Jews and Booze

by Suzanne Walters Gray MFA ’04

If you had lived in pre-industrial Poland, chances are you’d have spent a lot of time at the local tavern. And not just to drink away your cares: the tavern was the center of the village, serving as the local restaurant, hotel, general store, bank, and meeting hall. Although most people in Poland were Christian, the taverns were usually run by Jews—that is, until the 19th century, when anti-Semitic laws expelled them from this profitable industry.

So history tells us. But religion faculty member Glenn Dynner says that history is wrong. In the book that he’s currently writing, tentatively titled “Yankel’s Tavern: Jews, Liquor, and Life in the Kingdom of Poland,” Dynner argues that despite the laws, Jews never left the liquor business. Instead, they went underground and thrived throughout the 19th century.

Dynner’s assertions are based on his research at the Polish Archives, where he examined the original documents upon which historians had based their conclusions about the demise of the tavern-keepers. He found that previous researchers had missed some key details and misinterpreted others. He also unearthed a wealth of evidence—including letters from tavern-keepers to rabbis asking for business advice—supporting his claim.

Dynner’s book will explore how Jewish tavern-keepers were able to thrive despite a government crackdown, and why they were an integral part of the Polish economy.

The latter point is most significant to Dynner. Taverns were the center of the public sphere, and Jews were standing at the center of the taverns. This is evidence that Polish and Jewish societies were mutually dependent for much longer than many historians supposed, and that the isolation of the Jews, made brutally apparent during the Holocaust, didn’t develop until much later, he says. “You can’t write Polish history without Jewish history—and vice versa.” Which makes sense: real life is usually more tangled than the history books make it out to be.