The Wind That Shook the Barley for Polish-Jewish Spirit Makers

Jews once dominated Poland’s alcoholic-beverage industry. A new book and a new finding by Israel’s National Library show how.

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According to the 1764 census of Polish Jews, around 80 percent of Jews living in villages engaged in the making and selling of alcoholic beverages.

In the Poland of those days, “there was a significantly greater proportion of Jews involved in activities related to the production and sale of beer and vodka than in other Jewish communities in Europe,” according to the English-language YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe.

Israel's National Library recently acquired evidence of its own on this phenomenon; at an auction, it bought a Yiddish manuscript cookbook for alcoholic beverages. The document, whose author, date and place of origin are unknown, describes the process of distilling spirits.

It includes, for example, 20 recipes for French liqueurs and 29 for ratafia. There are also directions for making vinegar.

“The manuscript was purchased for its ability to enrich our knowledge of Yiddish. There is also of course the role the Jews played in the alcohol industry,” the head of the library’s collections unit, Aviad Stollman, told Haaretz.

“Despite what’s often believed, Jewish manuscripts aren’t only about the Bible and the Talmud, rabbinical literature and kabbalist literature. They’re also about science and medicine, magic and astrology, commerce and economics.”

Stollman said the National Library sought to record Jewish culture in all its variety. To that end, “it acquires items that can shed light on the colored stones that make up the Jewish mosaic,” he added.

Starting in the 16th century, the price of vodka and beer began to climb in Eastern Europe. Landowners devoted ever more of their barley, wheat and rye to alcohol production.

“Landowners, who viewed peasants as incompetent and prone to drunkenness, preferred to lease their taverns to Jews, whose sobriety and restraint were felt to lead to greater profits,” according to the YIVO encyclopedia.

And so Jews became taverners and brewery managers in villages and on estates, even when the establishments were owned by church institutions. The image of the Polish-Jewish innkeeper gained a foothold in Polish culture. The wise and patriotic Jankiel the innkeeper features in “Pan Tadeusz,” the 19th-century epic by Poland’s national poet, Adam Mickiewicz.

In “Yankel’s Tavern: Jews, Liquor & Life in the Kingdom of Poland” (Oxford University Press, 2014), author Glenn Dynner examines the role of the tavern in Polish village life and the power that Jewish innkeepers held.

The situation began to change in the late 18th century, when new laws and regulations prohibited Jews from producing and selling alcoholic beverages. In the Duchy of Warsaw, for example, such a ban was issued on December 30, 1812. At the time, the duchy had 802 breweries, 1,116 distilleries and 10,455 taverns, most of them Jewish-run.

But Dynner found a bright spot even for that dark time. He says Christians would serve as fronts for taverns so that the Jewish managers could stay in business. These arrangements, Dynner writes, reflect “an impressive level of local Polish-Jewish co-existence that contrasts with the more familiar story of anti-Semitism and violence.”

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