“All the wickedness existing now among Americans is indirectly traceable to Prohibition,” Rabbi William Rosenau told The Baltimore Sun in 1930. The leader of Baltimore’s prestigious Eutaw Place Temple (aka Oheb Shalom) may have exaggerated somewhat. Nevertheless, his view that “the sooner Prohibition is done away with, the better” was shared not only by most American Jews but also by his fellow Baltimoreans.
Prohibition was universally disliked in Baltimore. H.L. Mencken derided it in The Evening Sun, and political leaders sided with the “wets.” Yet Rabbi Rosenau’s vehemence probably had something to do with how frequently Jews appeared in the newspaper as Prohibition violators. Engaging in criminal behavior — even over an unpopular law — did not reflect well on a people that many Americans already considered “the other.” Upstanding American Jews, therefore, cringed when reports of Jewish bootleggers hit the press.
And in Baltimore this happened, well, a lot. For first- and second-generation Jewish immigrants struggling to gain an economic foothold, Prohibition offered opportunities many could not resist.
In January of 1922, federal agents and police raided Samuel Paper’s bakery in the Jewish immigrant neighborhood of East Baltimore after a still exploded in the rear of his building. They found two stills, 1,500 gallons of fruit mash and 40 gallons of moonshine whiskey. (Paper “professed surprise” at their discovery.) Fanning out into the surrounding area, the lawmen ran into trouble at Abraham Levine’s restaurant. As they uncovered a quart of whiskey and 25 barrels of wine, Mrs. Levine struck a sergeant over the head with an alarm clock while the couple’s 12-year-old son, “in a towering rage,” told an officer “if he had a pistol he would shoot him,” reported the Sun.
In June of 1923, a single day’s worth of raids netted four Jewish women. In Northwest Baltimore, Sarah Goldman, Minnie Zipper and Edith Euzent were arrested for selling liquor out of their stores. Fannie Levin was charged with assaulting an officer who raided her family’s East Baltimore home.
The dangers to officials were real: Prohibition raids in the Jewish immigrant neighborhood often drew angry crowds. In April of 1922, some 500 people “thronged surrounding roofs and fences,” hooting and “threatening violence” against agents destroying a large distillery. In June, a crowd gathered when a federal agent’s car collided with a truck driven by Abraham Lazarowitz, who allegedly jumped out and struck the agent in the face. When bystanders learned the man was a Prohibition enforcer, some “offered to help beat him.” The arrival of the police saved him from the mob.
Perhaps most vexing to Jewish leaders, however, was the occasional rabbi accused of profiting from Prohibition’s exemption for sacramental wine. In March of 1925, an East Baltimore rabbi and his two sons were arrested for selling 50 gallons of wine to an undercover agent. Agents seized $10,000 worth of wine from the rabbi’s cellar. But the case became complicated when the undercover agent, Barry Wolf, admitted that his father had once belonged to the rabbi’s shul. The rabbi insisted Wolf had requested the wine for legal Passover use. Meanwhile, Baltimore’s Jewish leadership insisted the accused was not really a rabbi at all. Eventually, the charges were dropped.
By criminalizing alcohol sales, Prohibition gave a tremendous boost to the underground economy in “illegitimate” entertainment. Jewish participation in this murky world did not disappear with the 18th Amendment’s repeal in 1933. While The Sun’s Prohibition stories featured a variety of “others” (mainly Jews, Italians, Irish and blacks), Jewish names clearly predominated in the newspaper’s coverage of gambling. In the post-World War II era, upward mobility would lessen the need for Jews to resort to unsavory ways to make a living, and the Rabbi Rosenaus of the world could rest easier. But until then, bootleggers and bookies, gamblers and grifters were part of the family, in many families.
Deborah R. Weiner is co-author of “On Middle Ground: A History of the Jews of Baltimore,” to be published by Johns Hopkins University Press. She served for many years as research historian at the Jewish Museum of Maryland.
Photo: In Bangor, Maine, men and women drink 3.2 percent beer after the end of Prohibition in 1933. (Courtesy, Everett Historical)
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