Jews and booze

The National Library is holding a special evening to celebrate the acquisition of a 200-year-old Yiddish manuscript that documents the trade in and manufacture of alcohol.

Painting of Jewish history (photo credit: COURTESY NATIONAL LIBRARY)
Painting of Jewish history
It has been said that music, culture and food serve as a “universal language,” helping people of different cultural backgrounds and political views communicate harmoniously. But it seems that alcoholic beverages may have something to offer there, too.
On Thursday, the National Library will hold a booze-related event colorfully named “‘Yankel’s Pouring!’: Secrets of Jewish Alcohol.” The gathering marks the library’s recent acquisition of a 200-year-old Yiddish manuscript that documents the trade in and manufacture of alcoholic beverages, primarily in Eastern Europe.
The book’s author is unknown, and there is no precise information about where and when it was written, but what is clear from the yellowed tome is that the Jews of the time were heavily involved in the booze industry. The book contains instructions for preparing and distilling various types of alcohol, as well as advice on the requisite aroma, color and taste of the end result.
The book is something of a “global village” publication: It includes 20 recipes for French liquor, 23 recipes for drinks from Danzig, 30 from Breslau – today Wroclaw in Poland – and 29 recipes for ratafia, which is a sweet alcoholic beverage traditionally made in Spain, Italy and northeastern France. Anyone looking to brew up some tasty vinegar could also find handy tips in there.
Thursday’s program includes a talk by Jerusalemite chef and Eastern European Jewish cuisine researcher Shmil Holland, titled “Nalewka, Raisin Wine and Brandy: The Domestic Alcohol Industry of the Jews of Eastern Europe.” In the lecture (in Hebrew), Holland will enlighten his audience about the three types of alcohol that the Jews of the time were cooking up. His listeners will also – literally – get a taste of the booze of yesteryear when Holland proffers samples of two types of cherrybased liquor he has prepared based on recipes in the recently acquired ancient manuscript.
“Nalewka is a sort of olden-day liquor that was made in people’s homes. It is not the product of an industrialized process,” he observes, adding that he was excited about getting his hands on the 18th-century volume. “The book is mostly German-centric, with recipes by people from Berlin or Danzig – which was then in Germany and is now Gdansk in Poland – and places like that.”
For Holland, whose family hails from Poland, the acquisition of the book is a particularly moving development.
“It sort of gives me direct connection with Poland of those times, when my ancestors lived there,” he says.
By the way, for those who are planning on attending the event at the National Library and are concerned about driving home after imbibing a swig of Holland’s alcoholic concoction, don’t fret.
“The drink is not too strong,” he says. “I think people will find it tasty and pleasant.”
The speaker roster also includes Glenn Dynner (in English), a lecturer in the department of religion and the chairman of humanities at New York’s Sarah Lawrence College. Dynner has delved deeply into alcoholic goingson among Jews in Poland of the 18th and 19th centuries, and he recently published a highly informative and entertaining book called In Yankel’s Tavern: Jews, Liquor & Life in the Kingdom of Poland. The work examines the iconic Polish Jewish tavern keeper in the Kingdom of Poland, but also goes beyond the confines of the inn and addresses wider issues, such as social class-structure aspects relating to drinking practices back then.
So, is there any basis for assuming that the manufacture and sale of alcohol in 18th- and 19th-century Poland helped bridge religious and social divides between Jews and gentiles? While tavern encounters did bring Jews and non-Jews together physically, Dynner says that did not mean everyone played Polish Happy Families.
“The only problem with the idea of the universal language of booze is that in the scenario in Eastern Europe, in the period of the early modern period through the 19th century, each group seems to have a special relationship with booze,” he explains. “The Jews were the ones who were selling it, the peasants were the ones who were consuming much of it, at least in the tavern situation, while the nobility was reaping much of the profits, because they were the ones who actually owned the taverns.”
The landed gentry – Jews were forbidden to own land – were perfectly happy to have the Jews run the taverns, as they were largely considered to be teetotalers and therefore unlikely to drink the inn profits away. But according to Dynner, the aristocracy may have been somewhat misguided on that score.
“Hassidism was developing as a mass movement at this time, and because of hassidic theology, which emphasizes our ability to use almost anything as a vehicle for worshiping God, especially if it brings you joy, alcohol became very central to the hassidic movement. So Jews were drinking alcohol,” he says.
Still, non-Jewish Poles would probably not have been aware that the Jews were starting to knock back more than a few tipples.
“The Jews were not drinking in the taverns,” Dynner continues. “They were drinking in the shtiebels [small synagogues] and in the hassidic court – in other words, in a very separate and regimented setting around religious occasions. So the time and place of Jewish drinking is very distinct and different.”
It seems that Polish Jews were also a little more cultured in their drinking habits: “You don’t get anything [among Jews] like the very masculine drinking bouts that show your virility. So you could say that [drinking alcohol] is universal in the sense that everyone is doing it in their own way, but it’s also very separate and distinctive between Jews and non-Jews.”
Dynner says he is delighted to be coming to share some of his research findings and extracts from his book, and he is looking forward to seeing the manuscript firsthand.
“I haven’t seen it yet,” he says. “I can’t wait.”
The program, which begins at 8:30 p.m., will also feature some musical accompaniment. There will be Eastern European numbers performed by the Baba Yaga Players – Gershon Leisersohn on violin and vocals, Gal Maestro on double bass, Ira Shiran on accordion and Ariel Armoni on percussion.
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