Jews, liquor and life in Eastern Europe: UConn hosts scholar from Brandeis

Professor Glenn Dynner lectures the economic history of the Jewish community in Europe from the 16th century to 19th century at Class of '47 meeting room on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016.  (Miguel Morales/The Daily Campus)

UConn hosted scholar Glenn Dynner of Brandeis University yesterday at the Homer Babbidge Library.

He spoke about his specialty in the form of the Eastern European Jewish experience. In attendance was a small and diverse crowd, which made for a personal history lesson, guided by Dynner.

Dynner gave a synopsis of the “symbiosis,” as he referred to it, between Jews and Christians in Eastern Europe focuses on the period starting in the late 18th century, and ending vaguely around the mid-20th century. During this period, “three-fourths of the Jewish population lived in Poland and Russia” according to Dynner, as well as many other prominent areas throughout Eastern Europe.

The Jews would serve a vital economic purpose in Eastern Europe, as they had throughout history across the globe. The foundation of this purpose relied largely on the production of grain in Poland. At the time, Poland was famously known as “The Breadbasket of Europe” and grain was a staple of the economy in this region, particularly in exports.

As time went on, grain exports dwindled, and Poland needed a way to revitalize this crucial resource to serve new economic needs. Dynner, at this point in the seminar, asks the audience, “What were they supposed to do with all this grain?” The answer, as those who have read the program for the seminar know, becomes “Vodka.”

Fair enough, one might think, that alcohol is generally a widely pursued entity, so it would make sense that the market would naturally shift production in this versatile direction. However, this still does not address what position the Jews played in this situation economically.

“The nobility believed that the Jews were much less likely to drink the product,” explained Dynner. This was in comparison to the Catholics in the area, who were known more for drinking socially after events like church, or possibly even a funeral or another social gathering. Many such folks were working class individuals, and simply had nothing better to do with their time after work than attend the tavern.

Utilizing their general image of sobriety, many Jewish families were able to not only find a home in countries like Poland, but also make a better living than many of their non-Jewish counterparts. Since the nobility trusted them over their non-Jewish neighbors, they were granted the rights to own taverns, which the nobility would sell liquor to be distributed.

“I would call this coexistence in a social sense” said Dynner, referring to the interactions between the Jewish tavern owners and their non-Jewish customers. There was a sort of social segregation,that attempted to facilitate a line between the two groups that they dare not cross, at least for the social ramifications. The social coexistence, then, relied on a mutually beneficial relationship, and on a general respect for one another from a distance, while each party continued to stick to their own kind, so to speak.

But Dynner informs us that troubles began to arise. “The problem is vodka is getting cheaper and stronger,” he said. This drastic contrast of Jews being so constantly sober, or at least publically so, and non-Jewish citizens being so frequently intoxicated, began to foster a deep tone of cultural superiority among the Jews. There was “a real problem with epidemic drunkenness” said Dynner.

This, in turn, began a long bout of anti-Semitism in these communities, as it has so many times throughout history. The citizens who frequented Jewish-owned taverns were under the impression that “the Jew is sober because he wants to exploit you,” or “He’s going to swindle you you’re in the state of intoxication,” as Dynner put it.

These heavy claims didn’t go unanswered, as the Jewish tavern owners pointed out the obvious flaw in this argument. If the taverns didn’t have customers, no one would be drunk in the first place, or, summed up nicely by Dynner, “the drunken goy, that is the problem.”

As a result, there were many “Pogroms” throughout this period. These events were essentially massive devastations to the Jewish community, posed by their opponents in the community. It stemmed from misguided social activist groups who saw the Jews as the sole problem for the epidemic of alcoholism, rather than blaming the nobility that had put them in a position to distribute, as well as supplied their communities with the alcohol they served.

The presentation was a good bit of information to absorb, and members of the audience had plenty on their minds to talk about thereafter. “This event really sparked my interest in the mechanics of anti-Semitism, and the ways the Jews were able to overcome their position in society in order to gain social status” said Lauren Soranno, a student of UConn.

Also at the seminar was Brian Boecherer, who is a staff member here at UConn, studying to gain his PhD in Political Science. “I am a specialist in Eastern Europe, and the speaker did a great job of talking about both the complex and everyday issues faced in the community,” Boecherer said.

Considering the majority of these events transpired centuries ago, Dynner came prepared with ample research on the topic. These excerpts of history can be applicable to religious and ethnic relations even today, all over the world.


Christopher Mueller is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at christopher.mueller@uconn.edu.