Each week, we post short interviews with interesting people about their thoughts and feelings on women and drinking. There is such a wide array of perspectives about this topic, and we are excited to gain insight into as many as possible and to share them with you.
This week, we are delving into a cultural stereotype: Jewish people don’t drink. How did this stereotype get started, and is there any truth to it?
Marni Davis is an Assistant Professor of History at Georgia State University. Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition is her first book.
Drinking Diaries: What made you decide to write a book on Jews and Booze?
Marni Davis: This book was born as a grad school project. I had recently moved to Atlanta to do doctoral work in American and Jewish history at Emory University; I wanted to study relations between blacks and Jews in the South. Not having any particular figure, event, or question in mind, I went to the library shelves where the books on race relations lived, started perusing volumes, and hoped that I might find something intriguing.
One of the books I pulled off the shelf was Following the Color Line, a collection of travel essays written by muckraking journalist Ray Stannard Baker between 1906 and 1908. These were truly terrible years for African Americans in the South. Though the peak years of lynching (1890-1900) had passed, dozens of black men were victims of murderous racial violence every year during the decade of Baker’s investigations. Southern legislators passed Jim Crow laws (which legalized the separation of the races in public facilities) and removed black men from voter rolls as fast as they could. And racist hysteria inspired mass disorder in several cities – including the one I’d just moved to. In September 1906, a white mob attacked Atlanta’s African-American neighborhoods, killing more than two dozen black men and destroying tens of thousands of dollars worth of black-owned property.
Baker considered several causal factors in his attempt to explain the Atlanta race riot, one of which was a rapidly metastasizing fear of black men’s alcohol consumption. City papers throughout that summer had hammered readers with constant stories about the threat drunken black men posed to white women; at the same time, southern op-ed pages uniformly insisted that black voters were unduly influenced by beer and liquor companies. The problem, as far as white Atlantans were concerned, was that black men drank; the riot had started in the city’s saloon district, and “colored” saloons were among the rioters’ first targets.
Baker included photographs of two of the neighborhood’s saloons in his essay, both of which had the proprietors’ name stenciled on the glass window: Abelsky on one, and Cohen the other. Beneath the two photos was the caption: “Many of the saloons for Negroes were kept by foreigners, usually Jews.” This stopped me in my tracks, for two reasons. One, I’d never thought of saloonkeeping, or the alcohol trade at all, as an American Jewish entrepreneurial niche. Clothing and dry goods, sure; the movie and music industries, you bet. But not beer or booze. And two, why was this even worth mentioning? What would it have meant to readers that Jews were selling alcohol to black men? Was this, as we say today, dog-whistle politics?
The research project I undertook in response to this caption, and the book that project eventually became, were attempts to respond to these questions. The answers, briefly put: indeed, Jewish immigrants were present, and in some places quite prevalent, in the American alcohol trade; and discussions of Jewish involvement in American alcohol commerce during the early twentieth century reflected and amplified broader concerns about Jews’ presence in the American economy.
As the above suggests, the main focus of my book is not Jews’ drinking habits, but rather Jews’ political and commercial relationship to alcohol in America. Nevertheless, it’s hard to talk about alcohol without talking about its consumption.
“Jews don’t drink” is one of those stereotypes, like so many stereotypes, that brushes up against the truth but doesn’t tell anywhere near the whole story. The idea that Jews don’t drink to excess, or that they don’t do so as often as other ethnic or religious groups, dates back to the 1700s, to the philosophers of the German Enlightenment. Immanuel Kant, among others, suggested that because Jews were a despised minority population, they always had to be on their guard; alcohol would lower their inhibitions and make them vulnerable, and this influenced Jewish cultural practices away from heavy social drinking. Others have suggested that alcohol’s inclusion in Jewish religious ritual – at home, at the dinner table, with family – makes Jews less likely to binge drink. And in the nature corner of the nature/nurture debate are geneticists who claim that Jews of European ancestry produce an enzyme that protects them from alcohol-related illness.
Here in the U.S., during the post-Civil War temperance movement’s debates about alcohol consumption, American Jews used this stereotype to their advantage, claiming that their “moderate” drinking habits made them excellent citizens. As one American rabbi wrote in the 1870s, “the Jew drinks,” but “he knows when to stop.” Whether that claim is actually true is another story. I found plenty of evidence of early twentieth century American Jewish immigrants drinking with the kind of enthusiasm that is usually associated with other ethnic groups – much to the dismay of other Jews. So in these cases, the answer to the question “do Jews drink” would depend upon which Jews one is referring to. There were dozens of saloons in the Jewish quarter of New York’s Lower East Side; some of these establishments were known for lively intellectual debate, and others for prostitution and other criminal activities. But even then, public health records of the day showed that relative to other American immigrant groups, Jews were rarely incarcerated or hospitalized because of excessive alcohol consumption.
This doesn’t mean that no Jews have ever had a drinking problem. But it does suggest why the stereotype survived. (It’s worth considering that the communal self-image as a sober people kept – and according to some studies, still keeps – alcoholic Jews and their families from admitting to a problem that they considered shamefully un-Jewish.) I have a feeling that as American Jews have become more acculturated, more integrated into American society, they have begun to drink in ways that look more like the ethnoreligious groups among whom they live and work.
What did you discover that most surprised you about Jewish people and drinking?
American Jews – especially older Jews – are really, really attached to the idea that Jews don’t get drunk. It seems to be an integral element of their identity, and, as it has been since the nineteenth century, a point of ethnic pride. Of course, they’re forgetting Genesis 9:20-25, wherein Noah gets so wasted that he passes out naked. They’re also overlooking Purim, the Jewish holiday that celebrates ancient Persian Jewry’s escape from genocide, during which Jews are supposed to get so loaded that they can’t tell the difference between “blessed be Mordechai” (the uncle of the Purim story’s heroine, Esther) and “cursed be Haman” (the story’s anti-Semitic villain). Not to mention the four cups of wine Jews are obligated to consume during the Passover Seder. Follow that law to the letter and you’re bound to get decidedly loopy.
Since I’m a social and cultural historian, not a sociologist or public health researcher, I’m less able to assess the truth of claims that Jews are somehow inured from alcoholism than I am the uses to which these claims have been put. But I have a feeling that the grandfathers and grandmothers of today’s Jewish college students would be shocked by the quantity of alcohol consumed at, say, an AEPi keg party.
Here’s an interesting consequence of the notion that Jews are moderate drinkers: Jewish women have historically consumed alcohol alongside their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons, on social occasions as well as during religious rituals. For middle-class Protestant women in the U.S., this was decidedly not the case. The differences between Jewish and Protestant ideas about gender and alcohol consumption during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were rather clear-cut – especially during the decades of the temperance and prohibition movements, in which Methodist and Baptist women played an immense part. Jewish women were generally not prohibitionists, for many of the same reasons that Catholic women were not: alcohol consumption was integral to their culture and religion; and Protestant women’s anti-alcohol organizations frequently sought to convert their non-Protestant members.
Still, while women are allowed and encouraged to consume in Jewish ritual and social settings, they are expected to do so even more moderately than men. This isn’t particular to Jewish culture, though. Rather, it’s an upshot of conventional ideas about proper and acceptable gendered behavior. This imposes a double burden upon Jewish women who struggle with alcoholism: to admit to a drinking problem is seen as not only un-Jewish, but also unfeminine.
Is there anything else you want to tell us about Jews and booze that we might not know?
It seems to me that American Jews have missed a golden opportunity to introduce Purim to the general population as a boozy celebration of ethnic diversity. Think St. Patrick’s Day and Irish-American identity, or Cinco de Mayo and Mexican-American identity (though the centrality of alcohol consumption the latter’s commemoration in the U.S. is mostly the doing of beer and tequila manufacturers). On St. Patrick’s Day, it’s said, everyone is a little bit Irish. Why not one day a year when everyone throws back a few and gets a little bit Jewish? Alas, I don’t see it happening any time soon. Perhaps the guys who make He’Brew beer should try to turn that around.