sowed the roots for the rebirth of an alcohol industry in the US.
Seagram, which became the largest spirit company in the world, was founded out of the ashes of Prohibition by the Bronfman family.
Samuel Bronfman, the founder, was a prominent bootlegger.
The whole American distribution network of wines and spirits is today peppered by Jewishowned companies, led by the mammoth Southern Wine & Spirits, the largest drinks distributor in the world.
For a people for whom drinking in quantity is a rarity, the association of wine with Judaism is particularly deep. For those in the wine trade like myself, what a wonderful religion it is that encourages the purchase of wine every week in order to sanctify Shabbat. The requirement to drink four glasses at Passover, and the extra Seder night in the Diaspora, make Passover the equivalent in sales to Christmas in the Western world.
And then there is Purim, when this people so associated with wine and restraint are encouraged on one day of the year to drink with abandon. For the Ashkenazi Jew, the choice of spirit is likely to be vodka. In Israel, vodka is the largest-selling spirit. Regrettably, many youngsters drink vodka for an alcohol rush, whereas a true wine culture would encourage a less violent society.
The Sephardi Jew will prefer arak, the anis-flavored indigenous spirit of the Mediterranean Basin, which is undergoing a resurgence in Israel. Arak is the perfect accompaniment to Israeli mezze dishes.
Those who find the flavor too strong can mix it with grapefruit juice and have a refreshing aperitif.
The American Jew will choose whisky, but this will not be bourbon, American or Canadian whiskey but Scotch whisky. Nor will it be a cheap blended whisky but a characterful malt. The popularity of whisky and the proliferation of kiddush clubs in the US are phenomena that are difficult to explain. I understand that the popularity is because a religious Jew may enjoy the finest whiskies with no problems of kashrut, whereas with wine and food there are always tempting but forbidden fruits.
The Orthodox Jew may become a whisky maven on the same level as his non-Jewish counterparts.
Regarding mishloah manot, the traditional gift packages given at Purim, I see wine as good option. It adds value to what you give, and how much chocolate can you give, anyway? However, I would suggest choosing the wine according to the label.
An attractive and original label, such as Carmel Appellation or Psagot wines, would raise the perceived value and improve the look of the gift.
So although the Jewish people are steeped in the history of wine, spirits and liquor, the consumption has always been modest. However, on Purim, you have permission to let loose. So enjoy yourselves.
But always remember, even on Purim, to drink with respect for the beverage of your choice.
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and writes about wine for Israeli and international publications.