Sunday, July 12, 2009

"Speak a Jewish Word and Make an Extra Sale"

My girlfriend's father died recently and in amongst his belongings she found a curious pamphlet.

jacobs title031.jpgThe Joseph Jacobs Handbook of Jewish Words and Expressions. For use by anyone calling on the Jewish trade...for making friends with Jewish merchants was issued in 1954 by the Joseph Jacobs Organization, an U.S. advertising agency that specifically targeted the Jewish market. It was created for any business interested in cultivating the Jewish trade, and Calvert Distillers co-opted it for use by its salesmen and distribution to the liquor store owners they called upon so that both could more effectively service their customers with a little schmear of Yiddish to grease the ethnic gears and help all concerned  put a little extra gelt (money) in their pockets and mach a leben (make a living). It's hands across the Old and New Testaments, brotherhood with a dollar sign.

It's rather quaint as a piece of ephemeral American Judaica. But as with all ephemera, close investigation reveals it to be much more than a handy lexicon.

Between the lines of this little pamphlet lies the history of the liquor business in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century. I know this story well and can recite it by heart. My family played a supporting role in the writing of it.

Prior to Prohibition, the whiskey business in the U.S. was a Protestant affair. When the Volstead Act became law, distilleries in the U.S. closed down and their inventories were gathered into U.S. Government bonded warehouses for distribution into the legal trade: Few are aware the there were exemptions under the Volstead Act for the sale of alcoholic beverages during Prohibition: wine for sacramental purposes, liqueurs and rum for industrial baking, and whiskey sold in drug stores for medicinal purposes by a doctor's prescription.(1)

jacobs intro032.jpgThe original owners of these warehoused goods were issued government receipts and a lively trade developed for brokering the receipts which were sold by the original owners to raise cash, and then brokered for resale. Control the receipts, and you controlled the legal flow of booze in the U.S. The brokers and buyers of the receipts were, to a man, Jews.

By 1930, it was becoming clear that the Noble Experiment was an utter failure and distillers, sensing Repeal in the air, began to prepare for it. But they needed capital to gear up for the change and resume production at a level to meet anticipated demand.

During the '20s, the National Brokerage Company of Chicago(2), one of the more successful traders of warehouse receipts, learned that a distillery in Kentucky was looking for a financial angel. The distillery, an old family business, had an established brand and venerable reputation. And so National Brokerage Company made a deal with the family patriarch. In exchange for investing the requisite scratch, they assumed control of the distillery's plants and products and handled all sales and marketing; day to day operations of the distillery and the manufacture of its alcoholic beverages were left in the hands of the family. Thus, Jim Beam bourbon became, for all intents and purposes, Judah Beam, the world's finest bourbon since 1795 (5555, by the Hebrew calendar).(3)

At the same time, the Bronfman family was buying up distilleries in Canada, amongst them, Calvert, and made strong, similar moves into the United States. South of the Canadian border, Lewis S. Rosenstiel bought the Schenley distillery in Pennsylvania and following that purchase went on a distillery buying binge. By the mid-1930s, Jews controlled the distilled spirits industry in the U.S., completely responsible for its finance, sales and marketing.

jacobs 3033.jpgIn the immediate post-WWII years, the liquor business enjoyed the same boom as every other industry in America. Its expansion and growth through publicy-owned corporations required a dramatic increase in personnel and non-Jews entered the trade in supporting roles. Liquor stores, almost entirely owned by Jews because the liquor trade was considered to be low-class by Christians influenced by the temperance movement, began to become owned by gentiles as upwardly mobile Jews rose to other, more acceptable occupations. The industry, though, was still run by Jews and, by 1954, the need for a pamphlet such as this was strong. By the 1960s, however, the corporatization of the industry was complete and the role of the Jews who established the modern liquor business in the United States gave way to a an ethnically neutral (parve) and faceless industry. Like the movie industry pioneered by Jews, the distilled spirits business shed its roots and became pasteurized, homogenized and fully "American." Indeed, Jim Beam was sold by the Blum group to American Tobacco (now American Brands) in 1967.

Recently in these pages, Chris Lowenstein wrote a fine piece about collecting ephemera, a follow-up to a blog post she wrote earlier for Book Hunter's Holiday.(4)

As this throwaway pamphlet demonstrates - all ephemera (or paper collectables) are throwaway by nature, not meant to last much less be collected - these pieces of paper can be as valuable as books for illuminating the world in which they were born. For book collectors wishing to enter the field on a tight budget, ephemera is unsurpassed. The pamphlet under notice is worth $15-$20, tops. Those who enter the hobby with ephemera often find that it is so rich yet inexpensive that they never want to collect beyond it.

This piece falls into Judaica, specifically American Judaica, with cross-over into 20th century American industry in general and the distilled spirits business in particular. And, just as many have found the collection of the literature of illegal drugs to be a fruitful and worthwhile area of interest and inquiry, so, too, are there collectors who specialize in collecting the literature of booze, with sub-specialties in bourbon, scotch, etc. Further, the establishment and growth of the liquor business in the United States runs parallel to the establishment and growth of the Republic; it is a sub-specialty of Americana. The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 anyone?

Thus, this little booklet can serve as the cornerstone to a collection that can grow in many interesting directions. A far-sighted dealer could build a collection of American liquor business-related ephemera, perhaps with the Jewish slant and form a collection more valuable as a whole than in its parts and sell to a university, a Jewish or a liquor industry trade organization. An individual could do the same and gain much personal nachas (joy), something to really kvell (beam with immense, swollen pride) over having amassed a collection of material that has gotten little attention and, having done so, brought to light a slice of our cultural history and heritage heretofore passed over.

As an adjunct, one could include vintage liquor business advertising, i.e.:

calvert ad1940.jpg     Clear Heads Call For Calvert (1940). Buyers of other brands presumably too drunk to buy wisely.

The Joseph Jacobs Handbook provides a pronunciation guide, so the non-Jews who used it would not make the blunder that one gentile performer in Hollywood made during an appearance on Jan Murray's early 1960s game show, Treasure Hunt: in a mangled expression of solidarity mit der menschen (good Jewish people) and as a self-elected landsman (fellow townsperson) he mispronounced the Jewish holiday Hanukah as CHa-NU-ka, thereby eliciting peals of derisive laughter from the audience and fellow game show participants, and demonstrating that he was a real schmendrick, a beheymeh, a putz.


1. Title II, sections 3, 6, and 7.

2. The principals of National Brokerage Company were Harry Blum who was married to one of my paternal grandmother's sisters; his father, Philip; my grandfather, Edward M. Gertz; Moe Rieger, married to Blum's sister; Joe Levy, who was married to my Great-Aunt Eva Bernstein; and Joe Guzik, brother of Jake "Greasy Thumb" Guzik, Al Capone's loyal business advisor and financial wizard. My Great-Aunt Bernice, my grandfather's sister, kept the books. My grandfather would sell his share of the business to two of his brothers-in-law, my Great-uncles Joe and Leo Bernstein, just prior to National Brokerage Company's reorganization as the Philip Blum group and its purchase of Jim Beam. In 1941, my great-uncle Harry Blum assumed sole ownership of James B. Beam Distilling Co.

3. It is instructive that the Jim Beam website makes absolutely no mention whatsoever of this part of its history. It also has some dates completely wrong.

4. Hats off to Chris for slyly referencing A.S.W. Rosenbach's 1936 classic book of the same name.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Subscribe to BOOKTRYST by Email