Library > News > Newsletter > 2015 > February 2015 > Life of the Spirit

Life of the Spirit

Alcohol Production, Consumption and Distribution throughout Jewish History

In preparation for Purim and in celebration of the acquisition of a rare 19th century manuscript detailing the role of Eastern European Jewry in the production and distribution of alcohol, the National Library recently hosted an evening dedicated to examining the relationship between Jewish history and alcoholic beverages. According to Dr. Yoel Finkelman, the National Library's Judaica curator who hosted the evening, "the event reflects one of the Library's strategic goals, which is to bring its world-class collections to life, particularly by providing a public venue where research and culture can meet." The manuscript, which was written by one "Yankel the Bartender", has drawn significant media attention as it sheds light on an aspect of the Eastern European Jewish experience which is often overlooked – Jewish involvement in the various facets of alcohol production, distribution and consumption.​

Click to enlargeThe event attendees were treated to a taste of Eastern Europe in the form of liqueurs prepared by famed Israeli chef Shmiel Holland in accordance with Yankel the Bartender's own recipes. Holland, who has studied the manuscript intensively, explained the history and origins of three primary types of alcohol produced, sold and consumed by Eastern European Jews in the 18th and 19th centuries: Ritual wine generally made from raisins for lack of fresh grapes; ya'sh, a type of Eastern European moonshine distilled from virtually anything the distillers could get their hands on; and liqueurs prepared by soaking fresh fruits and berries in ya'sh as a way of preserving them in an era before refrigerators and in a climate where fresh fruits were certainly not available year-round.

According to Holland, around 80% of Eastern European Jews took part in the alcohol trade during the 18th and 19th centuries, often distilling their own liquors and wine due to religious dietary restrictions and getting into the business of running pubs for predominantly non-Jewish clientele because local noblemen trusted them not to drink the merchandise. While Holland noted that Eastern European Jews at that time primarily drank only on holidays and at celebrations, another speaker at the event, Bible scholar and researcher Prof. Yair Zakovitch discussed the phenomena of drinking and drunkenness in the Scriptures. Prof. Zakovitch cited a number of Biblical stories, such as that of Samson and Delilah, where alcohol consumption along with the illicit relations which sometimes followed, played a pivotal role in the biblical narrative, often enabling weaker characters to triumph over more powerful ones. With the gastronomical and intellectual aspects of the evening covered, the crowd was treated to "shtetl music" comprised of Yiddish and Russian folksongs performed by Israeli band Babayaga. Good times (and spirits) were had by all as the worlds of Yankel the Bartender and Samson and Delilah were brought to life at the National Library.