A History of Jews and Booze in America

Marni Davis’ ‘Jews and Booze’ looks at the fascinating impact of ‘the Great Experiment’ on the Jews’ livelihood, their religious life and their identity as American citizens

Jews and Booze:
Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition, by Marni Davis.
New York University Press, 272 pages, $32

Have you ever wondered why many Americans think of kosher wine as sweet and cloying? One obvious answer is that, at one time, a few decades ago, most kosher wine in the United States was sickeningly sugary. And the reason for that, as Marni Davis explains in “Jews and Booze,” her entertaining and informative new book, was quite pragmatic and straightforward.

The Schapiro family, the first kosher winery in New York, and the dominant wine producer in the Lower East Side at the beginning of the 20th century, made wine from Concord grapes, which were cultivated with relative ease in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Left unsweetened, Concord grapes produced a sour-tasting wine that was rejected by immigrant consumers. The addition of large amounts of sugar to the vat, however, made Schapiro’s Concord Wine an enormous hit. Jewish immigrants to the U.S., like their other European counterparts, enjoyed drinking wine, and the wine they had been used to drinking was more tart than sweet. The Schapiro version, though, outdid its predecessors in thickness and sweetness.

In the spirit of “if you can’t fix it, flaunt it,” Schapiro’s business, propelled by the advertising slogan “So thick you can almost cut it with a knife,” grew by leaps and bounds. And soon sweet kosher wine, whether from Schapiro, Mogen David or Manischewitz, became the standard beverage for both blessings and imbibing at many Sabbath meals and Passover seders throughout North America.

This illuminating explanation is just one of many gems in this book by Davis, an assistant professor of history at Georgia State University. Despite its subtitle, “Jews and Booze” is far more than a collection of anecdotes about American Jews and their acculturation during the years when the Volstead Act was in force. It is a social history of a Jewish community in transition from immigrant status to social acceptance as “real Americans.”

As Davis states in her introduction: “The primary intent of this book is to shed light on Jewish immigrants’ experiences with the process of ‘becoming’ American, and to consider the function of Jews’ relation to alcohol in their acculturation.”

For, indeed, the enactment of Prohibition in 1920 and its repeal in 1933 had a profound effect on the development of the American Jewish community. As Davis notes, the temperance movement was seen by Jews as an attempt to “Christianize American life and reorganize its laws around Protestant values and morality.”

In protesting against the very idea of Prohibition, Jewish individuals and organizations “refined their communal position on the relationship between religion and politics in the United States.”

Unlike many social histories of American Jews, including recent accounts of Jewish participation in the movie industry (Neal Gabler’s “An Empire of Their Own”) or the creation of Tin Pan Alley (Mike Gerber’s “Jazz Jews”) and the world of television comedy, “Jews and Booze” is as interested in Jewish religious law and behavior as it is in the ethnic identity of its colorful cast of characters.

In academic parlance, we might say that this book is about the “Judaic,” as well as about the (ethnically) “Jewish,” aspects of the production and consumption of intoxicating beverages. As Davis points out: “Jews are linked to alcohol production and consumption by the dietary regulations of kashrut, which require Jews to use wine in their religious rituals and forbid consumption of wine produced or even handled by non-Jews.”

War between rum and religion

If you have seen Ken Burns’ 2011 PBS series “Prohibition,” with its wonderful archival footage depicting the excesses of both the pro- and anti-alcohol camps before, during and after Prohibition, you will have a sense of the grand passions that fueled both the temperance movement and its opponents. Burns’ film features the speeches of Frances Willard, one of the founders of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, who characterized the battle over alcohol as “a war between rum shops and religion.”

“Religion,” for Willard and other critics of alcohol sales, was the Protestant faith as practiced in one of the mainstream American denominations. That the members and clergy of another religion Judaism might object as a group to the temperance movement never seemed to occur to the prohibitionists. As Davis notes, the rise of prohibitionist sentiment led to accusations that Jews, who were well-represented in alcohol trades, posed a “particularly fiendish economic and moral threat to American life.” And when both Jewish leaders and individuals objected to restrictions on alcohol production and sales, on the grounds that it would weaken the separation of church and state, and make the U.S. a more “Christian” nation, a wave of anti-Semitic sentiment was unleashed.

A 1913 article in the popular magazine McClure’s, titled “The Jewish Invasion of America,” warned readers about “the acute and often unscrupulous Jewish type of mind which has taken charge of the wholesale liquor trade in this country.”

In the same vein, automobile pioneer Henry Ford whose newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, spread anti-Semitic propaganda throughout the United States warned his readers that Jewish alcohol merchants were poisoning the youth of America. (Although beer and wine production were largely in the hands of Christian owners, Jewish entrepreneurs were involved in the distillation of grain-based spirits.)

As a cultural historian as well as social historian, Davis also cites novels, plays and short stories including some from later periods that illuminate the period of Prohibition and its aftermath. Her insightful reading of the works of Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth, for example, yields some comic and tragic gems about Jewish imbibers and suppliers. She reminds us that “Nat Lime, the protagonist of Bernard Malamud’s story ‘Black Is My Favorite Color,’ (1963), owns a struggling liquor store in Harlem and is resented, even despised, by the neighborhood’s black residents, whom he desperately wants to befriend.” As Lime says at the end of the story, “That’s how it is. I give my heart and they kick me in my teeth.”

I only wish that Davis had also looked at the comic novels of Canadian Jewish novelist Mordecai Richler, whose wonderful send-up of the Bronfman family “Solomon Gursky Was Here” would have provided her with even sharper and funnier bon mots about Yiddishe bootleggers.

Israeli readers, and connoisseurs of Israeli wines, will be interested to learn that the Carmel Wine Company, founded with Baron de Rothschild’s support in 1896, also played a part in the American saga of “Jews and Booze.” From 1900, when Carmel began to sell its wines in New York City, until 1920, when the 18th Amendment banning the sale of liquor went into force, Carmel wines graced many a Passover table.

Though they didn’t take the place of Schapiro’s Concord Grape, Carmel wines did make a dent in the kosher wine market. So much so, in fact, that, “In 1907,” writes Davis, “Carmel successfully sued the New York wine-wholesaling firm of Solomon and Germansky for copyright infringement after the wholesalers had printed fake Carmel labels and affixed them to their own bottles.”

And it’s thanks to Carmel, and other Israeli wines, that, three-quarters of a century later, American Jews were liberated, to some extent, from the tyranny of “the wine you could almost cut with a knife.”

Shalom Goldman is a professor of religion at Duke University. His forthcoming book is “Demon’s Wager: Conversion, Apostasy, and Modern Jewish Identity.”

Courtesy of Underwood Archives, Inc