I was recently asked by the editor of my second book (which is on American Religious History for New York University Press), if I would like to take a look at a book that had recently been published by the press about Prohibition. I of course accepted, and now that I have had chance to finish it, thought that I would offer my reflections on it.
Written by Marni Davis of Georgia State University, Jews and Booze is a very important addition to the growing scholarship on Prohibition. Indeed, it is a needed addition. For one, it focuses on how Jews (both those who were recent immigrants and those who were native born) dealt with a reform that was almost entirely the creation of America's evangelical Protestants. As such, it gives readers yet another perspective on how immigrant groups (both as individuals from somewhere else and as a people with different cultural and religious perspectives) dealt with the call for reform. And while there is much correlation between how Roman Catholics and Jews reacted to Prohibition (from defiance to grudging acceptance to even support), there are also important differences that further enlighten readers on late nineteenth and early twentieth century America.
But the book is more than just another spin on reform/reaction in the age of Prohibition. It also delves, quite strongly and quite importantly, into the economics of immigrant culture. Not only was alcohol (Kosher wine in particular) a part of Jewish religious practice, but it was also a business that many Jewish immigrants had a history of being a part of. And, perhaps most importantly, alcohol was a business that was a very easy one for immigrants to be a part of. And so for Jews, being involved with alcohol (whether in terms of consumption or as a business) also raised important issues about how Americanized Jews could, would, and should become once Prohibition took off as a reform. These are important areas of inquiry and Davis should be commended for both raising and dealing with them.
She should also be praised for not just confining her study/examples to the New York City metropolitan area exclusively. Readers will also find a good deal of discussion of Jews in the South (particularly Atlanta). This allows her to explore a wide variety of issues, including how Protestants reacted to Jews in two very different regions of the country, how "damp" areas like New York were different than "dry" areas like Georgia, and what some or maybe even all of this meant to African Americans. While many will see Davis' book's chief strength as being the economic advancement available to immigrants via alcohol (and what it meant for both group cohesion as well as discussion over Americanization), for me, this comparative matrix was by far more significant.
As for my own work, it further solidifies some of the general findings I make in Prohibition is Here to Stay. Drys were not, out of hand anti-immigrant, but they did have a vision for American culture that often clashed with immigrants who were attempting to preserve their ethnic identity alongside their new American one. While the number of Jews in Indianapolis was small (indeed, I was only able to find enough information to provide a brief explanatory footnote on them), Davis' work comes as neither a surprise nor as a revelation to what I am sure was going on in Indiana's Jewish communities as well.
In the end, this is an important book. One that yet again reminds us that there is still much more to be done with the dry crusade.