Enabling Prohibition

A look at the ongoing confrontation among American Jews before and during the alcohol ban.

Izzy Einstein, Moe Smith share a toast in a NY bar in 1935  (photo credit: US Library of Congress/ Wikimedia)
Izzy Einstein, Moe Smith share a toast in a NY bar in 1935
(photo credit: US Library of Congress/ Wikimedia)
This fascinating work begins by relating an incident depicting the tension between American Jews in the Prohibition era, 1920 to 1933.
A noted Prohibition agent, Izzie Einstein, was in the Jewish quarter of the Lower East Side of New York awaiting a truck full of contraband liquor. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw an elderly man wheeling a baby carriage down the sidewalk. As Einstein wrote in his memoirs, the man was one “strange looking mama.” Even though the man was a bearded fellow Jew, Einstein suspected that things were not as they seemed.
He walked over and peered into the carriage, and there, he wrote, was a “gallon – the cutest ‘tot of whiskey’ I ever saw.”
Without hesitation, Einstein turned the man in to the authorities.
As author Marni Davis notes, “the image [is] of two Jews standing side by side at a police station with a bottle of whiskey between them.” This image highlights the ongoing confrontation among American Jews before and during Prohibition. Davis’s book offers a keen insight into an issue strongly felt in that era in American history.
The author puts a most important question before the readers: “Should Jews insist on ‘special rights’ (for wine and whiskey) for the sake of their own historical continuity or break with the past for the sake of assimilation?” This was a real dilemma for American Jewry.
“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 flashpoints for American anxieties about immigration and capitalism,” Davis writes.
Yes, the Jews were right in the middle of the great Prohibition debate, and the evidence the author has assembled clarifies issues which most people have never considered. Every Jew should read Jews and Booze because it touches on a most important topic – what can happen when the challenge of maintaining tradition, on the one hand, and fostering entrepreneurship, on the other hand, is greatly heightened.
In addition, for me the author’s depiction of that period in American history from the perspective of Atlanta Jewish liquor entrepreneurs was quite moving, since I knew their descendants (most of whom are not in the liquor business today).
The book’s initial focus is on US Jews before Prohibition is legalized in 1920 by the Volstead Act. As immigrants, it seems our brethren found it easy to enter the booze trade. By the time of Prohibition, statements were made publicly that 50 percent of the bootleggers were Jews. This fomented hatred on the part of Christians because they saw the Jews as helping to weaken the moral fiber of the country.
Davis uses the 1906 Atlanta race riots to demonstrate how angry the blacks were with the saloons on Decatur Street – all run by Jews. There is a claim that this Jewish ownership helped inspire that terrible moment in local history.
The author documents the continual growth of US Jews’ role in the liquor trade, showing how they became the target of the politicians who wanted to make the “hard stuff” illegal. The reader will be surprised to see all the data in this field that Davis has collected from many sources. I found this close reading of newspapers and handbills similar to the excellent job done in the same vein by Eli Evans’ study of Judah P. Benjamin two decades ago.
Anti-Semitism blossomed in a multitude of ways. It is suggested that one of the reasons that Henry Ford reprinted the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was his belief that through the liquor industry “Jews were corrupting American youth.”
Davis includes a fascinating the chapter on “Rabbis and Bootleggers.” The process of making alcohol available during Prohibition proceeded in this fashion: after filing the federal paperwork, “the rabbi...
would then distribute the wine to his congregants for home use.... Every Jewish family in the US would have legal access to ten gallons of wine per year.”
During Prohibition Jews were allowed to purchase wine for sacramental use.
Catholics were permitted wine, too, but theirs was imbibed in the church – while the Jews drank it at home, or wherever they pleased. Interestingly, the number of congregants in synagogues grew dramatically as Italians, Poles and others signed up and were added to the list of Jewish adherents.
As members, they too had the right to purchase wine.
The author notes that Jewish leaders, “working with Prohibition officials hoped to keep Jews within the law – not only as a sense of community responsibility, but also to protect Jews in general from any anti-Semitism incurred by the criminality of a few.”
The “few” were a multitude of bootleggers, speakeasy owners, and rabbis too. To illustrate her point, the book contains a photograph of a store in 1920 with a big sign in the window reading, “Kosher Wine: For Sacramental Purposes.”
Through the glass pane, you can see big jugs of wine, and leaving the premises is a well dressed man carrying out several jugs for “religious purposes.”
The majority of rabbis who assisted the bootleggers were Orthodox, and had been selling wine for years to bolster their meager salaries. However, there were also Conservative and Reform rabbis involved in the trade. The congregations also benefited from the sales, so it was a good deal all around. After Prohibition ended in the 1930s, rabbis continued to sell wine to augment to their incomes, but of course it no longer had an illegal taint to it.
Davis concludes her work by saying, “American Jews responded to the anti-alcohol movement variously and inconsistently and never collectively repudiated their connection. As a result, Jews struggled to prove that they were in fact loyal Americans, even as they disagreed among themselves about whether alcohol consumption or commerce should remain a component of American Jewish identity.”