OyChicago blog

Cheers! Chicago: Jews and booze

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10/19/2009

If there is one aspect to Judaism that I find to be truly unique and special, it’s our history. Our shared struggles and triumphs, our traditions and values, our way of life that has remained intact over centuries and endured several civilizations. But what’s more interesting is that not only do we spend time building a rich history, we also dedicate ourselves to study it and to learn from it. It was this idea that led me to explore for myself just what it was like for Jews when they first arrived here in our beloved city of Chicago, and what roles they played. Of course, there were some things to expect: synagogues were built, Jewish communities settled into various neighborhoods around Chicago, and began to influence the culture within the city as early as the 1850s. But it was what I discovered about what some Jews were doing in the 1920s and early 1930s that caught me by surprise.

Recently, I happened to be glancing through the first volume of the Encyclopedia of American Jewish History, under the chapter titled “American Jewish Gangsters,” I came across an interesting fact that I am willing to bet most American Jews are not aware of, “Although Jews made up less than 4% of the nation’s population, during Prohibition, 50% of the nation’s leading bootleggers were Jews, and Jews and Jewish gangs bossed the rackets in some of America’s largest cities.”

Jews, in one form or another, had contributed to the existence, continuance, and eventual lift of the Prohibition Era of the United States of America! This led me to wonder: What was the Jewish attitude toward Prohibition while it was being argued before the nation? What has been the Jewish attitude toward Prohibition since it has been adopted? There were some interesting arguments made at that time, and anyone interested in learning more about this should read this short article from the December 31, 1921 Dearborn Independent newspaper.

Reading the various commentaries and experiences of several different Jews at this moment in history gave me even more insight into the never-ending struggle within all of us Jews, the moral voice that seems to reside within every one of us. In fact, each of you readers should open this page up and glance through it after reading this. Perhaps a discussion could begin…

Anyway, imagine my surprise to find that, in an effort to learn how Jews defined leading a good life in the eyes of God during a time where an important facet to the religion was banned, Jews actually played pivotal roles on both sides of the Prohibition debate. For every Rabbi Leo M. Franklin, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1921, there was an Arnold Rothstein, Jewish mobster smuggling liquor into the US; for every Orthodox Jew lamenting over the lack of wine for his Passover Seder, there was a Jewish politician or lobbyist looking to continue punishing those that sought to lift the ban. In any event, it seems that when it came to alcohol, the Jewish Americans were as outspoken and passionate as ever. For someone who views the Prohibition Era in the US as the Dark Ages, it was fascinating to learn that, as the Dearborn Independent writes, “first and last, the illicit liquor business in all its phases, both before and after Prohibition, has always been Jewish. Before Prohibition it was morally illicit, after Prohibition it became both morally and legally illicit.”

This issue’s spotlight cocktail recipe comes from my own mentor and master mixologist Bridget Albert, author of Market Fresh Mixology, a book everyone should own and use in their homes to create fabulous drinks with great and fresh ingredients. It’s a perfect fall cocktail that anyone can make at home or at a party. Oprah thought so!

Cinnamon Apple Cocktail, By Bridget Albert

2 ounces fresh sour mix
1/2 bar spoon cinnamon applesauce
1/2 ounce pear liqueur
1 1/2 ounce apple-flavored vodka
Apple slice
Add all ingredients except apple slice to your mixing glass. Fill the mixing tin with ice. Shake well. Strain into a martini glass (double-straining is optional).

L’Chaim!

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