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January 16: Jews and Prohibition

January 16, 2015

SUB-22-Roberts-articleLargeThe 18th Amendment to the Constitution, prohibiting the consumption, manufacture, and distribution of alcohol, was ratified on this date in 1919, to take effect a year later. Prohibition would advance the criminal careers of numerous Jewish gangsters, including Arnold Rothstein, Meyer Lansky, Waxey Gordon, Dutch Schultz, Harry Rosen, and Detroit’s Purple Gang. Apart from underworld figures, Prohibition raised issues of assimilation for American Jews: Should they “insist on ‘special rights’ for the sake of their own historical continuity,” writes Marni Davis in Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition, “or break with the past for the sake of assimilation? ... Jews who made a living selling liquor, or who defended alcohol’s legal availability, unwittingly acted as flash points for American anxieties about immigration and ­capitalism.”

“[T]he Jewish presence in the liquor trade attracted unwelcome attention from critics who associated alcohol and the places that sold it with vice, crime and race-mixing. Even the iconography of liquor advertisements — the ads for the Rosenfield Bros. distillery in Chicago featured a bevy of alluring women, some scantily clad and some naked — was condemned in some circles on the grounds that ‘such images inflamed the lust of the “black beast rapist.”’” —Jonathan Kirsch, Jewish Journal