Prohibition was among the defining issues in American politics and civil life in the early 20th century. One thing made clear by “Prohibition,” a captivating three-part series directed by Ken Burns and televised October 2–4 by the Public Broadcasting Service, is that the division between “wets” and “drys” was determined by race, class and geography as much as by drinking habits; drys — largely rural, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant — used the alcohol issue to advance very different ideologies.
According to Daniel Okrent, author of “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” and featured in the series, one of the movement’s primary motivations was fear of losing the country to immigrants. Like other immigrants, Jews were caught in the crosshairs, having to renegotiate a relationship to alcohol at the same time as they negotiated an American identity. And after the United States passed its first amendment to curtail civic rights it seemed the one became a stand-in for the other.
The anti-alcohol movement, although politically based in a strange coalition of evangelicals, progressives and women’s suffrage advocates that had recently won women the vote, coincided with the arrival in the United States, between 1880 and 1920, of about 2 million Eastern European Jews, most with limited economic resources.
These opposed Prohibition from the start, not least because alcohol was central to their culture. Also by the late 1800s, acculturated Jews were widely represented in the liquor industry. As Prohibitionists touted the evils of drink, it was the Jewish distillers, wholesalers and saloonkeepers who found themselves cast as outsiders. Attacking the liquor industry, “dry” politician John Newton Tillman said: “I am not attacking an American institution. I am attacking mainly a foreign enterprise.” To prove it, he listed distillers’ names: Steinberg, Hirschbaum, Shaumberg.
The struggle for American Jewish identity was, at a time when both Jews and alcohol were cultural flashpoints, brought into sharper focus by drink. Ridiculous as the Prohibition experiment seems today, its lessons remain relevant. The issue pitted city against country, rich against poor, and immigrant against native born. Released in an America dividing along similar lines, PBS’s “Prohibition” deserves the notice of Jew and non-Jew alike.
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