Forgive me if today I take a little departure from American History. Let’s talk taverns, Jewish Taverns, and the quintessential Jewish Tavern would have been in 18th Century Poland.
It was Sunday, and from church after morning Mass,—Adam Mickiewicz, Pan Tadeusz
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
It’s easy to fall into the trap of leaning European Jewish history only through the perspective of antisemitism, violence, and the Holocaust. There was, however, a time when EVERYONE came to the Jewish run taverns in Poland. These Jewish-run taverns became the center of local Christians’ leisure, hospitality, business, and even religious festivities.
The nobles who owned the taverns, deliberately chose only Jews to run these taverns because they were believed to be sober enough to run taverns profitably. Jewish tavernkeepers often evaded the expulsions of the 19th Century 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 led to a vast underground Jewish liquor trade reflects an impressive level of local Jewish-Christian coexistence, despite occasional flare-ups of anti-Jewish violence.
The figure of the Jewish tavernkeeper in Polish Romantic literature is often dismissed by historians as mythical. The reality is that large number of rural Jews in Poland did lease taverns and distilleries from noble landowners during the18th Century.
As any traveler in the eighteenth Century knew, a country tavern was more than a just a place to get a drink and a meal. It usually comprised a distillery, country store, hotel, stable, and bank. It was a source of news and the sole entertainment venue within miles. Taverns weren’t just the most important commerce in town, often they were the only cash commerce in town.
Because of Polish landowners’ desire to lease their rights to distill liquor to Jews, and itinerant Jewish merchants’ need for kosher food, nearly half of 18th-century Polish Jews were involved in the liquor or tavern-keeping business in some way. Jews played so central a role. Liquor was the region’s boom industry, yielding over 40 percent of the revenues from royal properties in 1789.
Unfortunately, as Napoleon spread his armies across Europe, old hatreds of the Jews reemerged and eventually destroyed a thriving culture. By 1815, the Congress of the Kingdom of Poland decreed that “No Jew … in any village or in the countryside, is allowed to hold a lease on a tavern, drinking house, or inn, either in his own name or in another’s, nor to sell liquor, nor even to live where this is done, except when passing through” ending nearly a century of Polish domination of the liquor trade and peaceful coexistence of Christians and Jews in Poland. As you well know, the story gets worse from there.