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Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition by Marni Davis (review)

From: Journal of Jewish Identities
Issue 6, Number 2, July 2013
pp. 92-94 | 10.1353/jji.2013.0026

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In addition to sporting one of the most memorable titles among recent academic books, Marni Davis's Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition entertains readers with the exploits of Jewish moonshiners, Bavarian Jewish winemakers, and rabbis who supplemented their incomes as bootleggers. Perhaps most entertaining is Izzy Einstein, the Jewish Prohibition agent who, with his partner Moe Smith, made more than 4,300 arrests of Prohibition violators, sometimes while dressed as "musicians, society dandies, pickle peddlers, college athletes" and even as "a bourgeois couple (Moe donned the dress and cloche hat) out for a night on the town." (179) Einstein briefly became a phenomenon, gaining a modicum of fame for his work. Davis recovers his story as well as others here to illuminate some of the key tensions surrounding the relationship of American Jews to alcohol production and consumption between the Civil War and the Great Depression. Davis's primary intent in Jews and Booze is to examine the process of Jews becoming American through the lens of their relationship to alcohol during this contentious period.

Work on capitalism is multiplying across many scholarly fields, and history has led the way to some extent. Davis herself contributed an article to a recent collection edited by Rebecca Kobrin, Chosen Capital: The Jewish Encounter with American Capitalism (Rutgers, 2012), a book which likely will set a pace within American Jewish history for the study of capitalism. Davis's monograph—the fourth book in New York University Press's new Goldstein-Goren Series in American Jewish History, edited by Hasia R. Diner—contributes to this growing scholarly literature on capitalism by arguing convincingly that Jewish entrepreneurship matters. Davis asserts that previous studies tying Jews to capitalism during this era have largely focused on Jews' role as wageworkers in garment and other industries. Focusing on Jews as entrepreneurs in the alcohol trade helps surface critical tensions around their simultaneous status as insiders and outsiders in the United States, Davis claims here.

Scholars in the field already well know that one of the central questions for American Jews of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era was how to balance blending in and standing out. Nonetheless, Davis's book is a valuable contribution to the existing literature on the insider/outsider tension that shapes much work in this field. She convincingly demonstrates that Jews' commercial relationship with alcohol "posed new and stressful challenges to Jewish status and identity in the United States that reverberated well beyond their economic pursuits." (2) Jews faced particularly difficult choices as a result of the temperance movement, which long predated the federal implementation of Prohibition from 1920 to 1933. Those who had deep commercial ties to alcohol production, distribution, and trade had either to change their relationship to alcohol commerce or risk being marginalized and vilified by supporters of the temperance movement. Temperance and Prohibition posed challenges to Jews' pocketbooks, their religious expressions at home and in synagogues, and their relationship to fellow Americans, including old-stock Protestants, Catholics, other white immigrants, and African Americans alike. Davis deftly takes her readers through the specifics of these relationships among Jews and others, showing how they emerged and changed over time from the rise of temperance movements to Prohibition's ascendancy and fall.

Davis's narrative unfolds in three parts. The first examines Jews' entrance into the alcohol industry and their initial reactions to the temperance movement in the nineteenth century. The second part focuses on Jews' role in the alcohol industry during the massive wave of Eastern European immigration around the turn of the century, with a particular focus on the relationship between alcohol commerce and anti-Semitism. The final section hews more closely to the lead-up and passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, focusing in particular on bootlegging activities among Jews, their relationships to other ethnic and racial groups within an increasingly pluralist nation, and intra-Jewish tension over proper strategies for responding to both state and federal liquor laws.

Davis's contributions are many, and some of them bear mention here. Her story is truly a transatlantic one, as she examines Jews' long engagement with the alcohol trade in the Pale of Settlement that predated their...



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