Prohibition was arguably the preeminent issue in American politics and civil life at the end of the 19th century and through the first decades of the 20th century. Prohibitionists – led primarily by devout Protestants and the infamous Temperance Union – claimed that alcohol was the primary cause of public immorality, the deterioration of the family, rampant crime, and political corruption, and, accordingly, sought to make its sale and consumption illegal. The Eighteenth Amendment – which imposed a constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages – went into effect on January 16, 1920.
Although it is impossible to know the exact number of bootleggers during Prohibition, historians believe that approximately 60 percent of them belonged to criminal gangs led by Jewish mobsters, including particularly Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, who gained control of the beer and liquor supply for many cities.
Non-gangster Jews were also involved in the proliferation of alcohol during Prohibition; for example, Samuel Bronfman, the Jewish owner of Seagram’s, ran a bootlegging operation from Canada that was so expansive that Lake Erie became sardonically referred to as “the Jewish Lake.” Nonetheless, alcoholism was virtually absent from the Jewish community, consistent with Judaism’s philosophy of moderation in all things.
Jews were generally staunch opponents of Prohibition for several reasons. First, they saw it as part of a strategy to “Christianize” America by imposing both religious hegemony and racial purity on it – an effort that included ridding America of immigrants, including particularly Jewish immigrants, and religious minorities. Many Jewish organizations, including B’nai Brith and the American Jewish Committee, noted that organizations supporting Prohibition were invariably groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the Protestant Church that sought to limit Jewish civil rights.
Second, wine plays an important role in many Jewish practices (kiddush and havdalah; marriage and circumcision rites; the Passover Seder, etc.), and Jews protested interference with their First Amendment right to freedom of religion.
Third, alcohol was big business, and many Jews legally supported their families through alcohol-related employment. Thus, they saw Prohibition as a serious threat to their economic liberty. This was particularly true of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, who took their distilling and wine-making skills with them to the New World and used them to legally support their families.
(Although the earliest record of the kosher wine business in the United States is the importation of 42 casks from Jerusalem to New York City in 1848, by the last decades of the 19th century, most kosher wine in the U.S. came from Eastern and Central Europe.) Alcohol entrepreneurship was the exemplar of upward mobility and social integration for many American Jewish immigrants.
Fourth, the production of wine was a Jewish tradition going back to at least Talmudic times when wine, rather than water, was the staple at every meal and, because of strict kashrut laws regarding wine production, Jews often made their own kosher wine. Particularly to the two million Jews who had immigrated to the United States during the decades immediately preceding Prohibition, alcohol was an important part of their culture, and many culturally assimilated Jews worked in the liquor industry as distillers, wholesalers, and, disproportionately, as Jewish saloonkeepers. (Jews, who were about 5 percent of the population, were about 50 percent of the saloonkeepers.).
The National Prohibition Act, known informally as the Volstead Act, was enacted to create the mechanisms for translating the intent of the 18th Amendment into functioning law. Among its 39 sections, it set up an enforcement unit under the aegis of the IRS.
The Act provided for several Prohibition loopholes, including exceptions for industrial alcohol (cleaning products and the like) and “medical liquor,” which was an unmitigated sham because, as per the American Medical Association at the time, alcohol had no therapeutic use of any kind. Nonetheless, virtually anyone could purchase a prescription from his friendly neighborhood physician and obtain a scrip for the purchase of a pint of liquor every 10 days. The result was a sudden and unprecedented increase in “illnesses,” even epidemics, in families across America; it got so ridiculous that people began to say that “a bartender is just a pharmacist with a limited inventory.”
But the Volstead Act loophole that was of far more interest to Jews was the “sacramental wine” exception. In what was almost certainly a concession to Jewish and Catholic critics – and to preserve the important Catholic vote and protect the Act against First Amendment constitutional challenges – Section 6 declared:
Nothing in this title shall be held to apply to the manufacture, sale, transportation, importation, possession or distribution of wine for sacramental purposes, or like religious rites…. No person to whom a permit may be issued…shall sell, barter, exchange, or furnish any such [wine] to any person not a rabbi, minister of the gospel, priest, or other officer duly authorized for the purpose by any church or congregation…. The head of any conference or diocese or other ecclesiastical jurisdiction may designate any rabbi, minister, or priest to supervise the manufacture of wine to be used for the purposes and rites in this section mentioned….
Interestingly, the sacramental wine exception was far broader for Jews than for Christians. Christians were only authorized to obtain wine for their Mass and communion – public rites that take place in church – but Jews were allowed to bring wine home, which is the site of many Jewish rites involving wine. To facilitate governmental regulation of the Jewish sacramental exception, rabbis were only required to submit a list of congregational membership to government regulators, who would issue permits to individual members to purchase up to 10 gallons of wine a year.
In early 1920, Orthodox Rabbis Shalom Jaffee and Moses Margoles went to Washington to lobby Prohibition authorities to distribute sacramental wine permits only to the rabbis of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis. Louis Marshall, president of the Conservative American Jewish Committee, successfully led the challenge by non-Orthodox denominations for recognition of their rabbis under the Volstead Act. The farcical result was a historic expansion of the number of rabbis and Jews joining Jewish congregations, never seen before or since – even during the “yeshiva rabbinical deferment” draft-dodging days of the Vietnam War.
The Catholic Church was structured and hierarchical, making it relatively easy for the government to determine who was a priest. In marked contrast, there was no central authoritative Jewish body that could dictate who was a rabbi or establish formal qualifications for rabbinical designation, making such determination by the government regulators virtually impossible.
Before the rise of new pseudo-Jewish denominations during the so-called Enlightenment toward the end of the 18th century, rabbis were ordained by their rebbes after demonstrating broad mastery of Jewish law and the requisite character traits to serve as a religious leader. Under Volstead Act regulations, all that an applicant had to do to receive a rabbinical license from the Department of State was to submit 10 affidavits (a minyan!) confirming that he was a rabbi and, not surprisingly, many people took advantage.
Many of these “rabbis” didn’t even bother to obtain authentic signatures, instead taking names from telephone books, directories, cemetery headstones, and the like, or just plain making them up. One pseudo rabbi manifesting both humor and audacity named his flock “Congregation L’Chaim” (the traditional Jewish toast). Some of these rabbis would earn additional personal profit by selling lists of their “congregants,” often to non-Jews.
Suddenly, there was a veritable explosion of “Rabbi Katzes,” “Rabbi Epsteins,” and “Rabbi Rosenbergs” who could not read a word of Hebrew, had never seen the inside of a yeshiva or synagogue, and wouldn’t know a Jewish law if they tripped over one, and “rabbis” arrested by Prohibition enforcement agents included “Rabbi O’Brien,” “Rabbi Murphy,” and “Rabbi Gallagher.”
These bogus rabbis made significant money not only selling fraudulently-obtained sacramental wine, but also their licenses, which commanded a very high price. The low likelihood of getting caught, and the relatively meager penalties if they were, only served to increase the growth of the American “rabbinate” during Prohibition.
The sacramental exemptions led to broad abuse. For example, in 1919 (the first year of Prohibition), one Los Angeles congregation boasted an increase from 180 member families to over 1,000 families. Five years later, some three million gallons were distributed under the sacramental exception.
Another example: During a 1926 investigation by Prohibition enforcement officials of 600 New York City rabbis suspected of inflating their congregation numbers, the distribution of sacramental wine fell from one million gallons to only 6,000 gallons in just one year. Thus, either the demand for sacramental wine fell by 99.4 percent in just one year – or there were almost a million non-Jews holding themselves out as pious Jews and taking advantage of the sacramental exception to the Volstead Act.
The large role played by Jews in opposing Prohibition and engaging in bootlegging operations provided abundant fodder for anti-Semites, including notably Henry Ford who, in his anti-Semitic rag, The Dearborn Independent, claimed that Jewish crimes against Prohibition were indicative of a general Jewish conspiracy designed to undermine American morals. John Newton Tillman, a racist U.S. representative from Arkansas, referred specifically to distillers named Steinberg, Hirschbaum, and Shaumberg while railing against Prohibition violators.
One serious adverse repercussion arising out of the Jews’ public and prominent role in violating Prohibition laws manifested itself in Congress’s consideration of a highly restrictive immigration law. During hearings before the House Immigration Committee, various congressmen noted with contempt that Jews were among the foremost violators of the Volstead Act. The law in question, which seriously restricted Jewish immigration to America, was passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority in record time.
Jewish violations were particularly scrutinized and condemned by the press, with a spotlight brought to bear on the phony rabbis, which embarrassed rabbinical leadership across all denominations. The Orthodox Jewish leadership in particular, horrified by the degradation of the Torah caused by the fraudsters, argued that publicly upholding Judaism as the religion of truth was more important than using wine at Jewish religious rites.
To stem the abuse of the sacramental wine exception, non-Orthodox leadership – following a 1922 responsa by noted Professor Louis Ginzberg – ruled that grape juice could be used for Jewish rituals instead of wine. However, as others have pointed out, this did not resolve the problem because there were insufficient supplies of kosher grape juice.
Moreover, the virtually uniform Orthodox position at the time was that only fermented wine – not grape juice – could be used for Jewish rituals. That position was perhaps best laid out by Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein, president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, in A Year of Orthodoxy (December 1925), where he ruled that even though rogues and villains were abusing the sacramental privilege, Jews should not ignore the imperative to use wine for their rituals. In any event, this Prohibition-era “wine vs. grape juice” clash was an important development in the creation of an unbreachable chasm between the Conservative movement and authentic Torah law.
The Reform Central Conference of American Rabbis considered petitioning the government to repeal the sacramental wine exception, but ultimately opted not to do so because it feared provoking Christian clergy who, apparently, were not as lenient as Reform leadership about using grape juice for religious rites. Instead, they decided to lobby Prohibition authorities to limit Section 6 of the Volstead Act to Christians, but this attempt failed, and the abuses continued.
By 1926, the Prohibition authorities had had enough. They voided all existing rabbinical wine permits and required all rabbis to personally appear before the local Prohibition Administrator to justify their requests for wine. Although the Orthodox rabbis vociferously protested, the new regulations remained in effect. Not surprisingly, the sale of sacramental wine plummeted.
Throughout the Prohibition years, anti-prohibitionists, or “wets,” attacked Prohibition for causing, rather than stemming, crime (indeed, there was a direct correlation between Prohibition and violent crime); for lowering local revenues (with lost tax revenue causing great damage to America’s prospects for recovery from the Great Depression of 1929); and for imposing Protestant religious values on other Americans.
They finally won the day when, on December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, repealing federal Prohibition laws and returning control of alcohol to the states, some of which continued to ban alcohol even after repeal; Mississippi, for example, maintained its ban on alcohol until 1966.
Even today, many states have so-called “blue-laws” in effect, prohibiting the sale of alcohol on Sundays, and the Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of blue laws several times on secular grounds, arguing that they, for example, protect workers and families and contribute to societal stability.