www.haaretz.com /israel-news/2022-08-19/ty-article-magazine/.highlight/the-link-between-the-history-of-vodka-and-antisemitism/00000182-b311-d018-adae-bb1f1fbe0000

The link between the history of vodka and antisemitism

Shany Littman 17-21 minutes 8/18/2022

Judith (Julia) Kalik doesn’t necessarily look like someone who would make an alcoholic beverage the subject of her historical research. She’s religiously observant, is the mother of five children and has three granddaughters, lives in the post-1967 Pisgat Ze’ev neighborhood of Jerusalem, and teaches Russian and Eastern European history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. (She herself is Russian-born, and made aliyah with her family at the age of 6.) But as part of her research on the economic history of the Jews in what was the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, she discovered very quickly the crucial role played by Jews in the manufacture and sale of vodka.

Kalik delivered a lecture about her study of the subject – which was carried out under the auspices of the Diaspora Research Center at Tel Aviv University and is forthcoming as a book – at the 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies, held earlier this month at the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus.

In the 16th century, she tells Haaretz, the region known today as Ukraine became the “breadbasket of Europe,” as it continues to be termed today. The country’s climatic conditions and fertile soil were especially suited to growing wheat. True, the wheat was intended to be ground into flour for export, but large surpluses were created, which the aristocrats who owned the land were anxious to exploit. The result was that the manufacture of vodka, called horilka in Ukrainian, spread throughout the region.

“There’s an old argument between Russia and Poland, as it happens – not between Russia and Ukraine – over the origins of vodka,” Kalik says. “But neither of them is right. The truth is that vodka was being distilled in the Muslim world as early as the Middle Ages, although they never imagined that it was possible to drink the disgusting beverage; they used it for medicinal purposes. In Europe, vodka as we know it was first manufactured in Germany in the 15th century. But in the 16th-century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – which also encompassed present-day Ukraine – and in Russia, they experienced large surpluses of grain, so the manufacture of vodka was more developed in those regions.”

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I must admit that I thought vodka is made mainly from potatoes.

“Vodka can be made from potatoes, too, but potatoes were grown in the region only in the 19th century. At first, they too were considered fruits of the devil – there were uprisings against potatoes. Afterward it did in fact become a very basic food, and the cheaper, industrial vodka was produced from potatoes, but it’s considered inferior vodka. Truly fine vodka must be produced from a grain – optimally from wheat.”

Vodka, which started out as a by-product of grain grown for food purposes, became a high-demand product in its own right. The export of grain surpluses, says Kulik, was overly complex. “The local market could absorb this commodity in the form of bread, but only up to a certain limit. But vodka, as the people in the region know, can be imbibed without a limit. At the time in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth [1569-1795], the surpluses were a monopoly of the lords – that is, of the aristocracy, the king or the Church – and they wanted to exploit the grain as profitably as possible. Alcohol was the cheapest, fastest and most convenient way to generate cash.”

Until the appearance of vodka, the most widespread alcoholic beverages in the region were fermented honey, and also beer to some extent. But once vodka appeared on the scene, it gathered momentum rapidly. Not everyone was permitted to manufacture or sell vodka. It was a monopoly of the powerful landowners. At the same time, the nobility didn’t want to preside over the retail vodka business themselves, in the inns and alehouses. Enter the Jews.

“In 1569, the region that is today’s Ukraine became part of ... the united Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth,” Kalik explains. “The powerful, ranking aristocrats, namely the Polish magnates, began settling there and conducting their businesses, and with them the Jews arrived. A magnate is what is known in Yiddish literature as a paritz. The Jews became the chief lessees of the inns, where vodka could be manufactured and sold. That prerogative was known as the right of propinacja. In Ukraine, it became a central sphere in the economy, in society, in culture and ultimately also in politics.”

Why did the Jews, specifically, become the preferred lessees of the aristocrats?

“First and foremost, because they could pay the leasing fee in advance, unlike the peasants. The Jews were part of a – I don’t want to use antisemitic terminology, but the right word is ‘network’ – an array of Jewish commerce. It’s a network that provided them with a [financial] base and access to cash. Other historians maintain that the principal reason the Jews came to be dominant in the business of running inns is that they could read and write. Obviously there were various reasons, but in my opinion the main reason is that they could pay in cash.”

The violence did not necessarily come from the side of the Church against the Jews, it was very often actually the other way around. That of course conflicts with the image we are used to of the wretched Jew who is under assault.

Judith Kalik

The Jews thereby became a central player in the vodka industry, in both its manufacture and sale. In the cities, Kalik says, competition was stiffer. “The Jews were also present in high proportions among the urban propinacja-holders and innkeepers. But they did not control the industry there. Whereas, in the villages, they were able to gain almost complete control of this sphere. That didn’t happen only in Ukraine, but in Ukraine there was a special intensity, and also certain features that didn’t exist elsewhere, such as cooperation between the Cossacks and the Jews.

“In the second half of the 17th century, in the wake of the Cossack uprising, the west bank of the Dnieper passed into Russian hands, so in that area the Cossacks received the monopoly rights for vodka. They manufactured the beverage and the Jews bought it, and partnerships were formed. We think of the Cossacks only as people who massacred Jews, yet here we have collaboration of Jews with Cossack battalions in the manufacture and marketing of vodka. That is something that happened only in Ukraine.”

The Jews’ takeover of the vodka business in Ukrainian villages entailed serious confrontations with other groups that also wanted a slice of this profitable business and that had been there first, such as the Russian Orthodox clergy. The priests did not get a salary from the Church, and before the Jews got into the business of managing inns, it was the former who leased them from the nobility.

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“The Jews were able to pay the noblemen higher leasing fees, and thereby effectively succeeded in displacing the priests,” Kalik explains. “This was most blatant in Ukraine. The violence did not necessarily come from the side of the Church against the Jews, it was very often actually the other way around. That of course conflicts with the image we are used to of the wretched Jew, someone who is under assault. The lessee Jew in the village felt very comfortable about his position. He was the lord’s lessee, and had at his disposal the lord’s Cossacks, who effectively functioned as a private police force.

“A great many documented cases exist in which the Jewish lessee learns that the priest is violating the lord’s monopoly rights – in other words, he is manufacturing vodka without a permit and selling it to the peasants – so he bursts into the church, gives the priest a drubbing and throws the icons on the floor before shutting down and sealing the church, preventing it from being used.”

These strained relations shed light on the roots of the growing hostility toward the Jews, who were the lords’ agents. When an uprising, led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky, broke out against the Poland-Lithuania union, the Jewish communities fell victim to vicious massacres, which are known in Jewish history as the riots of 1648. The disputes over the manufacture of vodka were definitely one of the reasons for antisemitism in Ukraine, Kalik says.

“The Jews were hated because they were perceived as contributing to the ‘Polandization’ of Ukraine,” she notes. “The Russian Orthodox clergy was identified more with the rooted population there. We have a letter from a Russian Orthodox bishop in a certain region, written to the ruling magnate as one Christian to another, requesting him to ‘restrain your lessee Jew, for the sake of the Creator’s love.’ The [Polish] nobleman did nothing, because despite all his love for the Church and for God, it was more important for him to protect his business and his monopoly.”

Another documented case, Kalik says, occurred in a village in eastern Galicia, a region corresponding to today’s southeastern Poland and western Ukraine. The Jew who ran the inn there detained the local priest for breaching the lord’s monopoly, after discovering that the priest was selling vodka. The Jew bound the priest with iron chains. A messenger then arrived at the inn and said that a local peasant was dying and there was no one to hear his last confession. The innkeeper agreed to take his prisoner to the peasant’s home, but did not remove the chains. The priest thus crossed the village on the way to the peasant’s house with his arms and legs in chains, being led by the Jewish innkeeper. “We can imagine that events like this generated quite a bit of tension,” Kalik says.

So the Jews were like the attack dogs, or the goons, of the lords they leased the inns from?

“The Jews usually get blamed, but they were quite poor all in all, and it was their [economic] distress that had also prompted them to get involved in leasing inns. The nobility is never accused of perpetrating violence, but they were the ones who profited from the situation and exploited everyone. Still, the Jews’ connection to the vodka industry was central economically, politically and culturally. It also placed them at the center of public attention, for good or for ill. Of course, the situation promoted antisemitism, because the Jews were perceived to be intoxicating the Ukrainian people.”

Did the Jews have no moral or religious qualms about being involved in the business?

“Growing vodka consumption created a multitude of social problems. There was the drunkenness, health problems, problems within the family and also financial problems. The aristocrats faced a dilemma: On the one hand, they wanted the peasants to drink up in their inns, because that brought in more money; on the other hand, they didn’t want the peasants to be chronically drunk, because they were their serfs and worked their lands for them.

“That dilemma exists to the current day in Eastern Europe,” Kalic continues. “The [state] wants to make as much money as possible from alcohol, but alcohol creates problems that also cost money. The central role played by the Jews was of course very problematic – the image developed of the evil Jew who gets the peasants to drink and leads them into destitution. It was a problem for the Jews, too. In his poem ‘My Father,’ [Haim Nahman] Bialik describes his innkeeper-father as a martyr who studies Gemara amid the filth and the vomit and repulsiveness of the drunks, while he is an island of sanctity and of Jewish suffering.”

To what extent did the Jews themselves become consumers of vodka?

“That’s definitely a question. It’s usually said that one of the reasons for the Jews’ success as innkeepers was that they drank less. There are no precise statistics, but from various sources, such as memoirs, the impression arises that the Jews also came under the influence of this culture and did in fact drink. And of course, there was alcoholism among the Jews, but they still drank less compared to the general population. Jewish women hardly drank at all, while Christian women drank very significantly, in amounts similar to the men.”

What perturbed the Jews more than the inebriation were the different types of interaction that arose from the frequent encounters in the inns with rural Christians, particularly encounters between men and women. “The inn was the center of social life in the village, and it was also a meeting place for all the different classes. Jewish men managed the inns, but quite a few women worked in them, both Christians and Jews. So there were stories about the Jewish innkeeper’s daughter who ran off to marry a handsome sheigetz [derogatory Yiddish term for a gentile male].”

Dr. Judith Kalik. For Russia and Ukraine, she says, “despite the disparities, vodka was a unifying element. Everyone drank.”

Dr. Judith Kalik. For Russia and Ukraine, she says, “despite the disparities, vodka was a unifying element. Everyone drank.”Credit: Moti Milrod

A romantic elopement, or rape and sexual assaults?

“There are romantic stories, but there were also plenty of complaints from Christian maids who worked in the inns, about consensual or coerced sexual relations on the part of the innkeeper or other Jews who worked there. From the Church’s point of view, the fact that Christian women worked as maids in inns or in the homes of Jews was problematic in itself, because it led to a significant proximity that gave rise to undesirable relationships.

“The Church did not want Christian women to have sexual relations with Jews. It wasn’t something that bothered the Jews in terms of assimilation, because until the late 18th century, that concept was not understood the way it is today. In any event, only a religious marriage was possible, so there was no way to marry outside one’s religion – other than by converting to Christianity. But they [the Jews] were upset by the social problems that it caused in the community.”

The Church didn’t want Christian women to have sexual relations with Jews. It didn’t bother the Jews in terms of assimilation, though, because until the late 18th century, that concept wasn’t understood the way it is today.

Judith Kalik

What, for example?

“There were Christian maids who complained that they were raped by the Jewish innkeeper, or a maid would become pregnant and the innkeeper didn’t want to acknowledge his responsibility. In those cases, the Jewish community had to ‘redeem’ the person [with a payment], to deal with the problem. What bothered the Jews was not so much that sexual relations took place with non-Jewish women. There was no halakhic problem with that – it wasn’t considered the behavior of a tzaddik, but it wasn’t such a major offense.

“What bothered the Jews was the fact that afterward the lessee became entangled with the authorities and the Jewish community had to spend money and pay bribes to redeem him, and also that it had to contend with the damage to their reputation and with the the attendant antisemitism. In Christian society, intense sexual desire was attributed to the devil. These incidents reinforced the identification of Jews with heightened sexual passion. That was fuel for antisemitism, which was disconcerting for the Jews.”

The Jews employed Christians, men and women, in their businesses, in part because the inns were open on Shabbat, and someone had to work when the Jews were prohibited from doing so. “The spread of vodka consumption created a problem of Shabbat restrictions, and all kinds of halakhic solutions had to be found, because it was the Jews’ major livelihood. So there were things that today we would not imagine were possible, such as rabbis permitting pubs to open on Shabbat. They would use a ‘Shabbos goy’; the [non-Jewish] serfs and the servants could work on the Sabbath.

“Because the Jews who resided in the villages were cut off from the urban Jewish community, they came increasingly to resemble the non-Jews in their dress and speech. They stopped speaking Yiddish and switched to Ukrainian, and also adopted [non-Jewish] folkloristic beliefs. Even the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, wrote about going to non-Jewish and Jewish sorceresses for remedies.”

The Jews continued to reside in the villages even after the territory of Ukraine came under Russian rule at the end of the 18th century. “The Russians wanted to expel the village Jews, but were unsuccessful. The Jews backed away from the vodka business only when it ceased to be worth their while, after Russia was able to extend the state monopoly on the production and sale of vodka to the territories that had previously been part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – in other words, Ukraine and Belarus. That didn’t happen officially until 1897.

“A gradual deterioration in the system had been perceptible even before that. The Jews gradually changed their occupations, becoming agents dealing with grain and lumber exports. In the second half of the 19th century, factories that manufactured vodka in large quantities from potatoes also entered the picture, and that was cheaper. Vodka consumption increased in Eastern Europe constantly, but the Jews left the business, because the system of propinacja, manufacture and selling was transformed.”

What about you – do you like to drink vodka?

“I don’t drink a lot, but compared to Israeli women, I drink more, having been born in Russia. It’s part of my culture. Vodka eventually became part of the culture in all segments of the population. It’s possibly the most significant and most dominant cultural element in Russia and Ukraine – as differentiated from Poland, for example. There was a very large disparity in these countries between different social classes. The peasants were practically a different people. In Russia and Ukraine, the nobles spoke a different language from that of the peasants.

“The Jews are accused of not identifying themselves as Ukrainians, but Ukrainians from the upper classes also did not identify themselves as Ukrainians. Despite the disparities, vodka was a unifying element. Everyone drank. With the rise of modern nationalism, when people looked for a supra-class national attribute that was unconnected to religious identity, vodka became very important.”