What did they drink during Prohibition?

Special to WJW

Lots of folks eschew alcohol, either for dietary or lifestyle reasons. So what does one do for Kiddush if wine is off the menu? Kosher grape juice, of course.

But it wasn’t always so simple. What did Jews do during Prohibition? As it happens, wine wasn’t necessarily off the menu. And grape juice wasn’t necessarily an accepted option.

The 18th Amendment, ratified in 1920, prohibited the “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors … for beverage purposes.” So Congress enacted the National Prohibition Act—known informally as the Volstead Act — to carry out the intent of the amendment.

The act defined intoxicating beverages, and carved out three wine exemptions. Wine could still be produced and sold for medical purposes, for use in religious services, and households were allowed to make up to 200 gallons of wine per year for “nonintoxicating” family consumption.

The Reform and Conservative movements allowed for the use of unfermented grape juice instead of wine for Kiddush. The Orthodox authorities, by contrast, stuck with wine — indeed, they largely ignored the question of the permissibility of grape juice entirely.

So if you were Orthodox during Prohibition but wanted to cut back on alcohol consumption, you simply diluted your wine with water (subject to halachic guidelines).

Although Orthodox tradition allowed for grape juice in theory, in practice real wine was preferred. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 272:2) writes that one may even squeeze a cluster of grapes (before Shabbat) and recite Kiddush on the fresh juice. However Rabbi Avraham Gombiner (1635-1682) ruled that it is preferable or optimal to use aged wine for Kiddush, at least 40 days old. This stringent opinion was widely embraced by later authorities.

During Prohibition, grape juice wasn’t a familiar beverage. Shelf-stable, commercial, unfermented grape juice didn’t really exist until the second half of the 19th century.

In 1869, Dr. Thomas Welch, a dentist in Vineland, N.J., bottled unfermented Concord grape juice and successfully applied Louis Pasteur’s theory of pasteurization to kill off the yeast and preserve the juice. His effort pioneered what became an industry of canned and bottled fruit juices in the United States. His son, Charles Welch, founded Welch’s Grape Juice Co. in 1893. Prior to Welch, however, unfermented grape juice as a widely commercially available beverage simply did not exist.
So the Orthodox community largely ignored the grape juice alternative and stuck with wine produced under the “sacramental wine” exemption, and also with the lawfully permitted homemade wine (either made with fresh grapes, if available, or with raisins — an age-old tradition throughout Eastern Europe where fresh grapes were often hard to obtain).

While today the substitution of grape juice for wine for Kiddush is indeed more or less universal even in the Orthodox world, this was simply not the case during Prohibition.

I confess that I never liked grape juice and even now try to avoid using it for Kiddush. As I contemplate all this, I do so with a glass of the Recanati, Yasmin White, 2015 ($12; mevushal): a refreshing, simple 60/40 blend of chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, with pleasant fruit and floral notes. An easy, very quaffable, everyday wine. L’chaim! n

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