On the Centenary of Prohibition

Current LABA Fellow Sarah Sigal offers a fascinating and very personal look into the role of American Jewry in Prohibition.

January 2020 marks the 100-year anniversary of the activation of the Volstead Act, which kicked the 18th Amendment into gear, banning alcohol in the United States until 1933.

The Progressive movement of the day thought if alcohol was banned, then good, honest, hard-working Americans would spend their free time and money doing wholesome things like contributing to the fabric of society, rather than getting wasted after work. Some of them did, some spent it seeking out speakeasies and illicit booze. Others went into the lucrative business of bootlegging. One of those people was my great-grandmother Goldy Sigal, née Seeburg.

If you google ‘Maxwell Street Chicago’, one of the first images that comes up is an  early 20th century street scene of a bustling, crowded market. And if you squint, you can see that one of the awnings on the shops reads: S. SIGAL. In one version of this scene, my great-grandmother features in the picture, walking outside the family hardware store, pregnant with my grandfather. Maxwell Street was a famous marketplace and landing strip for newly-minted emigrés, mostly Jews from Eastern Europe, like my great-grandmother Goldy, who came to the US from Latvia (the then-Russian Empire) in the 1890s.

What you might not know is that the Prohibition Movement not only attracted the idealistic Progressives of the era, but also white nationalists seeking to cleanse America of the so-called rot and filth brought into the country by foreign elements like the Irish, the Italians and the Jews. Because what do Catholics and Jews have in common? Wine as a crucial ingredient in religious rituals. The 1920s and 30s saw the meteoric rise of the Ku Klux Klan in part because Klan members were emboldened by the movement to ‘clean up’ America; they often volunteered to help Federal agents root out illegal stills and gin joints because it gave them the opportunity to police and terrorize minority communities. The physical purity of the American body became associated with the ethnic purity of the body politic.

Something else you might not know is that the 18th Amendment included provisions and exemptions for Jews, so as not to violate the 2nd Amendment and their right to practice their religion. For example, rabbis had special dispensation to distribute wine to their congregants for sacramental purposes. You can imagine how congregations swelled dramatically and bootlegging rabbis became a presence across the country. (Welcome to B’nai Cabernet!) Some historians put the percentage of Jewish bootleggers as high as 60%.

Generally speaking, Jews didn’t take kindly to the Volstead Act. Some of the more assimilated, reform Jews leaned in the direction of the Progressives, hoping banning alcohol would be for the good of all Americans. However, a significant number of more recently arrived, more traditional Jews (especially those working in the alcohol industry themselves) were against it, feeling it infringed on their Constitutional rights. Prohibition was bad for business but they also knew that any movement with the backing of the KKK was a dangerous one. For many, there was a haunting parallel with what they had escaped in Russia; the same Tsar that cracked down on Jewish ownership of taverns (seen as a Jewish plot to hinder the working capacity of Russian peasants), had also incited devastating violence against Jewish communities. In an article in a local Southern paper from the period, a Jewish writer refers to racial violence perpetrated by a white lynch mob on a black community as a pogrom.

In case you’re wondering how Judaism views alcohol consumption, this portion from the Midrash Tanhuma, Parashat Noah, 13 teaches an interesting lesson:

‘Once while Noah was hard at work, breaking the ground for a vineyard, Satan drew near and inquired what he was doing, “What are you planting?”

Noah: “A vineyard.”

Satan: “And what may be the qualities of its fruit?”

Noah: “The fruit it bears is sweet, be it dry or moist. It yields wine that gladdens the heart of man.”

Satan: “Let us go into partnership in this business of planting a vineyard.”

Noah: “Agreed.”

Satan thereupon slaughtered a lamb and then in succession a lion, a pig and monkey, and fertilized the soil with the blood of each in turn. Thus Satan conveyed to Noah the qualities of wine. If a man drinks one glass, he is as meek as a lamb; if he drinks two glasses, he is boastful and feels as strong as a lion; if he drinks three or four glasses, then behaves like a monkey, he dances around, sings, talks obscenely and does not know what he is doing; and if he becomes intoxicated, he resembles the pig, wallowing in his own urine and vomit. All this happened to Noah, the righteous man of his generation – and for the rest of us, how much more so.’

Perhaps, in other words, everything in moderation including moderation. If someone as pious and worthy as Noah can succumb to the pitfalls of drunkenness, anyone can.

I had grown up with the story that Grandma Goldy sold copper piping from her Maxwell Street hardware store to the bootleggers, which they used to build the stills and make alcohol. She was a widowed Latvian immigrant with five children to raise on her own in a poor neighbourhood. Chicago was deeply corrupt. She had protection from the police, who were being paid off by the mob. The mob in turn got a cut from the sale of the alcohol produced in the stills made from Goldy’s hardware. Like many people with few prospects and little to lose, my great-grandmother took an opportunity when she saw it.

When I joined the 2019-2020 LABA cohort, I started working on a Stills, one-woman show based loosely on Goldy’s life. It’s difficult to write something based on a long-dead family member you never met and about whom you have limited and contradictory biographical information with which to work. This year’s LABA theme of humor was the key to unlocking the conundrum of Grandma Goldy. What could be funnier than a woman who uses a smokescreen of an innocent, vulnerable Jewish immigrant mother of five for her illegal dealings? This path is giving me a way into her story and the history of the period, while building on her character — or rather, my interpretation of it. At the same time, my investigation of the Prohibition era and its links to the rise of white nationalism and the Jewish resistance against it seems at once moving and urgent. It feels like an opportunity not only to explore what Goldy Sigal might have been facing at the time but what we as Americans appear to be facing 100 years later.

On April 4, my director Adam Lenson and I will be staging a developmental performance preview of Stills as part of the LABA FEST which runs from April 1-5.