Fluid Faith

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Fluid Faith

The religious exemption during Prohibition.

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The Volstead Act of 1919 served to bring Americans closer to God, Daniel Okrent reports in Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (Scribner). The ban on intoxicating liquor included an exemption for religious uses. In Napa Valley, California, the Beaulieu Vineyards netted over $100,000 a year by selling sacramental wine to the Catholic Church. Some priests bought 120 gallons at a time, which Okrent figures is enough for 46,000 Communion sips. He suspects that quite a few bottles got diverted to parishioners.

Rabbis diverted, too. Some opened stores selling kosher wine “for sacramental purposes.” A customer could sign up as a member of the synagogue and buy a bottle of wine, all in one visit to the store. The rabbi might be a new convert himself, according to Okrent. In Detroit, Rabbi Leo M. Franklin claimed to know of at least 150 men who, “without the slightest pretense at rabbinical training or position,” were claiming to be rabbis in order to market liquor. Franklin charged, “They simply gathered around them little companies of men; they called them congregations; and then, under the law as it now exists, they were privileged to purchase and distribute wine.”

The abuses prompted some embarrassed rabbis to advocate repealing the religious exception altogether. Congress didn’t act, but in 1926 the Prohibition Bureau began enforcing the rules more rigorously. After that, shipments of wine for Jewish ceremonies dropped by 90 percent in some cities. And, presumably, the ranks of the new godly evaporated a bit.