How the “Temperance Question” Became a “Jewish Question”

May 26, 2022 | Jenna Weissman Joselit
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In the early 20th century, writes Jenna Weissman Joselit, American Jews played an outsized role in the production and sale of hard liquor. Thus, as the temperance movement gained steam—eventually leading to prohibition in 1920—many Jewish businessmen grew worried:

Willy-nilly . . . the “temperance question” became a “Jewish question,” a matter of pressing concern for the American Jewish community at large. Even though Miss Frances Willard, the formidable head of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, a powerhouse of an organization with hundreds of thousands of dues-paying members, had made overtures to “the Hebrews,” inviting them to join its ranks, many of their number felt that Americans who, like Willard and her followers, practiced “abstinence as a religion” had it in for them.

But . . . unlike other moral-reform campaigns of the modern era such as animal rights, temperance didn’t anathematize Judaism per se as much as individual Jews. Its animus was directed against the manufacturers of “spirituous liquor” who happened to be Jewish, not against the theological beliefs they might have held or the rituals they practiced such as downing four cups of wine at the seder or ushering in, and celebrating, the Sabbath with Kiddush (the benediction over wine).

Besides, as those intimately familiar with Jewish life liked to point out, Jews were known to drink in moderation, not to excess. Among them, drunkenness was an anomaly rather than a feature of daily life. The “practical tenor” of Jewish life and with it, the cultivation of a “wise moderation in all things,” proudly declared Esther Jane Ruskay in Hearth and Home Essays, her 1901 celebration of American Jewish domesticity, kept Demon Rum and its counterparts at bay.

Despite Ruskay’s reassuring language, American Jews at the grassroots as well as those businessmen and their families caught in the crosshairs of temperance’s “Blue Ribbon,” women found the distinction between Jews and Judaism of small comfort.

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