If you have been to a Hasidic event like a wedding you will notice a lot of drinking and playful antics among the Jewish partygoers; the same for the holiday of Purim. Yet, despite the noise generated these are generally happy drunks, not nasty ones. Both custom and genetics might explain this phenomenon, George Jochnowitz writes: "It may well be, however, that having a fifth of the population with a genetic aversion to getting drunk can slow down the rates of alcoholism among the remaining majority. It is also quite likely that religious customs involving drinking wine at family gatherings has a sobering effect on the role of alcohol in community life."
by George Jochnowitz
Age of Prohibition
by Marni Davis. New York and London:
New York University Press, 2012. x + 262 pp.
Henry Ford held Jews responsible for alcoholism in the United States. “There is not a dialogue on the stage today that does not drip with whiskey,” he wrote. “The idea of drink will be maintained by means of the Jewish stage, Jewish jazz and the Jewish comics until somebody comes down hard upon it as being incentive of treason to the Constitution.” (1) Ford, who was both an anti-Semite and a prohibitionist, believed that Jews were very powerful, controlled the media, and opposed prohibition so that they could make money from their distilleries and saloons.
There were indeed Jews who owned businesses connected with alcohol, and that probably was a factor in the general opposition of the Jewish community to prohibition. Other factors may have been even more important. Jews, by and large, don’t feel threatened by alcoholism within their own communities. Alcoholism happens to others. There is even a folk song including the words “Oy oy oy, shikker is a goy, shikker iz er, trinken miz er, vayl er iz a goy.”(2) (A drunkard is a gentile. Drunkard is he; drink must he; for he is a gentile). The word for “must” is miz, to rhyme with iz, as it does in Polish and Ukrainian Yiddish but not in Lithuanian and Standard Yiddish, where it is muz.
When the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was formed in 1874, ther was some discussion about the use of the word “Christian” in the name of the organization since it might “shut out the Jews.” The name was chosen anyway, since the members felt there was no creed test.” (3) However, in 1895, the editor of the periodical The American Jewess, Rosa Sonnenschein, wrote that “the name Christian indicates too narrow a sphere.” But that was not her main objection to the movement. Rather, she felt that drunkenness among Jews was “only encountered in a few isolated cases.” (4) Sonnenschein might never have heard of the popular song Shikker iz a goy, but she was expressing a similar view, although much more politely.
There is apparently a genetic component in the relatively low rates of alcoholism among Jews. There is a gene called ADH2*2 that prevents whose with the gene from enjoying drunkenness. "Recently, reports have shown a relatively high prevalence [approximately 20 percent] of ADH2*2 in Jewish samples ... suggesting that ADH2*2 is one of the factors explaining the low rates of alcoholism in this group," Earlier research has shown that differences in religious practice and level of religiosity cannot account for these low rates. (5) People are genetically different from each other. These differences may include the way we experience the world. Some people are color blind; most are not. Some people have absolute pitch; most do not. Some people are super tasters; most are not. If we perceive the world differently, in is natural that we react differently.
20 percent with ADH2*2 means that four-fifths of Jews do not have a gene that makes them dislike being drunk. It may well be, however, that having a fifth of the population with a genetic aversion to getting drunk can slow down the rates of alcoholism among the remaining majority. It is also quite likely that religious customs involving drinking wine at family gatherings has a sobering effect on the role of alcohol in community life.
I had never been aware of any alcoholics until I was about 7 or 8 years old. Then I met Mr. Shikker (not his real name, of course, although he was a gentile). His wife and their six children worked on our farm near Goshen, New York, and on other farms in the area. When they got paid, Mr. Shikker took all their money and went to a bar to get drunk. He then got into a fight, injured somebody, and was sentenced to jail. While he was in jail, his wife and children could keep the money they earned. When he got out of jail, the situation repeated itself. When I was 8, my parents stopped farming, and we never saw the Shikker family again. A few years later, we were told that they had been in an auto accident. Mrs. Shikker was driving, and Mr. Shikker was killed. The rest of the family survived with only minor injuries. In the days before seat belts were used in cars, it was not unusual for the person sitting in the right front seat to suffer the most serious—and perhaps fatal—injuries in an auto accident.
I became a supporter of prohibiting alcoholic beverages at that time, although it was not an issue, since the 21st Amendment had been ratified in 1933, before I was born. I have since modified my views.
However, I understand why prohibition had been a major political issue. There must have been many people who had met and perhaps even been abused by alcoholics like Mr. Shikker. And that’s not all. Alcohol is bad for one’s health. “According to Robert Brewer, the alcohol program leader at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, heavy drinking is the third leading preventable cause of death in this country, after smoking and a combination of bad diet and inactivity.” (6)
Jews were not the only community in which drinking alcoholic beverages was a social and family practice. German Americans were another such group. “They sensed nativism in the [prohibitionist] movement’s occasional screeds against immigrants, and feared that the anti-alcohol initiative was, at its core, an attack on German culture and German American communities.” (7) Then the United States entered World War I. “The nation was wracked by a nativist spasm that inspired the banning of the German language in Iowa and music composed by Germans in Boston, and led to the lynching of a German immigrant in Missouri.” (8) I had never before heard of the lynching of a German in the United States. This is one of many facts I learned from this very informative and readable book.
Another attack against immigrants was voiced by Bishop James Cannon, Jr., a spokesman for the Anti-Saloon League. Speaking against presidential candidate Governor Al Smith and in support of Herbert Hoover, Cannon said that Smith wanted Italians, Sicilians, Poles and Russian Jews to continue to immigrate. Cannon said that Smith “wants the kind of dirty people you find on the sidewalks of New York . . . . That kind has given us a stomach ache. We have been unable to assimilate such people into our national life.” (9)
During the years of Prohibition, Jews were allowed to use wine for religious celebrations and Catholics were allowed to have wine at Mass. To a certain extent, the ability to obtain alcoholic beverages legally helped bootleggers. However, Jews and Catholics were certainly not the only people engaged in these illegal practices. “Bootlegging provided a vital source of income for Americans of every stripe, in every region, in big cities, small towns, and rural areas. Instead of reducing illegal activities, as proponents had predicted, Prohibition inspired a crime wave so substantial that it overwhelmed both the courts and prisons.” (10) Jewish organizations naturally opposed any attempts at bootlegging, arguing that the law of the land is the law (dina d’malchutah dina). (11)
The spread of crime was one of the factors that made Prohibition increasingly unpopular. Congress voted to repeal the 18th Amendment in 1933. “Thirty-seven states held popular elections to determine their position, and of the twenty-one million Americans who voted on the matter, nearly 73 percent favored the repeal of the law.”(12) The 21st Amendment was passed the same year.
In the 19th century, there were Jews who owned bars. “An 1890 study of the occupants of Lower East Side Jews found 248 saloon keepers among them.” (13) After the end of Prohibition, and in particular, after the end of World War II, “Jewish occupational trends gravitated toward white-collar occupations such as medicine, law, and education.” (14) The connection between Jews and the manufacture and sale of booze had ended.
1. Davis, p. 160.
2. Ibid., p. 74.
3. Ibid., p. 41.
5. “Gene Discourages Alcoholism in Jews,” about.com, updated Nov. 23, 2003
6. Bruni, Frank. “Drinking and Drugging,” The New York Times, Feb. 19, 2012.
7. Davis, p. 64.
8. Ibid., p. 142.
9. Ibid., p. 190.
10. Ibid., p. 146.
11. Ibid., p. 167.
12. Ibid., p. 192.
13. Ibid., p. 89.
14. Ibid., p. 198.
George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937. He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY. His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects. As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright ©2013. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. This essay appeared in the Autumn 2012 issue of MIDSTREAM. This post can be found on George Jochnowitz. It is republished here with the permission of the author.