Issue 2

Jews and Booze

Sacrifice and devotion


Celebration of food is central to Jewish social life, but what happens when it comes to wine? Nina Caplan wonders why it is that her people drink so little.


Every Friday night, as the Sabbath arrives, the religious Jew praises God for the fruit of the vine. I know the prayer – it’s one of the few I do know – but I have trouble with prayers of all kinds, and this one more than most. The glasses my Orthodox brethren lift are filled with a liquid that merits little praise. I prefer a form of wordless worship that tastes rather better, but in this I appear to be practically alone among my kind.

Perhaps being suckled on sweet alcoholic grape juice, however kosher, spoils the palate and dulls the curiosity. As I swirl a glass filled with fruitful worship of the vine, I find myself wondering why my people, certainly no slouches in the gourmet stakes, drink in a way that has more to do with sacrifice than devotion.

It wasn’t always thus. Noah drank with tremendous enthusiasm, by all accounts, and it can’t have done him much harm: he lived to over 900. You can object that the Bible is allegorical – but then, why don’t people who treat it as purest truth follow Noah’s lead? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not in favour of drunkenness, although if ever a man had an excuse to overdo things, it surely was Noah, what with Sodom, Gomorrah, global destruction and all that rain. I am merely curious about the trajectory that led from a nonacentenarian boozer to a race who appear to call my genetic heritage into question any time they clock how enthusiastically I drink. 

I learned to rollerskate in the 1980s on the bumpy bricks under the Vauxhall arches where Majestic Wine had its warehouse, while my father indulged in a weekend tasting, or ten

My love of wine is, in fact, inherited: my father was passionate about the stuff. I learned to rollerskate in the 1980s on the bumpy bricks under the Vauxhall arches where Majestic Wine had its warehouse (probably its sole warehouse back then), while he indulged in a weekend tasting, or ten. I still recall with affection the little pots of lasagna they offered to loyal customers in the hope of staving off inebriation. Back home, the walls were lined with bottles, and the toilet seat was only slightly higher than the pile of back issues of Decanter magazine tucked beside it. At my grandmother’s insistence, my father had a cellar built. He filled it, then went back to using wine as wallpaper.

He loved the gastronomic and intellectual challenges of wine, but he never allowed the cerebral preoccupations to interfere with the gustatory ones: wine is a wonderful substance, more multifaceted than a diamond, and he spent his adult life turning it this way and that to admire the light through its depths. He died, far too young, 13 years ago, but I am trying to continue his good work.

Often, when I open something truly wonderful – a Clare Valley Riesling that has blossomed a decade beyond its advised drinking date, or a perfumed and richly chewy Chí¢teau Ducru-Beaucaillou, second growth from St-Julien – I hear my father offering a much younger me a sip, and telling me about the flavours in the glass, the landscape responsible for those flavours and the winemaker whose benevolent yet firm supervision enabled them to graduate from the latter to the former, and I taste my childhood. 

Surely a people as obsessed with the past as the Jews should be perfectly equipped to appreciate the intricate history that every bottle of wine represents? Although a broad outlook, it must be said, has rarely been a Jewish failing.

And yet Jews have always been winemakers – thanks to the need for kosher wine for prayers, and the ruling that decrees that any intervention by a non-Jew renders the wine instantly trayf, or non-kosher. I still remember meeting the gentile winemaker from Capí§anes, a Spanish wine cooperative founded to provide kosher wine to the Barcelona Jews, who explained that he had never tasted kosher wine, even though his winery still made a proportion of it: the very act of his opening the bottle would negate a whole process of careful kashering. 

Laws this stringent ensured two things: that Jews would always make wine, and that it would be terrible. Jews, as Claudia Roden points out in The Book of Jewish Food, make wines that are sweet, sparkling and spiced, from grapes or raisins but also from fermented dates, figs and pomegranates. This might be a good idea, although since nobody else appears to have followed suit, it might not. 

Stringent dietary laws ensured two things: that Jews would always make wine, and that it would be terrible

At a dinner, after a reading of his book The Seven Good Years, I asked Etgar Keret – a wonderful Israeli writer of humorous short stories – for his opinion on why Jews drink so pathetically little. He sipped his solitary beer (he’d refused wine) and suggested that drink is a warming substance, so in hot countries people are more moderate ("They smoke pot instead."). This still leaves most of East European Jewry unaccounted for. Has my family really taken sole responsibility for keeping the Ashkenazim warm?

The writer Naomi Alderman (teetotal, more or less) suggests that since Jews are mouthy to begin with, we don’t need booze to venture an opinion. This is undoubtedly true, but reinforces my case, since drinking wine can be so much more than a socially acceptable method of administering confidence.

I have two answers of my own to the question of why Jews drink so little and so badly: one historical, one whimsical. The former is that a wandering, frequently persecuted people needs possession of all its faculties: drunkenness, in hostile territory, is never a good survival plan. The latter is that vines are simply too much like us: transplanted and asked to integrate in foreign soil, or niche outgrowths, treated as odd curiosities by a population thirsty for novelty but never, quite, accepting of our difference.

I don’t require a good glass of wine to advance these opinions – but if you offer me one, in a spirit of epicurean fellowship, I certainly won’t say no. BUM FACE