Whiskey Business

Historian investigates Jews in the booze trade during Prohibition era

By Jeremy Craig

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, America took in the greatest influx of immigrants the world had ever seen –– including enormous numbers of Jewish arrivals from Eastern Europe.

At the time, the booze business was booming, and many Jews took advantage of that fact by starting or buying distilleries, breweries or saloons.

The widespread consumption that made the sauce good business, however, also sparked the Prohibition movement. Even as Jewish distillers and brewers tried to assimilate into America, they found themselves battling other Americans who wanted to ban their businesses altogether.

Marni Davis, assistant professor of history, has a new book tracing the relationship between American Jews, the liquor industry and Prohibition: “Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition” (New York University Press, 2012).

“Precisely because alcohol was such a hot-button issue in America at the time, it provides a great window into the cultural and economic pressures on these immigrants,” Davis said. “They had to balance their commitment to Jewish viewpoints and traditions, their desire to become American, their need to protect their own livelihoods while still assimilating into a new system.”

But Judaism, like Catholicism, incorporated wine into worship. Although Jews don’t approve of habitual drunkenness, they did not automatically associate alcohol with abuse the way that their contemporaries during Prohibition. So when new arrivals looked for the chance to make a living, the fast-growing alcohol business seemed like a natural fit.

“Nowhere did I find that Jews were in the majority of distillers, brewers or saloon keepers, but I found many places in which their numbers in local industry were way out of proportion to the general population,” Davis says.

Louisville, Ky. provides an example: At the time, Jews made up about three percent of Louisville’s population — and about 25 percent of the local distillers and wholesalers of whiskey.

When activists took notice of these kinds of numbers, the prohibition effort began to portray Jews as enemies of wholesome America.

“I wouldn’t argue that Prohibition and anti-Semitism hinged upon each other, but they clearly became intertwined,” Davis said. “Temperance movement pronouncements often reduced Jews to being evil purveyors of alcohol.”

While some Jews became involved in bootlegging after the passage of Prohibition, the majority left the business and pursued other professions. Most stayed out of the business even after 1933, when Prohibition ended.

“Because of that shift — and because Prohibition failed so miserably — that particular combination of anti-Semitism and anti-alcohol sentiment faded completely from the culture,” Davis said.