Professor Glenn Dynner speaks about his research

Professor Glenn Dynner, the second speaker in the College of Jewish Studies fall series, will discuss “Jews in the Polish Liquor Trade” on Thursday, November 19, at the Jewish Community Center, at 7:30 pm. (For more information on the program, see the article on page 1 of this issue.) Dynner discussed his research with The Reporter in an e-mail interview.
The Reporter: Most people don’t associate Jews with the liquor trade. How did the Jews in Poland come to be involved?
Dynner: A large majority of East European Jews made their living leasing the taverns and distilleries of the nobility by the 18th century. Landowners found liquor to be the most profitable and expedient way to market their grain, especially as grain export prices dropped. The question is why they chose Jews to produce and sell the liquor. One explanation is the combination of Jewish literacy and lack of political status. Rural landowners who experimented with peasants often found the latter could not cope with the record keeping and reinvestment involved in running a profitable tavern, while fellow noblemen proved too quarrelsome and demanding. So they turned to Jews, who possessed the requisite skills without the exasperating status consciousness of their peers. Another, more popular explanation is that Jews were typically more sober; that unlike their Christian counterparts, they didn’t tend to drink up their product. American Jews, in particular, have prided themselves on the perception of Jewish sobriety. But this has yet to be verified.
The Reporter: What did the general Jewish community of the time think about the Jews who worked in this trade? Where did they rank in social status in the community?
Dynner: Some tavern keepers became extraordinarily wealthy, leasing whole networks of taverns and living in a high style. But the profitability of liquor, which, with the introduction of new distilling technology and crops (i.e., the potato), stirred up resentment. Jewish tavern keeping began to arouse strenuous opposition among activist landowners and the absolutist regimes who ruled over Poland during the 19th century (Russia, Prussia and Austria), resulting in heavy concession fees and outright expulsions of Jewish tavern keepers from the countryside. The Jewish lay leadership fought for the Jewish tavern keeper once every 15 to 20 years, when a major political change seemed imminent, protesting against these draconian measures.
The Reporter: What did the Jewish religious authorities think about the trade? Was there any halachic discussion about the issue?
Dynner: When we turn to internal Jewish sources authored by religious leaders, such as rabbinic responsa literature and decrees (takanot), we find deep ambivalence. The rabbis’ principle objection was not tavern keeping per se, but rather the tendency of tavern keepers to violate or circumvent prohibitions against liquor production and sales on Sabbaths and festivals. Owners of taverns were “leasing” their establishments and “selling” the grain to Gentiles on those days, as well as serving Jewish and non-Jewish customers drinks and collecting payment during the week. Less frequently, rabbis complained about the sordidness of the occupation itself. Tzvi Hirsch Koidanover, author of the vastly popular mystical ethical book “Kav Ha-Yashar” (1705), warns his readers against “building a house and designating a special room for the uncircumcised to come and drink, party and fornicate, a common sin which many have committed in Poland and Lithuania, and which no one prohibits. In such a case the spirit of defilement will certainly settle upon the house and the one who built it will not leave this world until he is punished through that very house.”
The Reporter: Did the Jewish tavern owners mix with the non-Jewish population that frequented the taverns or bought the liquor? Were there worries about assimilation in either of the communities?
Dynner: Village tavern keepers were seen as especially vulnerable to “mixing” with non-Jews, since they and their families were often the only Jews in the entire area. One Chasidic leader, R. Menahem Mendel of Rymanów (Galicia), was convinced that lessees of village taverns were violating the Sabbath, mingling with Gentiles and “slipping into materiality.” As a result, he actually supported the Austrian bans against Jewish tavern lessees in 1784-5 and, according to one tradition, went so far as to issue his own ban and pray that the landowners expel any Jews who refused to comply. Jewish religious leaders, Chasidic and non-Chasidic, continued to express doubts about the piety and insularity of rural tavern keepers. Indeed, when concession fees became too onerous, certain rural tavern keepers converted to Christianity in order to survive.
The Reporter: What was the general economic reality of Jews living in that time period?
Dynner: There was a tremendous range. There was no doubt widespread poverty. However, a small but extraordinarily successful group of Jewish mercantile elites arose in large urban centers like Warsaw by the beginning of the 19th century, which began to expand into banking and industry. By the second half of the 19th century, Lodz had emerged as a major industrial center thanks to Jewish and ethnic German textile factories. A great portrayal of Jews in industrialized Lodz is I.J. Singer’s “The Brothers Ashkenazi.” As for tavern keepers, there was a great range, as well, from the village tavern keeper who barely scraped by to the tavern keeper of the larger towns and cities.
The Reporter: To put this in perspective, what was the relationship between Jews and non-Jews in Poland?
Dynner: The decimation of Polish Jewry, which constituted more than three of the Holocaust’s six million Jewish victims, has added great urgency to the problem of Polish-Jewish relations. Scholarly interest in the pre-Holocaust period is examined mainly in light of the rise of antisemitic discourse, politics and violence in the 20th century. The religious dimension, when it is treated at all, is usually confined to the origins of the Church’s Faustian alliance with right-wing nationalism during the early 20th century.
Valuable as these studies are, an exclusive emphasis on political antisemitism and violence produces a distorted, negative picture of Polish-Jewish relations. It becomes difficult to imagine that things could have been any other way. Yet in the 18th and late 19th centuries, the period which I focus on in my research, there was relative calm between Christians and Jews.
Archival files on the liquor trade demonstrate that although Jewish tavern keeping was vigorously opposed by nearly every powerful group in Polish society – reformist noblemen, absolutist officials, clergy, Christian townspeople and even Jewish religious leaders – one crucial group provided them with cover: the very rural Christians they were accused of victimizing! Prominent among the rural Jews’ enablers were local Polish landowners, whose subterfuges and interventions on behalf of “their” Jews reflect the endurance of the noble-Jewish economic alliance. In short, we have a long way to go before we can form a picture of Polish-Jewish relations that captures changes over time.