Jews and Booze: The Fascinating History of Jews and Alcohol

by Rabbi Ken Spiro. May 8, 2023

Why Jews played an enormous role in the alcohol business.

Wine has always played a central role in Jewish life cycle events and holidays. A cup of wine is used in a circumcision ceremony and a wedding, for kiddush at the beginning of every sabbath and holiday as well as Havdalah at its conclusion. What is far less known is the fascinating central role Jews have played in the production and sale of alcohol in Eastern Europe and America.

In 1569 Poland and Lithuania united into a commonwealth that lasted until the very end of the 18th century. For over 200 years, until it was divided between Austria, Prussia and Russia, it was the largest country Europe – comprising Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Latvia and much of the Ukraine and part of western Russia-the breadbasket of Europe.

Woodcut of a Jewish tavern in the Carpathian Mountains

Jews had already been migrating into Eastern Europe for centuries before the formation of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, but mass expulsions from many of the countries in Western Europe, combined with the more benevolent and welcoming attitude of the Polish and Lithuanian nobility, led to a huge increase in Jewish population. This made Eastern Europe, prior to the Holocaust, the center of the Jewish world. An estimated 30,000 to 50,000 Jews lived in Eastern Europe at the beginning of the 16th century. By the end of the 18th century the estimated Jewish population was 750,000 and by the end of the 19th century it had reached 5.5 million, 60% of the total estimated world Jewish population at that time.


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Why was the Polish-Lithuanian nobility so welcoming to Jews?

Jews were, for the most part, landless and not loyal to any of the local population. They were also more literate and connected to other Jewish communities in both Eastern Europe and elsewhere. This made them ideal middlemen for the sale of many commodities such as wheat and meat, but also valuable middlemen and administrators for the Polish nobility’s colonization of their landholdings in the Ukraine. Eastern European Jews played a key role in what was known as the Arenda system whereby they would lease farmland from the nobility and act as the overseers, administrators and tax collectors of the local peasants.

Inn Keeping and Drinking

The Jewish population was spread throughout thousands of towns and villages in this vast territory which led to another key area of economic activity: inn keeping. Even the smallest village had an inn which not only provided food and lodging, but also drink. The huge amount of grain grown in eastern Europe was more than enough to produce not just bread, but also alcohol, specifically vodka, which was served in copious quantities in every inn in Eastern Europe.

The production and sale of alcohol proved to be so profitable that it’s estimated that a third of all Eastern European Jewry was involved in some aspect of that business.

Jews totally dominated the inn-keeping business; the Jewish innkeeper became a fixture in almost every town and village. The distillation and sale of alcohol became one of the biggest money-makers for the Polish nobility who earned the lion’s share of the profit from its sale to the peasantry. The nobility also believed that only Jews, unlike many eastern Europeans, could remain sober enough to profitably run an inn.

The production and sale of alcohol proved to be so profitable that it’s estimated that by the mid-18th to early 19th centuries a third of all Eastern European Jewry was involved in some aspect of that business. The innkeeper had to pay a majority of his profits to the nobleman, so in order to earn a living he had to sell a lot of alcohol. This put the Jewish innkeeper in the unenviable position of pushing as much vodka as possible on the local peasants which in turn let to copious drinking and very high levels of alcoholism amongst the peasants.

Driven Out

After the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Austria, antisemitic restrictions forbade Jewish involvement in innkeeping, alcohol and many other jobs, greatly increasing poverty within the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. Jews were often able to circumvent these discriminatory restrictions by using a non-Jews as the “front man” in the local inn, but ever-increasing restrictions and violent antisemitism drove Jews almost completely out of the alcohol business, and also drove millions of Jews physically out of Eastern Europe. Two and a half million Eastern European Jews immigrated to the United States between 1882 and 1920.

Jewish Smugglers by Alexander Rizzoni, 1860. (Courtesy of the State Russian Museum.)

The vast majority of the Jewish immigrants to America arrived with virtually nothing, lived in poverty in overcrowded tenement buildings in New York City and worked long hours for pennies in sweatshops doing menial labor in abominable working conditions. Poverty, discrimination and competition with other immigrant populations drove some of these Jews into gangs which competed with Italian and Irish gangs and led to the creation of organized crime in the early 20th century.

Meyer Lansky, Sam Bronfman and the Illegal Sale of Alcohol

Meyer Lansky

In October of 1919 congress passed the Volstead Act, the Eighteenth Amendment of the U.S. constitution which banned the sale of alcohol in the United States – also known as Prohibition. (It was repealed in 1933). Organized crime syndicates already involved in gambling, extortion, loan sharking, racketeering and other illegal activities could now add bootlegging to the list. The illegal production, importation and sale of alcohol and the running of illegal, underground bars also known as speakeasies, became a huge source of income for organized crime and Jewish mobsters were heavily involved in the business. (It’s estimated that in the late 1920’s there were 32,000 speakeasies in New York City alone!)

While the vast majority of Jews had nothing to do with organized crime or bootlegging, Jewish mobsters played a disproportionately large role in the illegal alcohol business.

While the vast majority of Jews had nothing to do with organized crime or bootlegging, Jewish mobsters played a disproportionately large role in the illegal alcohol business. The most prominent Jew in the bootlegging business was an Eastern European immigrant named Meyer Lansky who had teamed up with the Italian American mobster Charles “Lucky” Luciano to develop the National Crime Syndicate in the U.S.

Across the border in Canada the production and sale of alcohol was completely legal, and Lansky saw this as a great source of booze for the American market. His number one supplier in Canada was Sam Bronfman. The Bronfman family, also from Eastern Europe, had immigrated to Montreal and acquired the Canadian Seagram’s Distillery Company in the early 1920’s. Sam Bronfman turned Seagram into a very profitable enterprise in no small part due to prohibition.

Sam Bronfman

The challenge for Lansky was how to smuggle the alcohol into America. The safest route was by water, across Lake Erie, the smallest of the Great Lakes, located on the border between the U.S. and Canada. So much booze was smuggled across that lake by Bronfman to Lansky that it was nicknamed “the Jewish Lake.”

So much booze was smuggled across that lake by Bronfman to Lansky that it was nicknamed “the Jewish Lake.”

There were also a number of exemptions to the prohibition of the sale of alcohol. One of them was for sacramental or religious reasons. Because sacramental wine could be legally distributed through synagogues, many congregations reported massive increases, up to tenfold, in membership during prohibition and there were even cases of non-Jews establishing “Jewish congregations” for the same purpose!

Wine for Passover during the Prohibition

The repeal of prohibition in 1933, together with World War II and the end of the Great Depression largely put an end to Jewish involvement in the alcohol business and organized crime, and most of these Jewish mobster’s children and grandchildren pursued far more respectable careers in medicine, law and accounting.

Throughout history Jewish immigrants, often facing poverty and discrimination, left no stone unturned in their search of novel ways to survive and make a living and in the case of alcohol business, it seems that they also left no glass unfilled.

More About The Author

Rabbi Ken Spiro

Rabbi Ken Spiro, originally from New Rochelle, NY, graduated from Vassar College with a BA in Russian Language and Literature and did graduate studies at the Pushkin Institute in Moscow. He has rabbinic ordination from Aish Jerusalem and a Master’s Degree in History from The Vermont College of Norwich University. 

Categories: Articole de interes general

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