Commentary Magazine

The Study of Man: Why Jews Stay Sober

A proverbial “character trait” of the Jews for at least the last few hundred years has been their moderation in the use of alcohol. This phenomenon has always provoked puzzlement and curiosity—and much speculation, oral and written. Of late, modern social science, in its critical examination of traditional beliefs and notions, has turned its attention to this matter, too, and Jewish sobriety has been the subject of empirical research and scientific analysis. Nathan Glazer, associate editor of COMMENTARY, here summarizes the known facts and weighs the diverse theories offered in explanation of them.



A Lithuanian Jew had given himself up to drink; he spent his days in the load inn swallowing brandy while his wife and children starved. One day, his wife came to the inn determined to drag him out and force him to become an honest provider. He wheedled her into sitting down, and had a glass of brandy set before her, too. She tasted it cautiously, then spat it out, crying, “Pfuil What vile stuff!” “Well, what do you think?” said the husband. “You think I sit here lapping honey?

A Yid a shikker, zoll er geharget ver’n [A Jew who’s a drunkard—hanging’s too good for him!].


In one respect, at least, the American Jews are not very different from the Israeli Jews who contemptuously dismiss them as assimilated goyim: neither have much use for hard liquor. And therein is wrapped one of the most persistent mysteries of a mysterious people.

The historic soberness of the Jews would not be so mysterious if Jews, like Mohammedans, simply had no use for drink in general. But as a matter of fact, the Jews have been fairly respectable drinkers since Noah’s discovery of the vine (Gen. 9:20). Of course, they had a special prayer required before drinking wine; but this did not mean they had any notion of religious restraint in drinking it, aside from the general rabbinic emphasis on moderation. There are a good number of lushes scattered through the pages of the Bible. Ben Sirah, the great Jewish moralist of the 3rd century B.C.E., took his drinking seriously, and one of his maxims, addressed to the wise man, reads, “In a place for wine, pour not forth talk.” The rabbis of the Talmudic period were against drunkenness but they were properly appreciative of the effects of wine: one rabbi, who gave a dinner to his pupils and found them shy and hesitant to begin discussion, ordered his servant: “Give wine to the young men that they may break their silence.” And in Spain, Jewish scholars seem to have been as thirsty as their Christian fellows across the Pyrenees (see translations of some of their songs by Allen Mandelbaum, in COMMENTARY, “The Cedars of Lebanon,” February 1951).



But then something happened, and it’s hard to say whether it was that the Jews began drinking less, or the rest of the world began drinking more. Possibly it was only that the rest of the world began drinking more; in any case, the Jews fell rapidly behind, and Jewish sobriety was for the first time added to the catalogue of traits that annoyed the Gentiles.

In the Middle Ages, the process of distillation, known in Scotland and Ireland from earliest times, spread through Europe, and Western man, who up to then had had to be satisfied with naturally fermented wine (with a top alcoholic content of about 16 per cent) and beer (which may sometimes get as strong), was now able to drink pure alcohol, if he dared. Fortified wines—port and sherry—and brandy and whiskey entered history, and it seems we have not recovered yet. It became easier and cheaper to get drunk than ever before in history. When we consider that the Homeric heroes could become roaring drunk on wine, and the Germans on beer, we must conclude they had heroic capacities indeed—for classical antiquity knew nothing about distilling alcohol to fortify wine or make spirits. Instead, the ancients added spices, resin, pitch, lime, sea water, salt, and all sorts of unlikely ingredients to their wines—whether to improve or cover up the taste of wine in an unperfected state, or to stretch it, or for medicinal reasons, or to increase its potency, or for all of these and other reasons, is still a matter for dispute among classical scholars. These achievements of classical antiquity in the field of alcoholic beverages are lost to us but it would not seem we are missing much. The Middle Ages and modern times gave birth to most of the varieties of wines and liquors we drink today.

About the time that distillation was introduced with explosive effects into Western Europe, the Jews fell behind. They continued to drink wine, and they enjoyed the new hard liquors—but with a moderation foreign to the other nations of Europe. One country after another went off on a tremendous spree—Germany in the 16th century and England in the 18th century seemed to contemporary observers on the verge of floating off on a sea of alcohol. The diseases produced by excess of alcohol were first discovered and described in these centuries; as for the Jewish contribution to medical pathology, it was not cirrhosis of the liver or Korsakoff’s syndrome but diabetes. While the Catholic Church encouraged four cups of wine as a maximum, the Jews—at least at the Seder meal of the Passover holiday—demanded four cups as a minimum (and at one time, it was required that a mourner drink ten); but despite the absence of theological injunction and regulation, Jews managed to resist the temptations of distilled liquor.



In the East European Pale, temperance, along with chastity, was one of the virtues that was taken for granted. The strangest part of all this was that the Jews were not only habituated to the drinking of wine from earliest childhood by their religion but also spent their adult lives producing and selling spirits. The liquor trade in Eastern Europe was a Jewish monopoly: it had originally been granted to the landowners by the Polish monarchy in the 15th century, and Jews, as agents of the nobility, became the producers and sellers of hard liquor. When Russia fell heir to the mass of Polish Jewry at the beginning of the 19th century, that trade was the chief source of livelihood of the village Jews. All through the 19th century czarist bureaucrats urged the elimination of the Jews from the liquor traffic, and at various times in various places Jews were driven from the trade. Finally, in 1892, liquor became a government monopoly, and 200,000 Jews lost their livelihood. (The story is scattered through Dubnow’s History of the Jews in Russia and Poland.)

Again, the monotonous conclusion: while the miserable peasant escaped into alcohol, and drunkenness became one of the great problems of 19th-century Russia, the equally miserable Jewish artisan and luftmensh, it seemed, never gave it a thought.

But after all, no virtues in the East European Jews are very surprising to contemporary minds. They still lived under a moral code more rigorous and more detailed than anything known of elsewhere; and while the code had nothing to say about temperance, presumably the habits of control built up by the observance of the 613 precepts carried over into the realm of alcohol.

This is an easy and perfectly satisfactory explanation—up to the end of the 19th century. By then, great communities of Jews were growing up in Western Europe and overseas, with less and less attachment to the traditional Law. The Jews shaved their beards, abandoned their traditional dress, began to eat pork and mix meat and milk, deserted the synagogue—presumably their temperance should have gone along with the rest. After all, do Jews have fewer troubles to drown than other people?

But even in America, where it was customary for the unhappy immigrants to drink more and with worse effects than at home, and where Jews were probably less controlled by their traditional laws and observances than anywhere else in history, the ancient pattern held up. No matter what kind of ill effect from excessive indulgence we consider—alcoholic psychoses, alcoholism without psychosis, arrest for drunkenness, broken homes or marital unhappiness because of drink—we will not find many Jews affected.

For example: In 1929-31, Benjamin Maltzberg studied admissions to New York state hospitals for alcoholic psychoses, and calculated that the rate of first admissions for various foreign-born groups (per 100,000 in the population) was as follows: for the Irish, 25.6; Scandinavians, 7.8; Italians, 4.8; English, 4.3; Germans, 3.8; Jews, 0.5.

In 1951, Robert Straus published a study of the religion of persons coming to clinics for treatment for alcoholism in eight cities; 1.6 per cent were Jews, though they formed about 7.5 per cent of the population of these cities.

In 1941, a study was made of arrests for drunkenness in San Francisco; the rate for persons of Irish descent was calculated at no less than 7,876 per 100,000 in the population; for Jews, 27 per 100,000 in the population.

Admissions to a veterans’ hospital in Northport, Long Island, were studied for 1936-39; of 111 first- and second-generation Jewish admissions, one was alcoholic; of 113 first- and second-generation Italian admissions, 5 were alcoholic; of 222 first- and second-generation Irish admissions, 36 were alcoholic; of 302 undifferentiated third-generation whites, 40 were alcoholic.

The figures could be repeated ad infinitum. They give a fuller picture for foreign-born Jews than for the native-born; but from whatever evidence we have, it would appear that second and third-generation American Jews have, by and large, not kicked over the traces. Besides these figures, there is the testimony of doctors, judges, social workers, and welfare departments, all of whom agree that Jewish cases do not, in any large measure, suffer from alcohol.



Presumably, alcohol strips off the outer layers of the personality laid on by convention and conscience, and reveals the true man underneath—or, if we follow the Elizabethan Thomas Nash, who divided drunkards into those who get ape-drunk, pig-drunk, sheep drunk, and so on, the true animal underneath. In any case, the same should hold for nations, and their patterns of drunkenness should reveal something about their inner and buried life. The question is, what?

It has been suggested that when Protestantism forced each man to face his God alone without the intermediary of priest and community, the strain was too great, and we had the great binges that followed the Reformation in Protestant countries; perhaps. Except that on that basis we can’t explain the intemperance of Catholic Ireland and Poland. And then, too, the Jews have theoretically been in this religious position since their priesthood lost its functions. Many people believe that in northern climates men drink distilled liquor, in southern wine, and this explains the national differences. This holds well enough for Europe; but Central America and Mexico and the Caribbean combine tropic climates with a passion for strong distilled liquor. Another explanation is that in those countries where sexual repression is severe alcoholism serves as an outlet. That helps explain Ireland but then what about Sweden, the freest country in Europe sexually, which also has one of the highest rates of alcoholism? And what too about the Jews, with their stringent code of sexual behavior? One extensive study of addiction to alcohol among primitive peoples proves decisively that it is closely correlated with anxiety over the means of subsistence, and the most secure peoples drink the least. Except that America, one of the most favored of countries, has one of the most serious problems of alcoholic excess. Then too, Sweden is said to be, materially speaking, one of the pleasantest countries of Europe.

There is no question that a people’s relation to alcohol represents something very deep about it; so deep, however, that it is not easy to find a very good explanation of just what it is.



Americans, however, as Tocqueville wrote,. “entertain. . . a very lofty and often exaggerated opinion of human understanding.” At Yale University an institute exists for the sole purpose of studying alcohol and its varied effects, and a journal is published, the Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol, which is already in its twelfth volume, and contains in its approximately 8,000 pages a vast number of studies on all aspects of alcohol—all the statistics, and a good part of the other information in this article, are taken from it. The Yale institute is now engaged in a major effort to crack the problem of Jewish temperance, under a grant from I. Rogosin. At the same time, the somewhat less extreme resistance of the Italians to alcoholic excess and disorder—in its own way, however, as startling as that of the Jews, because they drink much more on the average than Jews do—is being attacked by another research team.

In the September 1951 issue of the Journal, Charles R. Snyder and Ruth H. Landman present a “Prospectus for Sociological Research on Jewish Drinking Patterns,” carefully culling the literature for explanations of the alcoholic aspect of the Jewish mystery. Now an “explanation” is a complicated thing. And what is an explanation for one age and one person is not for another. At one time, about one hundred and fifty years ago, the greatest philosopher of the age addressed himself to our problem. Immanuel Kant observed that the Jews were a temperate people; he observed too that ministers and women also stayed sober. And he wrote in his Anthropologic:

Women, ministers, and Jews do not get drunk, as a rule, at least they carefully avoid all appearance of it, because their civic position is weak and they need to be reserved. Their outward worth is based merely on the belief of others in their chastity, piousness, and separatistic lore. All separatists, that is those who subject themselves not only to the general law of the country but also to a special sectarian law, are exposed through their eccentricity and alleged chosen-ness to the attention and criticism of the community and thus cannot relax in their self-control, for intoxication, which deprives one of cautiousness, would be a scandal for them.1

Initially, this explanation suggests, Jews remained sober, at any rate in the presence of non-Jews, for reasons of self-preservation; and as a matter of fact, Jews of Eastern Europe often got high on appropriate occasions—but it was unthinkable for a Jew to get drunk with non-Jews. But American social scientists are very cool to the idea that man’s reason can play any great role in the way social groups act, and neither to Mr. Snyder and Miss Landman, nor to Robert F. Bales and Donald D. Glad (the last two have written doctoral theses on the problem of Jewish temperance), does Kant’s explanation seem very plausible.



Mr. Snyder and Miss Landman look with greater favor on another theory, stemming from the work of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who constantly emphasized that the motives of specific individuals, whether rational or irrational, could not very well explain differences between groups—only the nature of the group itself could. Durkheim believed that modern society was suffering from a breakdown of the ties of religion and custom that bound together people in small rural and primitive communities. Suicide, he believed, was an excellent measure of the extent of the breakdown of the moral law among different groups. While men lived in communities closely regulated by custom, under the eyes of their neighbors, they did not commit suicide; when they moved to cities, freeing themselves in increasing measure from the ties that bound them to their fellow men, they tended to commit suicide in ever large numbers. The figures bore him out. According to Durkheim, furthermore, the Jews, to a greater extent than either Protestants or Catholics in the countries of 19th century Europe, still constituted a close moral community. And indeed, their suicide rates were much lower than those of the Catholics.

Not long after Durkheim presented his theory of suicide, L. Cheinisse suggested that Jewish resistance to alcoholic excess could be similarly explained; if Jews formed enough of a cohesive community to prevent people from falling into the despair that resulted in suicide, perhaps their community was also strong enough to keep them from the less drastic despair that found an outlet in alcohol.

In sum, then, this theory argues that despite the breakup of the ghetto and the abandonment of the traditional Law on the part of the majority of Jews, they still form, more than other peoples, a rather close community which is able to supply psychological and material support to its members, and saves them from alcoholism and suicide.2



The Durkheim-Cheinisse hypothesis, however, is not by itself very satisfying. Why should a close, “organic” community not get drunk as often as any other? As a matter of fact they do, with the difference only that they all get drunk together on festive occasions. (Sometimes, as with the Moi of Indo-China, and the Indians of Chamula in Mexico, these festive occasions seem to be almost continual, and everyone is at least half drank most of the time.) But that is just the point. The organic community gets drunk all together, at regular fixed occasions, for specific purposes. Drinking is a ritual, and indeed in primitive communities and in all ancient societies drinking had a religious character. (The Moi actually killed an early French explorer who, by refusing to drink with them, threatened to bring down the vengeance of the gods.) It is this ritual element characteristic of the life of organic communities that prevents alcoholism from becoming perverted to individual uses and the solution of individual unhappiness.

That, according to Mr. Bales, to whom we have referred earlier, is the explanation of Jewish temperance. The Jews drink wine on fixed religious occasions: the Friday night kiddush, the four cups at the Seder meal, the annual Purim and Simchas Torah sprees, the cup drunk by bride and groom under the marriage canopy—wine even plays a role in the circumcision rite. Of course, Mr. Bales does not argue that Jews, like the Moi, drink only on religious occasions: but these occasions color their attitude to drinking, and prevent them from taking what he calls a “utilitarian” attitude toward alcohol—drinking it quite consciously for psychological effects.

One wonders if this “ritual” interpretation of Jewish drinking will hold even for the Orthodox; one thinks of the Hasidim who got drunk on wine and God together (their enemies, naturally, did not think God had anything to do with it), and there is the Talmudic sage referred to at the beginning of the article who knew quite well that wine loosens tongues and was quite willing to use it for this “utilitarian” purpose.

If Mr. Bales, however, is right, it follows that we would not expect the American Jews, who have already wandered far indeed from the paths of their ancestors, and are more likely to begin their festive meals with martinis than with the benediction pronounced over wine, to keep out of the alcoholic wards much longer. And Mr. Bales, firmly stepping out on a limb, predicts just this. Perhaps he is right. The great majority of American Jews today, however, are still immigrants and the sons of immigrants. (One study in a representative city showed only 10 per cent of the Jewish population was third generation.) We are all closer to the ghetto than we think; and, even if we drink martinis, most of us were raised in homes where the benediction was pronounced. Perhaps when we are third and fourth generation rather than first and second, we shall not be very different from other Americans in the way we take, and respond to, our liquor.



But perhaps, too, the sociologists have been too hasty in disposing of Kant’s explanation. The Jews have been under siege for a long time, and have had to move cautiously for the last thousand years at least. It is revealing to me that when they had no need to move cautiously they minded the number of their cups less: in ancient Palestine, in the days of the First Commonwealth, when the prophets denounced them for leaving the simple ways of the desert; in the days of the Second Commonwealth, when the disputations of Jewish scholars seemed suspiciously close to the drinking sessions of Greek philosophers; in the early centuries of Jewish prosperity in Spain. Christian Europe seems first to have tightened the lips of the Jews; when we think of how our forefathers lived in medieval Europe, it is not hard to understand how it was that Jews began to feel that they had to have their wits about them, whatever the Gentiles did. Perhaps the siege has been raised here in America, but most Jews as yet are not, very deep down, sure that it has been.

Of course the siege is only the beginning of an explanation, not the whole explanation. Because of the siege, the traditional Jewish emphasis (traditional, that is, for the post-Biblical era) on reason, on logic, on consciousness, has been reinforced, as has the traditional distaste for violence and irrationality. It is revealing that even when Jews get drunk, they are not violent drunks, as, for example, Scandinavians are supposed to be—if alcohol permits the return of the inhibited, then we must conclude that irrational violence has been so deeply inhibited among the Jews that it does not rise to the surface even when alcohol dulls the higher centers of the brain.

It is not the consciousness of the siege that prevents any individual Jew from taking one more drink—motivation is more complicated than that. But it is the consequences of the siege, passed down from generation to generation, and including such elements as the desire to hold on to one’s senses and a distaste for the irrational, that sets a limit to Jewish drinking. So that it is indeed true that the Jew does not restrain himself because he thinks of the surrounding non-Jewish world: he is as temperate in all-Jewish company, or in an all-Jewish state. Rather, his restraint has become automatic—by what mechanisms, we may perhaps learn from the Yale study now in progress—in the course of hundreds of years.

But this is only one effect of the Jewish consciousness of difference. Here in America, where the Jews are not another nation, as they were in Eastern Europe, they wish intensely to overcome the difference; and so the Jew may very often take a drink in non-Jewish company, or even in Jewish, just to show he is “one of the boys.” But even here the hand of reason shows itself: the Jew drinks—or he does not drink—from “reasons of state.” And the non-Jews are made as uncomfortable by the Jewish drinker as by the Jewish non-drinker. As Jake and his pals say, in effect, of Robert Cohn, the fighting and drinking Jew of The Sun Also Rises—he “drinks by the book.”

Drinking, after all, strips us down to the natural man. And, for better or for worse, there does not seem to be much natural man left in the Jews to strip down to.3

In the Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol for 1947 one may read an interview with a Jewish high school senior on the subject of alcohol conducted by Mr. Glad in the course of his studies. “I’ve never been drunk myself,” the boy told Mr. Glad. “I should try it though—a fellow should know how it affects him. . . .” He understands well enough why other people drink: “They’re trying to drown their sorrows, and it may give them a false happiness.” What would you say is bad about excessive drinking, Mr. Glad asked. “It affects the mind—dulls the brain.” What’s good about drinking in moderation? the interviewer continued. “When you’re at a party it makes you feel like you’re one of the gang. If you don’t, people feel you’re not a regular fellow. . . . It’s also a business help. . . it’s kind of a social custom. . . you don’t want people to get the impression that you’re different.”

Of course there is a lot here that many non-Jewish Americans might have said. And yet, centuries ago, the Jewish innkeeper very likely also thought, as he saw the pointless gaiety and pointless tears aroused by his liquor, “It affects the mind—dulls the brain.” Had he come across these same words, Kant might have used them to illustrate his explanation of why the Jews stay sober.




1 This passage was translated by E. M. Jellinek, together with other passages dealing with drink, and published in the first volume of the Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol.

2 Unfortunately for this theory, Jewish suicide rates began to leap upward at the beginning of the 20th century: indeed, the Jews of pre-Hitler Germany had some of the highest suicide rates ever recorded for any group. But at the same time, as we have seen, Jews did not show any greater propensity for drunkenness and its consequences.

3 Interestingly enough, the Southern Negro, and to a lesser degree the Northern Negro, too, has not been a great drinker, and there are Still not so many Negro as white alcoholics. Here, also, perhaps it was too dangerous to lose control.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.