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Jews and Alcohol

Can you guess what was main occupation of Jews in Eastern Europe during the 18th and the 19th century? It was inn keeping. They used to lease inns and distilleries from non-Jewish land owners and noblemen – and with time became experts in this business.

A well known Jew in the Alcoholic beverages business was “Yankel the bartender”, who lived in Poland in the 19th century. He had a famous tavern near Krakow, and so devoted he had become to his vocation that he did not just settle for pouring beverages down the dry throats of thirty drunk farmers, but trained himself  diligently in the fine arts of beer distillery and wine production.

The following manuscript is a rather new acquisition of the National Library of Israel. It contains 20 different recipes for French liquors, 23 recipes for “Danzig Liquors”, 30 for Wrozlaw liquors and 29 recipes for making Ratafia, all of them invented by Yankel the bartender. However Yankel was not so outstanding in the Polish hung-over scene. His establishment was but one of tens of thousands taverns run and owned by Jews throughout Poland.

So if what comes to your mind upon hearing the words “The Jewry of Poland” is gloomy towns and dull food, think again! For history shows that Polish Jews sometimes knew how to party. Some 80% of them were somehow involved in the trade of alcohol during the 18th and 19th century.

Why Alcohol?

Poland had plenty of wheat and potatoes fields. The land owners trusted the skills of their Jewish managers and offered them to produce and distribute the alcohol, in return to the noblemen’s protection during pogroms. This was an attracting offer that the Jews gladly accepted.

Warsaw alone had 802 breweries, 1116 distilleries and 10,455 taverns and pubs, the majority of which ran by Jews. “Don’t Drink and Drive!” was probably the most popular sign for the carters and coachmen (and for horses?) on the roads across Poland.

The stereotypic character of the Jewish inn owner became an inherent element of Polish culture. The Polish national poet Adam Mickiewicz wrote a fantastic poem about “Yankel, the Jewish bartender”.

Beit Hatfutsot