The Points Interview: Marni Davis

Today’s “Points Interview” features Marni Davis, author of Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition.  Marni Davis is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Georgia State UniversityJews and Booze, the twentieth installment in the interview series, features a fantastic cover design (see below) and some really interesting reflections on alcohol, ethnic, and “American” identities.

Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.

Cover of Marni Davis' Jews and Booze
NYU Press, 2012

The subtitle – Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition – does the heavy lifting. This book is about an immigrant group’s process of adapting to life in the United States, and it focuses on a time when alcohol became one of the main sources of conflict between Jewish immigrant communities and native-born, white Protestant Americans. Jews and Booze asks: what happens when the cultural attachments and economic practices immigrants bring with them to their new home are seen as incompatible with American conventions? An examination of Jews’ involvement in the production and sale of alcohol, and their outspoken defense of its legal availability, during the years of the prohibition movement’s rise and fall provides an opportunity to watch acculturation, and the redefining of Jewish identity and tradition, in action. It was a messy, lurching process – especially at this time when American culture was itself undergoing such dramatic transformation.

What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

I’d hope that my account of economic anti-Semitism within the prohibition movement would be of interest. Accusations that Jews had achieved “domination” or “mastery” over the alcohol industry in the early twentieth century reflected broader concerns about their presence in the American economy. Anti-Semitism and prohibitionism each provided a framework for Americans to express alarm about the increasingly urban and commercial nature of the American economy. Negative attitudes toward alcohol commerce overlapped, and eventually intertwined, with animosity toward Jewish commercial conduct as Jews’ visible involvement in the alcohol traffic – especially in cities central to the liquor trade, like Louisville, Cincinnati, and Peoria – seemed to confirm American suspicions about Jewish economic behavior. Claims that Jews monopolized this controversial commodity, and were aggressively distributing and promoting an immoral product, mirrored broader concerns about their presence in the American economy, and seemed to manifest the erosion of white Protestants’ political, economic, and cultural dominance.

I should say here that I don’t mean to imply that the entire anti-alcohol movement hinged on anti-Jewish sentiment. For drug and alcohol historians, this is not a “game-changer.” But I aspire for my contribution to the literature to help make the case that the politics of temperance and prohibition were never only about alcohol consumption.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

Most definitely, responses to the title. I am simultaneously delighted and unnerved that it evokes laughter. It’s an unexpected word pairing, I suppose.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned.  What stone from Jews and Booze are you most curious to see turned over soon?

As a social and cultural historian, I’m not in a position to assess the categorical assertion that, as a nineteenth century American rabbi wrote, “the Jew drinks, but he … knows when to stop.” I encountered it constantly, not only in my archival findings but also in conversation as I was researching and writing this project. I’m primarily interested in the uses to which that claim has been put. But is it true? Was/is there a definitive difference between Jews’ drinking habits and those of other ethnic groups? And if that difference ever existed, did it diminish over the course of generations, as Jews became increasingly assimilated?  Geneticists and behavioral scientists are still looking into this. In fact, I have contributed a couple of vials of my own blood to a study of the role Ashkenazic Jewish enzyme production might play in protecting Jews of eastern European descent from alcohol-related illness. I was skeptical of that study even as I participated in it, since it was all nature, no nurture – their query didn’t give cultural factors even a moment’s thought. But I’m trained in the humanities, not hard science; so I’ll just be over here, analyzing the discourse.

It is worth saying, however, that pronouncements (be they historical or contemporary) that Jews are either physically or culturally insulated from alcoholism should be regarded as dubious. I certainly found records of Jews drinking with a level of enthusiasm that evoked consternation and disdain from other Jews. In these cases, the answer to the question “do Jews drink” would depend upon which Jews one is referring to. It’s true that nineteenth and early twentieth century public health records show that relative to other American ethnoracial groups, Jews were rarely incarcerated or hospitalized because of excessive alcohol consumption. Two factors may have inhibited the inclusion of American Jewish alcoholics in this data. First, Jewish immigrant communities in the U.S. established in-group medical and social aid services to protect Jews from becoming public charges, so Jews who drank themselves to ruin were unlikely to end up in municipal hospitals or poorhouses, where they would be counted among the indigents. Second, the communal self-image as a sober people kept (and according to some studies, still keeps) alcoholic Jews and their families from admitting to a problem that they considered shamefully un-Jewish.

Perhaps that’s changing, though: see Twelve Jewish Steps to Recovery: A Personal Guide to Turning from Alcoholism and Other Addictions (by Kerry Olitzky and Stuart Copans, Jewish Lights Publishing, 1991). So I suspect there’s a good deal more to be said about this subject.

BONUS QUESTION: In a Ken Burns film version of this book, who should provide the narration?

How about Marc Maron? Listeners to his comedy podcast know that he talks about both Jews and booze regularly, though as far as I know never in conjunction. His timbre and cadence lack the sepia-toned somberness of the typical Burnsian voice-over – which, for me, is part of his appeal.

One thought on “The Points Interview: Marni Davis

Comments are closed.