JEWS AND BOOZE by Marni Davis


Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition
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In her debut, Davis (History/Georgia State Univ.) suggests that anti-Semitism and Prohibition were parallel expressions of political disquiet during the turn of the last century.

As the nation's fifth-largest industry, alcohol was an important source of public revenue. The author cites statistics showing the explosive growth of retail liquor dealers: 90,000 in 1865, 175,000 in 1880 and nearly 200,000 in 1900. The industry offered an important niche for Jews from Central Europe who had practiced the trade in the old country and provided them a pathway for admission into American society despite obstacles such as the tie-ins between brewers and saloons. Davis describes the social networks and community relationships established by this early wave of American Jews who became leaders in their broader communities, practiced Reform Judaism while maintaining their ethnic and religious roots, and favored assimilation. While they supported moderation in the use of alcohol, they did not support Prohibition. “The anti-alcohol movement,” writes the author, “absorbed and tapped into populist anxieties about the concentration of capital and exploitation of labor and consumers.” She describes this as scapegoating immigrants who were blamed for the “increasingly urban and commercial nature of the American economy,” and it spawned anti-Semitic rhetoric, which painted “Jews as an alien and malevolent force in the American economy” that turned the drunken lower classes into their political pawns. Davis touches on strains within the Jewish community as later waves of Eastern European Jews rejected the religious liberalism of their Jewish predecessors. With Prohibition, most Jews left the industry, but bootleggers like the Bronfman family became wealthy and were accepted into high society, and the mafia flourished—led by Al Capone, “Lucky” Luciano, Meyer Lansky and others.

A fascinating, nuanced social history.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-8147-2028-8
Page count: 248pp
Publisher: New York Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 2011


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