Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition

By Nasaw, David | American Jewish History, July 2013 | Go to article overview

Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition


Nasaw, David, American Jewish History


Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition. By Marni Davis. New York: New York University Press, 2012. x + 2.62 pp.

Like so many other monographs that treat of immigrant history, Jews and Booze (a great, great title) focuses on the process, pace, promise, and perils of assimilation and acculturation, of becoming American without abandoning Judaism. The strength of this book is the path the author clears through this this well-plowed ground.

Marni Davis focuses her attention on those Jews who worked in the alcohol industry, as manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers. Many who took up the trade in the New World, she tells us, had learned and practiced it in the Old, as winemakers and saloon keepers. In cities and towns large and small across the nation, newly immigrated Jews not only made a living in the alcohol trades, but also established for themselves, their families, and the Jews who worked for them a respected place within the business community. As Davis writes, "For Jews who hoped to be accepted as citizens of their cities and towns and to be incorporated into national life more largely, Jewish whiskeymen were among the vanguard, helping to forge a path towards admission into American society" (33).

Unfortunately, almost ironically, the alcohol industry, though prosperous and growing through the nineteenth century, was under attack by a small but active group of temperance activists. The Jews in the trade protested against any and all attempts at prohibition, not only because it threatened their livelihoods, but because they believed restrictions on commerce in and consumption of alcohol were profoundly un-American. The most dangerous elements of the temperance movement, they feared, were its evangelical fervor, its identification with an outspoken, activist faction of the Christian community, and its clearly stated aim to deploy temperance as a step towards "Christianizing" American life.

The tension between Jews inside and outside the liquor trade and the temperance movement took many forms. …

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