When Jews were Tavernkeepers: Dr. Glenn Dynner Speaks About Tavernkeeping Jews in Poland
Last month, a scholar spoke in Long Beach about Jews and booze in Poland. As part of the Jewish Studies Program at California State University, Long Beach’s monthly speaker series, Dr. Glenn Dynner spoke on “Jews, Liquor & Life in the Kingdom of Poland.”
The first thing to understand about Poland-Lithuania, Dr. Dynner said, was that it was an agrarian society – it was feudal and the nobility owned the vast majority of the land, upon which they grew grain, primarily rye. The noblemen they used their peasant labor (serfs) to harvest and any excess grains they had, they used for the production of alcohol, which they called “vodka”. However, this “vodka” was not like our vodka today; it was made from rye and was gray. That seemed to be the main alcohol they produced. Since the noblemen couldn’t trust their serfs, for fear of consuming the products, they offered the Jews extensive autonomy and leased taverns, distilleries and other such places to Jews. There was actually extensive cooperation between noblemen and the Jews. These taverns would often be attached to the distillery as well as to an inn, which would be great for travelers – they could get some food and drink, as well as lodging. Having the distillery attached to the tavern made sense – one could distill the grains into alcohol and then sell it in the tavern. As Dr. Dynner stated, “the Jewish tavernkeeper emerges as a figure in local life” in Polish life and the locals would come over and consume the alcohol. Moreover, the taverns were places you could go for leisure, but also to celebrate weddings and holidays, funerals, etc. During Passover, they would either serve kosher-for-Passover alcohol or close down for the holiday. The tavernkeeper became “a jack-of-all-trades, even dispensing advice.” These taverns and their tavernkeepers were integrated into Polish society, however, it was “not a utopia, though, since there was still occasionally antisemitism.”
Having the Jews primarily running the taverns for the Polish nobility was a “symbol of an economic symbiosis” of an interethnic working together in Poland, including the Polish nobility. In fact, about 40% of the Jews were involved in the alcohol trade, one way or another. However, the Jews didn’t have a lot of occupational options to pursue, since there was a “diversity within limits” whereby “Jews were limited to mercantile pursuits” since they could not own land, there was very little left for them to do. Thus, most Jews became merchants or tavern-keepers. The tavern, in addition to the tavern-keeper and his family residing there, serves as an inn. Thus, travelling Jewish merchants were able to stay at the taverns (because they couldn’t own land, many Jews became merchants), so there was a symbiotic relationship there, as well.
There are a couple of things which change this system in the 18th century: the first being the political – there were a few partitions of Poland (1772, 1792, 1795), which chipped away at who was still in Poland and the second was that, throughout 18th century, Polish rye exports decrease. Since there is less rye being exported, there becomes a lot of excess rye; so, it gets turned into alcohol. With the increase in production of alcohol, the prices drop. However, what happens to your labor force? They become addicted to drinking. So, this new drinking epidemic pops up amongst the commonfolk. Now, guess who gets blamed? The Jewish tavernkeepers! Then, legislation pops up that abolishes Jewish tavernkeepers, the logic being: if you get rid of the Jews in the liquor trade, you’ll get rid of peasant drunkenness. In fact, there were even some countryside areas that expelled Jews altogether on account of this. However, what happens is that profits start to decline once the Jews are removed from keeping the taverns, since they are not being managed as well (which includes the possibility that the new tavern-keepers were drinking a lot of the product), so then the noblemen cry out and seek to reverse that.
So, there become concession fees if there are taverns that are run solely by a Jew if no one else is running it. However, what starts going on is that there are seemingly Christian-run taverns, but really a Jew runs it. Every group in Poland seems to have been against Jews running tavernkeepers, including rabbis; however, the locals want the Jews there – such as the noblemen, as well as the Christians there. And they also propped up Christians to run the store on Shabbat also to be able to keep it open on Shabbat. There are some fascinating case studies of noblemen getting caught having Jews running taverns. One such example that Dr. Dynner provided us was that of Lord Francziszek Kisielnicki, who found that Jews were his best option, as they were frequently sober and would work diligently, as well as showing the importance of tavernkeepers to local Polish life:
As an owner of a roadside village who must always consider the convenience of travelers, I could not neglect to hire Jews, who would continually provide for the needs of traveling Jews. Most importantly, people of this faith show themselves to be sober, and this work requires sober and suitable people, and for this reason as well I hired Jews. I tried with all my might to fulfill the will of the regime by not having Jews live there or actually sell liquor.
Dr. Dynner then posed the question of “How do we get this myth of Jewish sobriety?” Indeed, “the most robust drinking culture in all of Jewish history”, the hasidim were happening at the very same time. The Hasidic movement, which came out as an anti-ascetic movement, featured the rise of hasidism as a drinking culture. Dr. Dynner pointed out that, “I found this an incredible contradiction.” However, there really are attempts at controlling drinking, such as specified religious events, holidays, etc., so it didn’t go uncontrolled. Also, Dr. Dynner pointed out, it was happening out of the public eye: the hasidim would drink in the shteibl while “the townsmen are drinking in a free manner, all hours of the day in full public view.” Indeed, these hasidim were drinking heavily together out of the public eye in specifically Jewish spaces. However, what happens is “that the Jews develop a really insulting polemic” about the gentiles being drunken. Interestingly, on the other side in the Polish Christian folklore, they viewed the Jews as being sober and shrewd – charging the townsfolk and having them spend all that money on booze. Nevertheless, once “expectations are created”, they mostly fit each other’s roles.
Also, once Emancipation happens, “That whole system is now threatened” of serfdom and noblemen, etc., since the exclusive opportunities were granted by the nobility, but, after Emancipation, the nobility loses a lot of their land and lose all of their free labor. Since the nobility are selling off their land and going into business, they then had to compete with Jews, thus leading to interethnic competition and pogroms. Also emerging from this is political anti-Semitism, whereby they see that Jews need to be driven out of the economy so that Poles can take their rightful place in the economy.
With Emancipation, the Jews also started to become less confined to certain occupations, although the old system doesn’t completely vanish. By the creation of the Polish state in 1918, though, the Jews could work almost any job and were no longer confined to certain jobs, so they had little need to stick with being tavern-keeping, so the system that had been place for centuries was broken down by the 20th century. Eventually, once the Nazis invade, they completely remove Jews from the economy. And there were no more tavernkeeping Jews in Poland.