(F)rum Runners

By Lawrence J. Epstein
Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Prohibition is perennially making a comeback, at least in the media; and this is one of those revival times.  It began with the HBO TV series Boardwalk Empire, now in its second season, set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City and priding itself on its historical accuracy.  The show is filled with gangsters, including prominent Jewish gangsters.  This fall Ken Burns' three-part PBS documentary Prohibition went beyond the subject's curiosity and entertainment value to treat Prohibition as part of America's struggles over self-definition.  Banning alcohol, Burns shows, was not simply a battle over the "liquor question"; it was no less than an effort by rural white Anglo-Saxon Protestants to reclaim the country's culture from the hard-drinking moral demons—that is, the immigrants—who had managed to pass through the gates.

Jews, of course, were among those immigrants; they were also among the targets of prohibition advocates.  In Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition, Marni Davis describes the Jewish role in the alcohol trade and the Jewish response to the attempts to stop it.  The title is cute; the subtitle better reflects the book's story, that of an immigrant community struggling to adapt and become part of the American community at just the time when Americans were struggling with the place of alcohol in that community.

The Jewish relationship to alcohol began with the Babylonian exile.  But the story picked up pace in the 19th century, because producing and selling alcohol were among the few occupations in which Jews were legally allowed to engage in the Russian Pale of Settlement.  In 19th-century Belorussia, for example, Jews owned somewhere between a third and two-thirds of all the distilleries.  A census taken in 1890 reflected the startling fact that Jews ran 190,000 taverns.

Jewish immigrants carried this expertise across the Atlantic to America, where Jewish participation in the beer, wine, and liquor trade brought Jews commercial success and increasing entry into the larger society.  Many Jews saw no conflict between this alcoholic commerce and their own community's commitment to temperate drinking habits.  As Davis quotes one 19th-century American rabbi, "The Jew drinks but . . . knows when to stop."

Jews arrived in an America whose history of anti-immigrant sentiment was almost as long as that of the republic itself.  The anti-alcohol campaign was not the only concrete expression of this sentiment; popular entertainment was another target.  But alcohol became one of the principal battlegrounds: Prohibitionists found in alcohol consumption the seeds of national destruction through moral dissolution.  In the early 20th century they increased their efforts to enact an anti-alcohol amendment to the Constitution.

As the prohibitionist efforts gathered steam, the economic connection to alcohol put Jews at risk of being socially marginalized or even excluded from Christian America.  The upward mobility fueled by Jewish commerce in alcoholic beverages became a potential liability.  Jews went from being viewed as skilled, hard-working entrepreneurs to being seen as bootleggers.

There was also considerable debate within the Jewish community about the anti-alcohol argument itself.  Many Jews agreed that excessive alcohol consumption could have profoundly detrimental effects on the individual, family, and nation.  They didn't pretend to be unaware that alcohol consumption had rapidly increased in post-Civil War America and was connected to poverty and crime.

On balance, though, the great majority of American Jews opposed the prohibitionists.  True, their opposition had elements of economic and social self-interest: Alcohol had provided their income and facilitated their acceptance as Americans.  But Jews also opposed prohibitionism because they saw in it ethnic intolerance and a distasteful moral arrogance.  And they feared that those Protestants who pushed the prohibition on liquor, having drunk victory, would next push against Jews themselves.  This fear was not misplaced.  As legal efforts to prohibit alcohol grew, there was indeed an accompanying growth in suspicion of Jews for their involvement in the alcohol industry. 

In 1919 the prohibitionists won.  The 18th Amendment to the Constitution made commerce in alcohol illegal, and the 1920 Volstead Act implemented the ban.  Jews were faced with a loss of business and the potential collapse of their standing as good citizens.  Some Jews actively contributed to the collapse: Jews were in fact involved in selling illegal alcohol.  In part, however, this involvement came about because of the law itself.  The Volstead Act allowed Jewish families to make and possess 10 gallons of kosher wine per year for religious purposes, but no enforcement structure was put in place.  The year 1924 saw the distribution of 2,944,764 gallons of "kosher wine."  The periodical American Hebrew expressed amazement at how fast Judaism was growing.

The Jews involved in producing illegal alcohol also became prominent among the gangsters distributing it.  Max "Boo Boo" Hoff in Philadelphia, Longy Zwillman in Newark, Solly Weisman in Kansas City, and Moe Dalitz in Cleveland were part of the roster that included the more familiar Arnold Rothstein, Meyer Lansky, and Bugsy Siegel.  Disturbingly to Davis, these men became—and, to some, may remain—heroic for their fight against the army of prohibitionist crusaders, their "protest against power."

But the Jewish gangsters, in notable contrast to other ethnic groups, did not pass the family business on to their children.  There were also Jews on the other side of the fight—like Izzy Epstein, a Jewish Prohibition agent on the Lower East Side who arrested many rabbis for distributing brandy, champagne, and much else that was supposedly designated for religious purposes. The rabbis argued that because they were Jewish, they were distributing their wares legally.  It did not help the rabbis' case when their names were Maguire or Houlihan.

Many contemporary Jews are most comfortable with the picture of Jews as model citizens, consistent exemplars of sobriety and other American virtues.  In fact, the response of Jews to Prohibition was considerably more mixed.  It was also vastly more interesting.

Lawrence J. Epstein's latest book, The Land of Eighteen Dreams, is a novel about American Jewish life.

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