By Glenn Dynner
It was Sunday, and from church after morning Mass,
They came to Yankel’s to drink and relax
In everyone’s cup grey vodka swished
‘Round with a bottle the barmaid rushed
Yankel, the tavernkeeper, stood in the midst
—Adam Mickiewicz, Pan Tadeusz (1834), Book IV
So much of East European Jewish history is viewed through the lens of antisemitism and violence. But there is a reason that the Jews of Eastern Europe (mainly in the vast Polish-Lithuanian areas annexed by Russia, Prussia, and Austria at the end of the 18th century) formed three-fourths of the world’s entire Jewish population. Jews inhabited crucial economic niches, especially the nobility-dominated liquor trade, as this image by the Polish artist Gustaw Pillati shows.
The Jewish-run tavern became the center of local Christians’ leisure, hospitality, business, and even religious festivities. Luckily for Jews, the nobles who owned the taverns believed that only Jews were sober enough to run taverns profitably. However, reformers and government officials blamed Jewish tavernkeepers for epidemic peasant drunkenness, as the following image by Grabowski illustrates, and sought to drive Jews out of the liquor trade.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, Polish Jewish tavernkeeping was banned. However, newly discovered archival sources demonstrate that Jewish tavernkeepers often evaded fees, bans, and expulsions by installing Christians as “fronts” for their taverns and carrying on business as usual, all with the knowledge and complicity of nobles and other local Christians. This vast underground Jewish liquor trade reflects an impressive level of local Jewish-Christian coexistence, despite occasional flare-ups of anti-Jewish violence.
Late nineteenth-century art, such as this painting by Rodakowski, confirms the survival of Jewish tavernkeeping throughout this long period of “Jewish prohibition.” Travelers across the formerly Polish lands were still met by an exotic Jewish proprietor when they stopped in a tavern to eat, drink, and rest for the night.
Glenn Dynner is Professor of Jewish Studies at Sarah Lawrence College. He has been a Fellow at the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, a member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, and is currently the NEH Senior Scholar at the Center for Jewish History in New York. He is author of Yankel’s Tavern: Jews, Liquor, and Life in the Kingdom of Poland.