Short, fat, flamboyantly Jewish and with a punim only a mother could love, Izzy Einstein “cut a peculiar figure” in the Prohibition landscape, writes Marni Davis in “Jews and Booze.” While most American Jews opposed Prohibition and many actively flouted it, Izzy couldn’t sign up fast enough to be an agent of the Prohibition Unit’s Manhattan office, and with his partner Moe Smith he gained fame as an unusually effective enforcer.
In making 4392 arrests in five years, Izzy and Moe busted speakeasies disguised as “musicians, society dandies, pickle peddlers, college athletes and a bourgeois couple (Moe donned the dress and cloche hat),” and used Izzy’s knowledge of Yiddish and European languages to infiltrate immigrant communities in various American cities.
Einstein is one of the more colorful characters in “Jews and Booze,” even if unrepresentative. Subtitled “Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition,” Davis’s new book is more concerned with Jewish immigrant acculturation and how it was challenged by the rise of the temperance movement and the passing of the 18th Amendment.
Along the way, she lays bare an anti-Semitic strain to prohibitionism that hasn’t been much recognized.
On the line from Atlanta where she teaches as an assistant professor in history at Georgia State University, Davis is a lively interlocutor, reeling off anecdotes that never made it into her publishing debut. The academic reviews are still to come in, but so far the Prohibition historians she’s spoken to regard “Jews and Booze” as an intriguing aside.
“This isn’t blowing a hole in the historiography,” she says. “I’m adding to the conversation, and so far no one has said no.”
Davis does, however, scrutinize far more closely than anyone previously the challenge that Prohibition represented to the Jewish immigrant community. Some of this was undisguised anti-Semitism.
Jews involved in the liquor trade were accused of corrupting the white Protestant working man. Henry Ford, whose genius for business was matched only by his rabidness on the “Jewish question,” declared that not only did Jews dominate 1920s bootlegging, but in the years before Prohibition they’d used their role in the booze trade to undermine American culture.
Davis says Ford’s outbursts were probably the most shocking thing she uncovered while researching her book. “He even brings in the rabbi of Detroit, Leo Franklin, who’d spoken out about the problems happening in American Jewish culture and American culture generally because of the special dispensation made for sacramental wine and the role Jews were playing in dispensing it far beyond their congregations.
“Ford goes from quoting Rabbi Franklin to claiming Jews were incapable of participating in mainstream American culture and following American law. The harshness, the sweeping claims, still shocked me every time.”
Yet Davis is clear that such vitriolic anti-Semitism was not part of the Prohibition mainstream. Both were expressions of Americans’ alarm at how their society was changing, becoming more economically stratified, urban and commercial.
“But I’m not trying to make an argument that to understand Prohibition you have to understand anti-Jewish feeling in America,” she says. “Those who regarded Jews as among the essential problems of the alcohol trade were a fringe.
“But Jews were seen — and not without cause — as participants in American alcohol commerce. Especially in cities like Cincinnati and Louisville they were prominent among distillers, and in cities where there were saloon districts, Jews were also saloon-keepers.”
For successive waves of 19th-century Jewish immigrants, becoming involved in the American alcohol industry represented both a connection to their past and a means to improve their present. East European Jews, in particular, had a long pre-migration history in the liquor trade — it was one of the few occupations open to them in the Russian Pale of Settlement.
But by carrying on that traditional role once they reached America, Jewish immigrants were on a collision course with the teetotalers. “They were saloon-keepers at the exact moment that the anti-saloon league is coming to power in the U.S.”
The Jewish response to that challenge was “fractured” and driven by diverse motivations, says Davis. Some saw prohibitionism as a threat to their ancient rituals. Others were driven by commercial self-interest, or a recognition of the economic benefits of the booze trade to many Jewish families.
But Davis argues that Jewish hostility was also about defending the idea of a non-sectarian state, “an idea which American Jews held dear.” Temperance was seen as attempting to impose Protestant values and morality, to “Christianize” American life.
Whatever the motivation, most Jews opposed Prohibition. But once it came into effect, they faced a dilemma: did they demand “special rights,” or abandon tradition for the sake of assimilation?
“There were those who stated that according to the Talmud, the law of the land is the law. There were those who continued to despise it and wanted to fight,” says Davis. “And there those who made their feelings known by continuing to drink and participate in alcohol commerce, as both purveyors and consumers.”
Others worried that by flouting the law Jews were feeding negative stereotypes — and not without cause. The activities of prominent Jewish bootleggers such as Meyer Lansky and Longy Zwillman were toxic PR.
Equally damaging were a series of scandals involving Orthodox rabbis abusing their dispensation for sacramental wine. “Assertions that Jews were foremost among illicit alcohol purveyors were heard from all stations of American society,” Davis writes in a chapter titled “Rabbis and Other Bootleggers.”
And then it was over. There’s a wonderful photo in book of former Prohibition agents Izzy and Moe enjoying a "bisil mashke" (a little drink) after repeal. America — and American Jews — moved on, and in time Jewish participation in the alcohol trade became a non-issue.
Other economic options had opened up for the sons of saloon-keepers, anti-Semitism was waning and alcohol itself no longer inspired the old anxieties. But until that moment of repeal, concludes Davis, the relationship of Jews with booze had magnified the challenges they faced in the process of becoming American.
“I’m just glad to be adding to the general consensus among historians that Prohibition wasn’t merely about liquor,” she says. “It was about American identity, about what was ethical economic behavior in American society.
“It was never just about drinking.”
*"Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition" is published by NYU Press at $32.