The Story Behind “Sabbath Wine”

Rabbi and wine during Prohibition
Photo courtesy The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life

Background info for “Sabbath Wine,” one of the stories in The History of Soul 2065.

THE STORY IN BRIEF
A radical Jewish man must find some wine during the first year of Prohibition when his young daughter asks for a Sabbath dinner.

HOW IT WAS WRITTEN
The first version of “Sabbath Wine” was very different than what it turned out to be. It started when I happened across a story that appeared in the NY Times from December 5, 1930, with the headline, “Rabbis Urge New Plan for Wine Permits, Charge Officials Discriminate Against Jews in Distributing Sacramental Beverage.” The short piece reported that Orthodox rabbis were complaining that applications for wine made by rabbis were not being treated in the same way as applications by Protestant and Catholic congregations. So that gave me the germ of an idea.

At first, the story was going to be about an immigrant rabbi in 1920 and a streetwise young boy who helps him negotiate the mysteries of the U.S. bureaucracy in order to get wine for his tiny congregation for Passover. I wanted some kind of fantasy element in there, and I gave it to the boy. Eventually, over I don’t remember how many rewritings, it turned into “Sabbath Wine.”

NOTES ON THE PEOPLE
Malka isn’t based on any one person, but her taste in music is. My mother has told me how she would sit on the fire escape outside her apartment when she was a child, and listen to the singing from a nearby African-American church. This was, she said, the beginning of her love of jazz, and it is why Malka finds herself sitting on the steps outside a brownstone listening to a choir rehearse.

Abe is very loosely based on my mother’s father, whom I only knew as a child, since he died when I was eight. I remember him as a quiet, patient man who put me on his knee so I could “help” him play the accordion. But this was a man who was a soldier in a world war, lived through a revolution, immigrated to a new country, and took an active role in the fur workers’ union. So I always suspected he was more of a firebrand, at least when he was younger, than I ever saw.

There is also a family tale about the time (when my mother was a child) my grandfather decided nobody had the right to tell him that he had to wear a hat in shul. My mother and grandmother were climbing the steps to the women’s section when there was a roar from the men’s section, and a group of congregants stormed out and bodily threw my grandfather out. An incident like this is mentioned briefly in the story.

Finally, my mother’s cousin has told us stories of how, in his childhood, members of various political factions — the Communists, the Socialists, the Anarchists, and their various subsets — would occupy different benches in a local park and argue with each other. I loved the idea of that, and really wanted to use it somewhere. It ended up here.

David and his father Sam are completely fictional.

There really was a Prohibition agent named Izzy Bernstein, and according to all accounts, he was very good at his job.

NOTES ON THE PLACE
The area where this story takes place is supposed to be somewhere around the East New York / Brownsville section of Brooklyn, NY, and a few streets from that area are mentioned.

NOTES ON THE HISTORY
For much of my information about the early years of Prohibition and the exceptions made for religious uses, I looked into the NY Times archive. I also got a good deal of information from two books: Marni Davis’ Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition, and Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.

The Odessa pogrom of October, 1905, was the culmination of a variety of social and economic upheavals, including economic uncertainty caused by war, the Potemkin massacre (portrayed in Eisenstein’s famous 1925 film Battleship Potemkin), and the Tsar’s October Manifesto, which promised civil liberties and an elective assembly (and was condemned by conservatives). According to Wikipedia, “Fear of a pogrom in April 1905 prompted the National Committee of Jewish Self-Defense to urge Jews to arm themselves and protect their property.” But, as Abe finds out, that didn’t help against huge numbers of well-organized rioters and an uninterested police force. Reports of the number of Jews killed during the three-day pogrom vary widely, but were at minimum in the hundreds.

For information about lynchings in the American South, I looked at a variety of sources on the web, but the book that convinced me that I had to include it in the story was Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America by James Allen. It is a necessary and horrific book. I also want to thank my friend Terence Taylor, who told me how, in the South, women would go out after dark to take down the victims of lynchings and bring the bodies home for burial.


Want to read The History of Soul 2065? Here are some links:

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Powell’s | Google Play

More links, and direct purchase of ebooks, can be found at Mythic Delirium.


 

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