Academic Addresses Jewish Values Amid Prohibition
Published: Saturday, March 23, 2013
Updated: Saturday, March 23, 2013 19:03
Georgia State University assistant professor of history Marni Davis addressed misconceptions about the complex relationship between Jewish identity and American prohibitionist values Wednesday afternoon.
The lecture, sponsored by the Program for Jewish Civilization and the American Studies Program, stemmed from Davis’ 2012 book “Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition.”
Davis began her research after she learned that many saloons in the early 20th-century American South were owned and run by Jews.
“People often don’t associate Jews with alcohol, maybe because of preconceptions … that Jews don’t really drink very much,” Davis said.
Still, she said, Jews held a large claim in the alcohol production industry — especially for whiskey. According to Davis, before Prohibition, Jews made up as much as a quarter of the whiskey production industry in “whiskey hubs” like Cincinnati, Ohio, and Louisville, Ky.
“They weren’t in the majority ... of a municipal or state whiskey industry, but in some places they were a very, very visible and active minority,” she said.
Davis cited the use of alcohol in Jewish religious services and its history of cultural consumption among Jewish immigrants, particularly those from Eastern Europe, as reasons for this unexpected participation in alcohol commerce.
“It’s fair to say that it was a combination of Jewish culture, Jewish economic experience and to some degree Jewish religious practices,” Davis said. “The culture that Jews brought with them from Europe to the United States but also the … structures and the ways that the economy [was in] the United States at that moment when Jews arrived [that] made alcohol a very attractive trade.”
According to Davis, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, alcohol was the fifth largest industry in the United States and was responsible for a third of the federal revenue.
By 1873, however, women grew upset with the prevalence of alcohol, as it led to frequent domestic violence, and started what Davis called the “women’s crusade” that led to Prohibition in the 18th Amendment in 1920.
“There is an element of women’s rights within it,” she said. “At the same time, this was unquestionably a Protestant religious movement, one that regarded alcohol as a sinful substance.”
Thus, Davis said, the clash between Jews and the prohibitionists began with this fundamental difference in ideology. Additionally, prohibitionists tended to dislike immigrants — many of whom were Jews — for their cultural drinking habits.
“Generally speaking, efforts to ban alcohol were part of a broader effort to align American political and cultural practices with very specifically Anglo-American and Protestant theology and morality,” Davis said. “Under those circumstances, we shouldn’t be too surprised that American Jews were opposed to the Prohibition movement.”
In addition to the role alcohol played in Jewish-American culture, many Jews also believed that Prohibition violated their constitutional rights.
“American Jews … defended the right to drink, and they defended the right to participate in alcohol commerce, in accordance with the rights of conscience and the rights of religion and the rights of property that were guaranteed by the constitution,” Davis said.
Additionally, many Jews took offense to the notion that alcohol had to lead to violence. Instead, Davis said, they stressed moderation and therefore did not believe it needed to be outlawed.
Davis also discussed the factor of race-relations in the Jewish-American alcohol trade. In the American South especially, she said, Jewish-owned saloons often served black customers, despite Jim Crow laws banning blacks from these establishments.
“There was some fear that Jews were indifferent — insufficiently invested in Jim Crow custom,” Davis said. “So the fact that Jews would sell alcohol to black men was seen as transgressive behavior, and it heightened Southern skepticism about their capacity to assimilate.”
Ultimately, a race riot in Atlanta, Ga., where many of these saloons were located, led to increased support of Prohibition and the passing of the 18th Amendment. Despite the fact that Jews were largely against Prohibition, however, many Jews, including Isidor Einstein, ended up working as Prohibition agents.
“It’s ironic … that one of the most famous Jewish celebrities of the Prohibition era was in fact an enforcer of Prohibition law,” Davis said. “It should remind us that generalizations about Jewish behavior, or about Jewish attitudes toward alcohol or Prohibition, are only so helpful — in fact they had no single response to the Prohibition movement, and no absolute relationship to alcohol.”
Davis’ talk mostly attracted graduate students and community members, including Judd King (GRD ’13).
“My dad’s side of the family is Jewish and I know from our own family stories that they had some very interesting relationships with alcohol themselves,” he said. “It’s a topic that’s of interest to me to see how they reacted to that, just because I know it’s something that has a lot to do with the way people constructed their identity within this really major debate that was going on at the time.”