The Chosen People in the Era of Prohibition
Throughout most of American history, alcohol has been as American as apple pie, according to Don Schwartz, emeritus professor of history at California State University, Long Beach. The Mayflower’s hold was filled with beer. George Washington, who owned a whiskey distillery, made sure his troops were supplied with a beverage he considered “essential.” Even Paul Revere stopped for a drink on his famous midnight ride, Schwartz explained in a March 3 talk at the Merage Jewish Community Center.
“Jews & Booze: The Chosen People in the Era of Prohibition” was the third in a series of three talks Schwartz gave in a series called “The Jewish Experience.”
Schwartz said that Colonial Americans drank on all occasions – sealing a business deal, raising a barn, holding an agricultural fair. During trials, a bottle was often passed around the courtroom, he said.
For Jews, alcohol has been a constant at family gatherings, rituals and meals – and Jews have traded in alcohol since at least the sixth century, when they settled in Babylon after the destruction of the Temple.
In the more modern era, Jews in the Russian Pale – limited in the professions they could ply – dominated the alcohol industry. An 1870 census revealed that 89 percent of all distillers and 74 percent of all brewers were Jews.
Jews & Booze: Tradition & Temptation
Wine is an important beverage in Jewish tradition. “It’s a symbol of joy, and we celebrate simchas (happy events) with wine,” says Rabbi Arnie Rachlis of University Synagogue in Irvine. “One of the central customs of the Shabbat table is wine.” Another, of course, is bread. Rachlis explained that wine and bread strike a balance: Wine is meant to elevate us, and bread to ground us.
Rabbi Drew Kaplan, rabbi and director for Southern California Jewish Student Services and rabbi for Long Beach Hillel, can quote plenty of Biblical and Talmudic texts relating to alcohol. That includes texts that speak to moderation. He points to a story in the Babylonian Talmud about Rabbah, who killed Rabbi Zeira after they got drunk at a Purim banquet. Rabbah was able to revive Rabbi Zeira, but when he suggested to Rabbi Zeira the following year that they enjoy another Purim drinking party, Rabbi Zeira wisely declined.
Kaplan, who hosts events for young adults in their 20s to 30s, often combines Torah study and alcohol in what he calls “Texts & Tastings” events. “We learn about the spirits, and pair it with a text,” he says. He is planning a “Bourbons and Boundaries” event on Sunday, April 27.
However, he adds, “I don’t always have alcohol in my programming. I held a couple of events last year with ice cream in the summer and am planning to do some with tea.” Even at the events with alcohol, it is simply a component. “The alcohol is there, but it’s not the focus. The real focus is on the discussion.”
Kaplan also notes that young adult events comprise mostly single people, and alcohol “easily functions as a social lubricant, helping people to overcome their fears and anxieties with approaching or speaking with people they may be interested in developing an intimate relationship with.”
In general, says Rachlis, Jews have tried to rein in excess consumption of liquor. At University Synagogue, any event that includes kids does not include wine. “When we have a Shabbat dinner, we serve grape juice to everyone,” he says. Wine is reserved for adult events.
Rachlis believes that drinking wine on Shabbat each week helped Jews in earlier times avoid abuse of alcohol the rest of the week. But in the late 20th century, he says, with American Jews becoming more assimilated, Jewish alcohol consumption climbed. “Parents of teenagers will tell you that one of the problems they’re most worried about is excess drinking. I worried, and I had talks with my kids when they entered high school,” he says.
Rabbis in the Orthodox community are beginning to address a growing teenage drinking problem, especially during Purim, when our sages tell us to drink until we can’t tell the difference between “Cursed is Haman” and “Blessed is Mordechai.”
“The Jewish definition of consuming alcohol comes in stages: tipsy, drunk and as drunk as Lot,” says Rabbi David N. Young of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley. Lot got so drunk while he and his family were in hiding that his daughters raped him, because they feared they would never have children.
Young went on to say that it is OK to get tipsy on Shabbat and holidays. On Purim, even getting drunk is OK. But wine in ancient days was an alcohol syrup to which water was added. So how strong the drink was depended on how much it was watered down. That’s why the guidelines on drinking are geared to how the body feels.
Young also pointed out another difference between ancient times and today, using the Passover Seder’s call for four ritual cups of wine (and another at dinner) as an example. “The problem with using that as a guidepost today,” says Young, is that [our forefathers] were all walking home.” Today, most of us drive to and from a Seder. And, says Young, “We have to consider the value of life over everything else.”
Young says the tradition in his family was to take four sips of wine, rather than drink four cups. “It’s OK to fill the cup and then replace the sip,” he says. “It’s also OK to use grape juice for Kiddush. It’s a completely halachic substitute.”