Jews and booze: the truth

Contrary to the myth, we have enjoyed a tipple since biblical times

By Bernard Josephs, July 15, 2010
Israelites started drinking beer more than 3,000 years ago and have not stopped since

Israelites started drinking beer more than 3,000 years ago and have not stopped since

An old proverb sums up what many people still believe is the Jewish attitude towards alcohol. An inn keeper, it says, "loves the drunkard, but not as a son in law".

In 19th-century Poland, Jewish- owned inns served vodka to non-Jewish locals, whose idea of a great night out was to down as much as they could until they became violent or unconscious, or both.

On the other hand, Jews, it was believed, did not drink.

History, however, has revealed that this rose-tinted view of the mild-mannered, teetotal Jew does not tally with reality.

In the 1960s, for instance, evidence that the amber nectar was favoured during the reigns of King Saul and King David was uncovered by Israeli archeologists, who announced the discovery of several 3,000-year-old beer mugs.

An ancient Assyrian tablet, suggesting that booze was taken on board the Arc by Noah, was also unearthed and, in the hills surrounding Jerusalem, wine presses dating back to first Temple times were discovered. Disapproval of the ancient Israelites' taste for a tipple is also found in the Book of Isaiah, which railed against those "who stay up late at night until they are inflamed with wine".

What Isaiah would have thought of Purim, when Jews are told to drink until they cannot recognise the difference between Mordechai and Haman, is anyone's guess.

Certainly, he would not be pleased to see the burgeoning drinking culture in modern-day Israel.

Wine, for instance, is no longer something that appears on Israeli dining tables only on Shabbat or during festivals. Modern production methods and the improvement of vine stocks has helped produce a rise in demand for wine as a social drink.

Classic varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Chardonnay have revolutionised drinking habits.

I recall a meeting some 20 years ago with an Israeli wine-maker who said wearily that he would not be able to produce decent wine until there was a healthy home market. He no longer has that excuse.

Restaurants, cafes and bars all over Israel and throughout the diaspora pride themselves on a long and growing wine list and the fear, expressed by generations of Jewish mothers, that an occasional glass of plonk is the start of a slippery slope towards alcoholism, is no longer credible.

Cocktails and beer are also increasingly popular in Israel. There was a time when the only decent bar in the country was Fink's in Jerusalem, a watering hole mainly frequented by the foreign media but rarely by Israelis.

Today, bars and pubs found both in big cities and smaller communities attract large crowds of young Sabras.

A growing thirst for beer is met not only by local brews such as Goldstar, Maccabi and Carlsberg - which has a brewery in the dusty outskirts of Ashkelon - but also by a range of micro-breweries producing speciality ales.

Dancing Camel, for instance, is a brewery founded in Tel Aviv by American immigrant David Cohen who, back in the USA ,was a keen home brewer.

He continued his hobby in Israel and produces beers with an Israeli twist, including pale ale with date syrup and pomegranate beer.

Israel's drinking classes also flock to Irish-style pubs, some of which serve Guinness on tap.

Tel Aviv's Leo Bloom and Molly Bloom and The Dublin in Rehovot bring a taste of Ireland to the Middle East and feature authentic Irish folk music by a group of Israelis whose leader is the son of Irish olim.

Despite this change of culture, drunkenness in Israel remains a minority sport, albeit on the increase. Israel's cabinet has approved a bill banning the sale of alcohol to people under the age of 21.

"We are on the onset of an epidemic," said tired and emotional Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu.

Last updated: 11:22am, July 15 2010