Rabbi Mayer Hirsch with barrels of sacramental kosher wine during Prohibition in San Francisco, ca. 1930. (The Magnes Collection)
Rabbi Mayer Hirsch with barrels of sacramental kosher wine during Prohibition in San Francisco, ca. 1930. (The Magnes Collection)

100 years ago, Prohibition put booze and Jews in the news

“Rabbi and Millionaire Face Charges!” screamed the 1922 headline in the San Luis Obispo Times. The rabbi in question, San Francisco’s Henry Carr, had run afoul of Prohibition, the federal law that 100 years ago turned off the tap for millions of Americans.

The 18th Amendment, which went into effect on Jan. 16, 1920, was deeply unpopular — particularly the supporting legislation known as the Volstead Act, which enforced provisions of the amendment and outlawed not just hard liquor but also beer and wine. While some people turned to making their own bathtub gin and moonshine, others were able to find a workaround based on a section of the act that allowed the manufacture and purchase of “sacramental wine” used for religious rites.

San Luis Obispo Times, 1922
San Luis Obispo Times, 1922

The infamous “wine rabbis” like Carr who profited from Prohibition — by legally buying wine and then selling it — put Jews at the center of a debate pitching religious freedom against the pursuit of a dry United States, a debate that continued until the amendment’s repeal in 1933. The scandal also illuminated divisions within the Jewish community between Reform and Orthodox, assimilated and immigrant, law-abiding and lawbreaking.

“You only need to scratch the surface to see how fraught the debate is,” said historian Marni Davis, author of “Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition.”

The fact that rabbis could buy wine at all was due to the First Amendment, which prohibits religious discrimination. That provided a loophole in the law for religious groups that used alcohol in their rites, such as Catholics, who use wine for Mass, and Jews, who use wine for different rituals — at the Shabbat table, for example. But unlike Catholics, Jews drank their wine at home, unsupervised.

“Orthodox Jews use wine for numerous religious ceremonies on various occasions during the year,” a rabbi explained in a Healdsburg daily newspaper in a 1921 article titled “How and why Jews are given wine.” For private religious observance, Jewish families were allowed 10 gallons of wine per year, equivalent to about 50 standard bottles of 750ml. For a large observant family, “this quantity would be ample,” the article continued primly. “On the other hand, there is and has been such abuse of this privilege as to constitute an out and out scandal in the eyes of the general public.”

That scandal was the regular abuse of Section 6 of the Volstead Act, which was meant to prevent sacramental wine from getting onto the black market: “No person to whom a permit may be issued to manufacture, transport, import or sell wines for sacramental purposes or like religious rites shall sell, barter, exchange, or furnish any such to any person not a rabbi, minister of the gospel, priest, or an officer duly authorized,” the act read.

But for anyone willing to take a risk to make an extra buck, there were many ways around the law.

One way rabbis used it to their benefit was by inflating the number of their congregants, claiming wine for them from a licensed wholesaler, and then selling the excess. Rabbi Rudolph Coffee of Oakland’s Temple Sinai complained that the 50 Jewish families of Alameda had apparently swelled to a population of 500 during Prohibition.

Coffee also said fake congregations had sprung up in Oakland and “90 percent of the wine withdrawn — if not 99 — has been used for any but religious purposes.”

Sometimes the rabbis weren’t even rabbis. The decentralized nature of Jewish religious authority meant that non-Jews in charge of enforcement didn’t know how to identify rabbis, which made it easier to apply for an exemption.

Marni Davis
Marni Davis

At the time, “professionalization wasn’t part of Jewish religious life,” Davis said.

Coffee was a prominent Reform rabbi whose disdain for “wine rabbis” was typical of that community. Black-market sales of alcohol were deeply unpopular among Reform Jews, who felt that lawbreaking rabbis were giving Jews a bad name.

“This kind of thing really got under their skin,” said local historian Fred Rosenbaum, who discusses wine rabbis in his book “Cosmopolitans,” about the history of Bay Area Jews.

Chico Record, 1920
Chico Record, 1920

According to the Chico Record in 1920, “the reputable Jewish population of San Francisco has risen in indignation.” Rabbis decried the fact that whole congregations had been created from nothing, by using the names of synagogues that were no longer in existence, or were populated by ghosts or, worse, by non-Jews. “It is asserted that an investigation into the supposed membership of these suddenly created bodies would lead to the conviction that there had been some tall proselytizing, to say the least,” the newspaper said.

To disassociate themselves, entire Reform congregations (including Coffee’s in Oakland) switched to using grape juice, and some rabbis lobbied for a change in the Volstead Act to get rid of the exemption for Jewish ritual use.

“4 rabbis of L.A. act in liquor case,” said a headline in the Los Angeles Herald in 1920, naming local leaders who were asking to end the sacramental exemption for Jews. “At present, orthodox rabbis issue permits to members of their congregations,” the rabbis’ joint letter said. “Many persons join the synagogues merely to secure the sacramental wines. In addition, the rabbi is given a dollar for each permit and is understood in many cases to secure a commission on the wine sold.”

Rabbi M.A. Meyer of Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco, a frequent decrier of wine rabbis, called them “conscienceless fellows.” “They have gone about peddling memberships in their so-called congregations, accepting any who would pay nominal dues for the sake of getting wine,” he wrote. “They have gone among non-Jews, who have not hesitated to avail themselves of the privilege of such membership and such wine as they could obtain.”

According to Rosenbaum, the Orthodox rabbis who were the target of Reform complaints were newer immigrants who lived on slim salaries, which they bolstered with wine sales. The Reform congregations were largely German; the Orthodox congregations Polish, Russian or Hungarian.

Fred Rosenbaum
Fred Rosenbaum

“Eastern Europeans!” Rosenbaum said with a laugh. “They weren’t thrilled with the Eastern Europeans in general.”

Reform Jews initially had greeted Prohibition with little enthusiasm. Drinking was seen as a gentile problem, and dry laws as a Protestant mania masking xenophobia and intolerance. But once the amendment became law, established Jewish communities wanted to project an image as law-abiding citizens, especially because exemption allowances for sacramental wine gave them privileged status.

Rosenbaum’s book includes mention of Rabbi B.M. Paper of Beth Abraham in Oakland, who supplemented his meager income by selling wine. He kept some of the profit, and the rest went back to the congregation. “It’s quite an amusing story,” Rosenbaum said. “They tried to use the sacramental wine business in order to keep the congregation afloat.”

There were risks to reselling, of course, like what happened to Carr, who clearly was no small-timer. “Rabbi Carr was taken into custody at his 22nd Avenue home, where two truckloads of wine were seized. Twenty additional barrels of wine were taken from his storehouse several blocks from his home,” said the San Luis Obispo Times in November 1922. He was taken to jail and booked for having sold to both Jews and non-Jews.

Sotoyome Scimitar, 1920
Sotoyome Scimitar, 1920

Eventually, the California Legislature passed regulations specifically targeting Jews who flouted the law. It was able to do so because Prohibition gave limited authority to states and counties to make changes that would accord with the federal law.

“The last session of the California legislature found it necessary to enact special legislation to curb the activities of Jewish violators of our prohibition laws,” reported a Healdsburg paper in a May 1925 article titled “Two Rabbis Are in Toils for Prohibition Violations.” The rabbis were named as S. Robinson and his son, Paul, of San Francisco, and E. Garfinkle of Oakland. “At each rabbi’s home the agents seized a quantity of liquor after ‘under cover’ officers are said to have purchased wine from them.”

That bill against “Jewish violators” was put forward by a Jewish politician, San Francisco’s Edgar C. Levey, later speaker of the state Assembly, and backed by many Reform leaders.

Despite approval of the bill, sales of sacramental wine on the black market continued — as did bootlegging, smuggling and organized crime.

“This was just one of the many problems of Prohibition enforcement,” Davis said.

And then, suddenly, it was over.

“We believe that all fair-minded men and women admit that Prohibition is a moral, social and economic failure,” a political advertisement said in 1932, urging Californians to vote “yes” on a ballot measure to repeal the Wright Act, which had established state regulations on alcohol sales.

By the time the 21st Amendment repealing Prohibition was passed in February 1933, Jews — and anyone else — could buy all the wine they needed. After the Wright Act repeal of 1932 made California “wet” again, the wine industry in Napa began its slow recovery and rabbis, and anyone else, could buy wine freely. The divisions within Jewish communities remained, but the Orthodox wine rabbis had to find new ways to make ends meet.

“It’s part of a larger story of immigrants doing what they needed to survive,” Rosenbaum said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.