Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition

Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition

by Marni Davis


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Finalist, 2014 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature from the Jewish Book Council

Traces American Jews’ complicated relationship to alcohol through the years leading up to and after prohibition

From kosher wine to their ties to the liquor trade in Europe, Jews have a longstanding historical relationship with alcohol. But once prohibition hit America, American Jews were forced to choose between abandoning their historical connection to alcohol and remaining outside the American mainstream.

In Jews and Booze, Marni Davis examines American Jews’ long and complicated relationship to alcohol during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the years of the national prohibition movement’s rise and fall. Bringing to bear an extensive range of archival materials, Davis offers a novel perspective on a previously unstudied area of American Jewish economic activity—the making and selling of liquor, wine, and beer—and reveals that alcohol commerce played a crucial role in Jewish immigrant acculturation and the growth of Jewish communities in the United States. But prohibition’s triumph cast a pall on American Jews’ history in the alcohol trade, forcing them to revise, clarify, and defend their communal and civic identities, both to their fellow Americans and to themselves.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781479882441
Publisher: New York University Press
Publication date: 01/01/2014
Series: Goldstein-Goren Series in American Jewish History Series , #2
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 558,839
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Marni Davis is Assistant Professor of History at Georgia State University.

Read an Excerpt

Jews and Booze

Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition
By Marni Davis


Copyright © 2012 New York University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8147-2028-8

Chapter One

Setting up Shop

Jews Becoming Americans in the Nineteenth-Century Alcohol Trade

"The history of those who produce and sell liquor," the historian Jack S. Blocker, Jr., has written, must be "part of any examination of the social use of and response to beverage alcohol." One of the foremost students of both the American alcohol industry and the movement against it, Blocker was pointing out the lopsided nature of scholarly production on the topic. While the shelves are crammed full to bursting with historical studies of alcohol's consumers and alcohol's critics, with a few important exceptions historians have paid little mind to those who made and sold the alcohol Americans were drinking.

But the producers, distributors, and purveyors of beer, wine, and liquor need to be incorporated into the story as well. Participants in the American alcohol industry made and moved a product that carried profound and contentious meaning in their national culture. They chose to traffic in a controversial commodity, and they themselves constituted a faction in national debates.

Their incentives, as well as their experiences in the trade, can help us to understand what alcohol represented to its supporters during these decades.

For nineteenth-century American Jews, alcohol commerce represented both a connection with their past and a means to improve their present. Their pre-migrational familiarity with the processes of production and distribution dovetailed with the structure of the American alcohol trade, creating opportunities for aspiring entrepreneurs—and sometimes for entire extended families—to establish themselves in their new country. The alcohol industry facilitated economic mobility and served as a force of acculturation, even while it created and sustained Jewish communities through ethnic entrepreneurial networks.

Isaac Wolfe Bernheim's trajectory into the alcohol industry illustrates a few of these forces. The son of a Jewish wine wholesaler, Bernheim had emigrated from Baden to New York at the end of the Civil War, joining a wave of mid-nineteenth-century Jewish emigrants from German-speaking central Europe, where exclusion, economic marginalization, and, in some cases, violent religious persecution pushed Jews to seek better lives elsewhere. After struggling as a peddler in rural Pennsylvania, he made his way to Paducah, Kentucky, a town of fewer than ten thousand residents with "neither club nor theater" but "a good many saloons," he later wrote. Paducah was situated about two hundred miles from Louisville, a national hub for both the production and distribution of whiskey, and Paducah's economy relied heavily on Louisville's muscular presence in that industry. Several of Paducah's more prominent Jews were already engaged in the trade—including Meyer Weil, who twice served as the town's mayor. In 1868, fellow Jewish immigrants Moses Bloom and Reuben Loeb offered Bernheim the position of bookkeeper in their liquor-wholesaling firm, and he took it without a moment's hesitation.

Isaac soon sent for his brother Bernhard, who came from Germany to join him at Bloom, Loeb, and Co. The ambitious brothers "outgrew their connection" with Loeb and Bloom not long after, and in 1872 they started their own firm with the help of local investors of both Jewish and Christian background. "In the back room of a small country store," Bernheim recalled, "the two potential distillers and a negro helper founded a 'business.'" They expanded their operations in 1888, purchasing a distillery in Louisville and moving their administrative operations to that city. By the turn of the century, Bernheim Bros. was one of the nation's leading whiskey distillers. They produced thousands of gallons of whiskey yearly in a state-of-the-art facility and achieved international renown for their I. W. Harper elite brand of bourbon whiskey. Their company "stands to-day in the very front rank," declared a liquor industry trade magazine in 1901, "not only of the commercial institutions of Louisville but of the whiskey houses of the world."

Jews gravitated toward different sectors of American alcohol production and distribution with varying degrees of enthusiasm and continuity. The distilled liquor business, and the whiskey industry in particular, proved most attractive to Jewish immigrants during the nineteenth century. Perhaps whiskey's nationalistic significance played some role in their choice. While Americans often associated wine and beer with European tastes and European immigrants, producers and consumers of domestically produced whiskey championed it as a deeply American product. Initially produced by Scots-Irish distillers who developed the craft in the British Isles and practiced their skills in the Appalachian frontier where they settled, whiskey replaced rum as the national liquor of choice after the Revolution. Never mind that the Scots-Irish, too, were European immigrants. These pioneers of Anglo-American frontier settlement represented a quintessential version of national identity in the American imagination: white, Protestant, and skeptical of authority. The bourbon whiskey they produced stood as a symbol for American authenticity and political autonomy, even as it served as a practical means to turn excess and perishable agricultural stock into a valuable commodity.

Jewish immigrants may have reveled in attaching themselves to whiskey's symbolic power. But the structure of whiskey production and distribution likely played a greater role in propelling Jews into the trade. Because vertical integration—the organization of commodity manufacture and distribution so that a single entity controls all its stages—affected the whiskey industry less than it did other alcohol production networks, it was possible to participate in whiskey traffic at many levels of the process. One could supply raw materials such as grains or flavoring, distill raw alcohol, rectify alcohol into "blended" whiskey, purchase whiskey in bulk from distillers and rectifiers and distribute it to retailers, or sell it directly to consumers. European Jews engaged in similar intermediary market roles, moving goods among agricultural producers, mass manufacturers, and distributors. The American whiskey industry enabled them to take up all of these roles in their new country: it was a familiar line of trade, organized in a familiar manner.

It was also a relatively easy trade to enter, even though starting and running a licensed distillery could be prohibitively expensive—especially as mass production of liquor became increasingly mechanized in the late nineteenth century. But a wholesaling business required little more than access to a stock of liquor and clients to whom to sell it. Because American whiskey production was almost entirely unregulated until the passage of the "Bottled-in-Bond" Act of 1897, one could also become a rectifier easily, by purchasing straight whiskey from distillers and adding raw alcohol and flavoring agents to make blended whiskey or liqueur. This unbridled business environment lent itself to unscrupulous practices; some rectifiers labeled blended whiskey as straight, or misled consumers about the age of the whiskey they sold, or even added toxic adulterants to their "bourbon." By the turn of the century, rectifiers were regarded as disreputable swindlers who willingly degraded their product and sullied the whiskey industry itself for a profit—an accusation that, as we shall see, attached itself to Jewish whiskey dealers in the early twentieth century.

Isaac Wolfe Bernheim's story shows how European Jewish culture and the opportunities made available in the American context drew Jews into this line of work: his family's experience familiarized him with alcohol commerce, a trade in which local Jews were already active. Other Jews engaged in the whiskey business in Louisville had done similar work in Europe, or came from alcohol-purveying families. Hilmar Ehrmann, for example, came to Louisville in 1887 from Tirnau, in western Hungary, where he had been trained as a maker of cordials and liqueurs. Soon after his arrival, he discovered that he needed to rethink his livelihood. According to his son, Ehrmann "found to his great disappointment that Kentuckians didn't give a damn about effeminate drinks like cordials." So he adjusted to local ideas about gender and alcohol consumption, and began to deal in a more "manly" product for a male drinking culture. Although he continued to manufacture European-style liqueurs, his wholesaling business dealt primarily in whiskey. By 1900, Jews made up 25 percent of the whiskey distillers, rectifiers, and wholesalers in Louisville, a city where the Jewish population was about 3 percent of the municipal whole.

The structure and culture of the American brewing industry, by contrast, impeded Jews' long-term participation in that trade. By the 1880s, the brewing industry had instituted the "tied-house" system, which structured beer supply networks so that brewers provided their product directly to saloonkeepers. (This was before the advent of home refrigeration, so saloons acted as the only beer retail outlets. Those who wished to drink their beer at home would send someone to the local saloon with a can or a bucket to fill, a practice commonly referred to as "rushing the growler.") This practice effectively cut out the middleman, and as a result, middlers and "jobbers," a position occupied by Jews in a gamut of European and American industries, played little role in the beer trade.

The ethnic culture of American brewing also discouraged Jewish involvement in the beer industry. Between half and three-quarters of brewers and maltsters working in the United States were of German birth; the brewing industry also attracted native-born descendants of German immigrants, although those numbers were not formally tallied. In American cities where large German populations had settled—such as Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Cincinnati in the Midwest, San Antonio in the Southwest, and New York, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Newark in the Northeast—local brewing industries contributed substantially to German ethnic economies, as employers and as local symbols and organizers of community life. The industry's ethnic identity was so overly determined that the United States Brewers' Association, which was founded in 1862 as the industry's lobbying organization, did all their internal business in the German language until 1875.

Jewish and non-Jewish German immigrants coexisted (and sometimes cooperated) in some occupations, such as general merchandizing and skilled labor in the garment trade. Wherever German immigrants constituted the majority of brewers and brewery employees, however, Jews were rarely to be found in that industry. This was partly the result of occupational experience—or, rather, the lack thereof. Jews infrequently participated in the central European brewing industry because brewers' guilds, like other German craft guilds, maintained policies that excluded Jews. While Jews might have interacted with the brewing industry as suppliers of raw materials like hops, malt, and wheat—as commercial intermediaries between grain farmers and beer producers—they rarely found work within the breweries or established a brewery of their own. Jewish immigrants seeking similar employment in the United States thus had little practical knowledge in industrial beer production.

In a disconcerting twist, the six-pointed hexagram—most familiar today as the Magen David, or Jewish star—was the insignia of the medieval European brewers' guild. Beginning in the fourteenth century, central European brewers branded their barreled product with the brauerstern, which symbolically alluded to purity and elemental balance. This practice continued in the United States, where German American brewers regularly used the star in their logo designs. Producers of other alcoholic manufacturers.

Despite structural impediments, a few Jewish brewers proved to be exceptions to the general rule. The Prussian immigrant Joseph Phillipson opened the first brewery in St. Louis in 1815. Another Prussian Jew, Frederick Zadek Solomon, cofounded the first brewery in Denver in 1859. A few years later, Solomon Goldstein, who emigrated from Poland to Anaheim, established that city's first brewery. These Jewish brewers shared decisive characteristics: all three men figured among the earliest Jewish settlers in their cities, and they all pioneered beer production in places where local economies were too new and in flux for alcohol purveyance to be oriented around ethnic community. Such sites provided a relatively open arena for ambitious entrepreneurs, regardless of religious background or immigrant status. When consumer interest was met with a dearth of local producers for that item, Jews took the opportunity and stepped into the gap.

In some environments, religious and other cultural pressures that kept local producers and purveyors of alcohol in relatively short supply created entrepreneurial possibilities for Jews. In the American South, negative attitudes toward alcohol came to permeate the dominant religious culture. Even though many white southerners were enthusiastic alcohol consumers, and still more opposed legislative restriction on alcohol's availability (since they associated temperance and prohibition activism with abolitionist movements and government interference in "home rule"), most were hesitant to go against the prevailing opinions of their neighbors and fellow church members by taking up the liquor trade themselves. This opened opportunities to southerners whose cultures and religions did not regard alcohol as taboo, such as Jews, Catholics, and Lutherans. A historian of the alcohol trade in Mississippi has observed that the business "appealed to ethnic minority groups"—Germans and Italians as well as Jews—who sold beer and liquor to native-born Protestants who "did not object to purchasing liquor" from a cultural outsider. A similar dynamic shaped beer production in Atlanta, a city that hosted a German community of approximately six hundred persons in 1880, many of whom were Jewish. Several German-owned breweries came and went in Atlanta's early years, and by 1885 only one remained: the Atlanta City Brewery, owned by the central European Jewish immigrant Albert Steiner.

In Brooklyn, an environment where a German brewing culture was already well entrenched, there lived one family of Jewish immigrants whose pre- and post-migrational entrepreneurial choices defied conventional cultural practices. Samuel Liebmann was a Jewish freethinker and advocate of political reform and republicanism in his native Württemberg, where he owned an inn and brewery. According to family history, Liebmann styled his establishment as a gathering place for liberal-minded politicians and military officers, but after the failed republican revolution of 1848, the king of Württemberg declared Liebmann's tavern off limits to soldiers. By 1855, Samuel and his sons had immigrated to the United States, settling in Bushwick, a Brooklyn neighborhood famous in the mid-nineteenth century for its abundance of German immigrant–owned lager breweries. The Liebmanns built their operation on "Brewers' Row," and in the 1880s S. Liebmann and Sons Brewery began to produce Rheingold Beer, for which they would eventually become nationally known.

Demography and entrepreneurial opportunity drew the Liebmanns and their small cohort of Jewish brewers into an industry that American Jews generally avoided. Whatever their individual circumstances, they were all motivated by the fact that beer was, to put it mildly, a growth industry during the late nineteenth century. Wine, on the other hand, was not. American wine producers, in comparison to their beer- and liquor-manufacturing counterparts, yielded a mere trickle. In 1870, the national wine industry reported production of only $2.25 million worth of wine, while $55 million worth of beer flowed out of American breweries and distilleries made $36 million worth of hard liquor. Ten years later, American wineries were still producing less than $3 million worth of wine, whereas beer and liquor production had nearly doubled in value. In 1890, the same story: twice as much beer and liquor as ten years before, and less than $3 million worth of wine.


Excerpted from Jews and Booze by Marni Davis Copyright © 2012 by New York University. Excerpted by permission of NEW YORK UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

Part I Alcohol and Acculturation

1 Setting up Shop: Jews Becoming Americans in the Nineteenth-Century Alcohol Trade 15

2 "Do as We Israelites Do": American Jews and the Gilded Age Temperance Movement 41

Part II Alcohol and Anti-Semitism

3 Kosher Wine and Jewish Saloons: New Jewish Immigrants Enter the American Alcohol Trade 71

4 An "Unscrupulous Jewish Type of Mind": Jewish Alcohol Entrepreneurs and Their Critics 104

Part III Jews and the Prohibition Era

5 Rabbis and Other Bootleggers: Jews as Prohibition-Era Alcohol Entrepreneurs 139

6 "The Law of the Land Is the Law": Jews Respond to the Volstead Act 165

Conclusion 198

Notes 205

Index 247

About the Author 262

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