The Prohibition, in the United States, was a nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages, from 1920 to 1933.
“The first was that [alcohol] enabled the farmer to preserve his fruit … which is to say, to take the fruit crop and preserve it over the winter, which literally meant take the apple. Turn it into hard cider. And the hard cider into apple jack, which was legal in the farm districts across the country. Interestingly, the farm districts were the ones that most supported Prohibition.
“The second one was medicinal liquor. I have a bottle on my shelf at home — an empty bottle — that says Jim Beam, for medicinal purposes only. In 1917, the American Medical Association — supporting Prohibition — said there was no reason at all to use alcohol as a therapeutic remedy of any kind. Then they realized with this loophole that there was an opportunity to make some money. And capitalism abhors a vacuum. Within two or three years, you could go into virtually any city in the country and buy a prescription for $3 from your local physician and then take it to your local pharmacy and go home with a pint of liquor every 10 days. And this is really how many of the large distilleries in Kentucky and the middle of the country stayed in business throughout the Prohibition years.
“The third loophole is sacramental wine. Among the groups who opposed Prohibition were the Catholics and the Jews — very avidly — and not necessarily for religious reasons; I think more for cultural reasons. … Tangentially to that, there was the reality that wine is used in the Catholic sacrament for Communion. … ”
“The Jews needed their sacramental wine for the Sabbath service and other services. They were entitled — under the rules — for 10 gallons per adult per year. … There was no official way to determine who was a rabbi. So people who claimed to be rabbis would get a license to distribute to congregations that didn’t even exist. On the other side of that, one congregation in Los Angeles went from 180 families to 1,000 families within the very first 12 months of Prohibition. You joined a congregation; you got your wine from your rabbi.”
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Prohibition allowed for rare exceptions, most notably in the case of religious or medicinal alcohol, and bootleggers took full advantage of the loopholes. Section 6 of the Volstead Act allotted Jewish families 10 gallons of kosher wine a year for religious use. (Unlike the Catholic Church, which received a similar dispensation, the rabbinate had no fixed hierarchy to monitor distribution.) In 1924, the Bureau of Prohibition distributed 2,944,764 gallons of wine, an amount that caused Izzy to marvel at the “remarkable increase in the thirst for religion.” Izzy and Moe arrested 180 rabbis, encountering trouble with only one of them. The owner of a “sacramental” place on West 49th Street refused to sell to the agents because they “didn’t look Jewish enough.” Undeterred, and hoping to prove a point, Izzy and Moe sent in a fellow agent by the name of Dennis J. Donovan. “They served him,” Izzy recalled, “and Izzy Einstein made the arrest.”
In The Forward, Jenny Hendrix writes:
The anti-alcohol movement, although politically based in a strange coalition of evangelicals, progressives and women’s suffrage advocates that had recently won women the vote, coincided with the arrival in the United States, between 1880 and 1920, of about 2 million Eastern European Jews, most with limited economic resources. These opposed Prohibition from the start, not least because alcohol was central to their culture. Also by the late 1800s, acculturated Jews were widely represented in the liquor industry. “At first,” said Marni Davis, author of the forthcoming “Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition”, “alcohol offered a way for American Jews to present themselves as the best sorts of Americans, as the ones who consume alcohol regularly but are not drunkards, who participate in the economy in ways that benefit communities and society at large.”
As Prohibitionists touted the evils of drink, it was the Jewish distillers, wholesalers and saloonkeepers who found themselves cast as outsiders. Attacking the liquor industry, “dry” politician John Newton Tillman said: “I am not attacking an American institution. I am attacking mainly a foreign enterprise.” To prove it, he listed distillers’ names: Steinberg, Hirschbaum, Shaumberg.
….Section 6 of the Volstead Act, which allowed Jewish families 10 gallons of kosher wine a year for religious use, left an especially large loophole. For unlike the Catholic Church, which got a similar dispensation, the rabbinate had no fixed hierarchy to oversee distribution. Infractions were rampant.
In 1924, the Bureau of Prohibition distributed 2,944,764 gallons of wine; the American Hebrew marveled at the “rapid growth of Judaism.” Prohibition agent Izzy Einstein — himself a Jew from New York City’s Lower East Side and able to spot a ruse — arrested numerous rabbis for dispensing “sacramental” brandy, crème de menthe, vermouth and champagne. The scam was as common among actual rabbis as among those only claiming to be such: Einstein also arrested rabbis of convenience, named Houlihan and Maguire, as well as African Americans who claimed, according to Okrent, to have recently “got religion in the Hebraic persuasion.”
… This, Okrent says, was bad for the Jews. Reform leaders believed that Section 6 gave the impression that they were not held to a common standard of law, and sought to abolish it. Doctrinal warfare over wine divided Jews by immigrant and economic status and denomination, pitting Orthodox against Reform. The result, as Davis put it, was a “shande for the goyim.”
Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent claimed that Jewish transgressions against Prohibition represented widespread conspiracy against American morals. “The Jew is on the side of liquor,” Ford wrote, “and always has been.” Part of what made this screed horrible was that it was partly true: Okrent estimates that half the bootleggers were Eastern European Jews; as a result, Jews were seen as delinquents who neither understood nor respected American culture. This despite the fact that, Davis says, bootlegging was so common that it could almost be seen as part of the Jews’ Americanization process.
…By the end of Prohibition, so many Americans were involved in producing, selling and consuming alcohol that Jewish participation seems unremarkable. Eventually, the public came around to the view that most Jews held all along: Prohibition, which had begun as anti-immigrant, was now widely seen as anti-American. The start of the Great Depression was the last straw. With the Repeal of Prohibition, passed in 1933, Jews were among those who rerouted their illegal operations into legal channels. Bronfman moved his business to New York, paid a fine for violating the Volstead Act and bought out Newark’s bootleg kings, Zwillman and Joseph Reinfeld. For him and other Jewish bootleggers, Prohibition had ended by providing a path to status and respectability.
The struggle for American Jewish identity was, at a time when both Jews and alcohol were cultural flashpoints, brought into sharper focus by drink. Ridiculous as the Prohibition experiment seems today, its lessons remain relevant. The issue pitted city against country, rich against poor, and immigrant against native born. Released in an America dividing along similar lines, PBS’s “Prohibition” deserves the notice of Jew and non-Jew alike.
Movies, books and articles
Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition
by Marni Davis. New York and London: New York University Press, 2012. x + 262 pp.
“Let Them Drink and Forget Our Poverty” : Orthodox Rabbis React to Prohibition, By Hannah Sprecher, American Jewish Archives 43,2 (1991) 135-179
PROHIBITION is a three-part, five-and-a-half-hour documentary film series directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that tells the story of the rise, rule, and fall of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the entire era it encompassed. http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/prohibition/