Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition

Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition

Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition

Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition

Excerpt

Prohibition agent Izzy Einstein was stationed in the Jewish quarter of the Lower East Side, waiting to arrest a truck driver due to make a delivery of contraband alcohol, when he spotted an elderly gentleman wheeling a rickety baby carriage down the sidewalk. The man was a “strange looking mama,” Einstein wrote later; he had surmised from the fellow’s long beard that he was a Jewish immigrant, and Jewish patriarchs were not often seen pushing prams around the neighborhood. Einstein knew this intimately, since he, too, was a Jewish immigrant, and the Lower East Side had been his home since childhood. Working on a hunch that the carriage was transporting booze instead of babies, Einstein sidled up to the man and peered in, but “the baby was so covered that you couldn’t see his face.” So he pulled back the coverlet to get a better look. Lo and behold, “it was a gallon—the cutest ‘tot of whiskey’ I ever saw.” Within the hour, Einstein had deposited the liquor and the carriage at the local precinct, “accompanied by the old fellow, who was weeping profusely.”

This image of two Jews standing side by side at a police station with a bottle of whiskey between them represents a peculiar moment in American Jews’ long and complicated relationship to one of the most divisive issues in the nation’s history: the “liquor question.” Einstein and his partner, another Jewish Lower East Sider named Moe Smith, fashioned themselves as enforcers of a law brought into being by decades of activism on the part of Protestant lobbyists and anti-immigrant interests. It was an atypical and culturally anomalous choice on their part, since American Jews had been fierce critics of temperance and prohibition activists’ efforts since the 1870s. Jews had opposed the anti-alcohol movement because they sensed its underlying moral coercion and cultural intolerance, but also for economic reasons: beer, wine, and liquor commerce had served as a source of both individual and communal upward mobility for American Jews since before the Civil War. But the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution had declared the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” to be a criminal . . .

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