Zhidovskaia kartshma (Jewish tavern). E. Iakovlev, Russia, 1868. Lithograph. (Print Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

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Jews in Poland began leasing taverns and village breweries in the sixteenth century. This line of work developed rapidly, and by the second half of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there was a significantly greater proportion of Jews involved in activities related to the production and sale of beer and vodka than in other Jewish communities in Europe. According to the census of Jews in 1764–1765, about 80 percent of the Jews living in villages and about 14 percent of those living in towns and cities were involved in these activities. In Podlasie, Podolia, and Mazovia, innkeepers made up some 55 percent of the total Jewish population.

Liquor labels from a distillery owned by M. Rajzman and K. Kopelzon, Luboml, Poland (now Lyuboml, Ukr.), 1920s–1930s. (American Folklife Center, Library of Congress)

The development of this field of Jewish economic activity resulted from economic and social changes in Poland and Lithuania in the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. One reason was that the price of beer and vodka increased more rapidly than that of grain, a factor that inclined landowners to devote an ever-increasing proportion of their grain harvests to the production of alcohol. Another reason was that alcohol could be sold more quickly and easily than grain, with vodka (made from rye) and beer growing in popularity. Landowners also held a monopoly on producing and selling alcohol (Pol., propinacja), which meant that peasants were required to buy beer and vodka only in landowners’ taverns and were also banned from importing such items from other lords’ estates. Thus the taverns could always be counted on to provide a steady source of income.

The only region of Poland in which the majority of the Jews’ income came from other sources was the western region of Wielkopolska, where they made up only 5 percent of rural tavernkeepers. In the rest of Poland, Jews leased the vast majority of taverns and breweries on royal and noble estates—and even many of those in villages owned by monasteries and other church institutions. This was despite bans imposed by Pope Benedict XIV and the 1753 synod of the Catholic church in Poland, as well as after protests of some Polish bishops. Jews remained prominent in this field because landowners, who viewed peasants as incompetent and prone to drunkenness, preferred to lease their taverns to Jews, whose sobriety and restraint were felt to lead to greater profits. In addition, Jews were not only more literate and numerate than the peasants, but were also prepared to pay high rents for the taverns. The leasing of taverns and breweries thus became a highly significant and accessible source of income for Jews—particularly following the wartime destruction and economic instability of the mid-seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

"Cabaret Juif" (Jewish Cabaret). Drawing by Belaoussoff. Printed by Lemercier, Paris, for publication by J. Daziaro in Moscow and St. Petersburg, ca. 1870s. (Moldovan Family Collection)

The fact that there were so many Jews producing and selling alcohol influenced relations both within the Jewish community and between Jews and Christians. This was particularly the case since profits from taverns and breweries leased by Jews formed an integral part of the noble, royal, and church income, and the tavernkeepers’ economic activities played a significant role in the economic life of the estates, which were run along feudal lines. So numerous were Jewish tavernkeepers that they became a recognized feature of Polish rural life. By the nineteenth century, the figure of the Jewish tavernkeeper became a common motif in Polish belles lettres, the most famous being the sympathetic figure of Jankiel in Adam Mickiewicz’s epic poem, Pan Tadeusz.

The size of the estate in which they worked could influence the tavernkeepers’ economic status. On the magnate estates, composed of villages numbering from several dozen up to more than 100, richer Jews would lease all the estate’s taverns and breweries, and then sublet them to people usually recruited from the lower echelons of Jewish society. On the smaller noble estates, Jews would lease single taverns and breweries, and sometimes mills as well. Contracts were usually for a period of three years, during which time leaseholders were obliged to pay the rent at specific points. They sometimes also had to agree to list their children or wives as collateral in case these conditions were not met. Such instances were rare, but when they did occur it was exclusively children who were taken as collateral, sometimes being forced to convert to Catholicism and eat nonkosher food.

Jews’ profits were based on their increasing turnover in the taverns, enabling them to earn not only the necessary funds to pay the rent but also additional income. In order to do this, they often had to give peasants beer and vodka on credit. If the latter defaulted, the estate’s administration would not hesitate to collect these debts for the Jewish tavernkeeper. This method of debt collection sometimes brought peasant farms to ruin, a source of conflict between peasants and Jews. Conflicts were also prompted by the fact that tavernkeepers were often provided with agricultural allotments and a certain amount of the corvée labor owed by peasants to their lord (pańszczyzna). Peasants often complained that Jewish tavernkeepers forced them to work on Sundays and Christian holidays. On the other hand, many taverns employed non-Jewish servants, with good relations often the rule. Cases of female Christian servants being made pregnant by their Jewish employers also occurred.

Usually just one or two tavernkeepers’ families and their servants—most often only a handful of Jewish men and women—lived in a single village. The small Jewish population meant there were not enough men for the quorum of 10 needed to hold formal prayer services. Tavernkeepers thus tried to spend the holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Passover in nearby towns so that they would be able to pray in the synagogues. Many tavernkeepers also employed a melamed (tutor), since distances meant they were not always able to send their children to study in heders in places with larger Jewish populations. Urban Jews, therefore, tended to look down on rural tavernkeepers, considering them less cultured.

Gentiles dancing and drinking in a Jewish tavern. Lithograph by G. Pillati published by A. Chlebowski, “Swit,” and printed by B.Wierzbicki and Sons, Warsaw, n.d. (Moldovan Family Collection)

In many towns and cities, both Jews and burghers were allowed to produce and sell alcoholic beverages. In some towns belonging to nobles, only Jews who owned real estate could take advantage of this opportunity. Jews also leased taverns owned by the towns themselves, as well as landowners’ taverns located within municipal limits. The participation of Jews in the production and sale of alcoholic beverages in cities influenced Jews’ relationships with townspeople. Jews had weaker relationships with burghers than with peasants. Burghers, relying on their municipal privileges, treated Jews who produced and sold alcoholic beverages as hostile intruders depriving burghers of potential income. A conflict of this sort led to a pogrom in Lęczyca in 1791.

Landowners were often interested in enabling their Jewish tavernkeepers to be relieved from the Jewish poll tax in order to allow them to continue paying high rents for leasing taverns and breweries. They would ask the noble dietines (local assemblies), and once even the Jewish Council of Four Lands, that tavernkeepers receive tax exemptions, sometimes demanding that Jewish leaseholders on other noble estates pay the tax in their stead. In the eighteenth century, the nobility began to oppose the leasing of taverns to Jews, arguing that Jews were bringing the peasant farms to ruin. At that time, however, there were only a few isolated cases of Jewish tavernkeepers being driven out. This was because no one else was willing to assume the leases, and the landowners had no intention of giving up income from these sources. In the second half of the century, participants in debates over the future of the Polish state often argued that Jews’ rights to lease taverns and breweries should be rescinded since Jewish tavernkeepers were responsible for peasants’ excessive drinking. At the Four-Year Sejm (1788–1792), this idea was even incorporated into draft legislation for social and cultural reform of the Jews.

It was only after the partitions of Poland that numerous laws were passed banning Jews from producing and selling alcoholic beverages. In Wielkopolska under Prussian rule, Jews were banned from selling alcohol in villages in 1793. This legislation was not fully implemented, however, in order to prevent rural Jews from moving to the towns. In Galicia, on the other hand, an imperial patent of 9 February 1784 ordered that all Jews be removed as leaseholders of taverns and breweries within three years. This policy was to be implemented only after contracts with Jewish leaseholders expired during that period; new contracts with them were forbidden. One-third of the Jewish population in Galicia faced losing its source of income. Jews tried to evade this ban; as a result, not all leaseholders were removed from the countryside, though their numbers did decline. During the years 1812–1827, there were still 1,378 Jews selling alcoholic beverages in rural areas, representing 10 percent of all Jews involved in these activities.

Busy street scene outside a Jewish-owned inn, Kopyczyńce, Poland (now Kopychintsy, Ukr.), 1920s. The photographer explains, "In this very house Yiddish theater has been performed—the best American Yiddish performers, originally from Russian and Romania. . . . The performers played in the [inn's] stable." Photograph by Alter Kacyzne. (YIVO)

In the tsarist empire, the Imperial Statute Concerning the Jews of 1804 prohibited Jews from holding leases on taverns and selling liquor. Even Prince Adam Czartoryski, a leading Polish politician of the period, who was on the whole favorably inclined toward Jews and who believed they should be allowed entrance to all professions, seems to have supported this legislation.

In the Duchy of Warsaw, a decree was issued on 30 December 1812, banning Jews from producing and selling alcoholic beverages; this was to take effect in 1814. The implementation of this decree could have meant economic disaster for Jews, since in the Duchy’s small area—about 150,000 square kilometers with some 4.33 million inhabitants—there were approximately 802 breweries, 1,116 distilleries, and 10,455 taverns, of which 4,734 were in towns, the great majority in Jewish hands. Just as in Galicia, this decree was to take effect after contracts with the leaseholders expired. As the result of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, however, the decree was never implemented. Leaseholders were nevertheless financially drained by a subsequent requirement that they buy a concession giving them the right to engage in the production and sale of alcohol.

In 1820, Jewish leaseholders began to be removed from village taverns and breweries in the Kingdom of Poland. In 1840, a law was passed rescinding their right to engage in these activities. An analogous law was passed in Galicia, and similar measures were taken in the Prussian Partition. These plans were never fully realized, however, because authorities feared that if Jewish leaseholders were driven out of the countryside, even greater numbers of Jews would move to the cities, where there were already higher than average concentrations of Jews. Jewish leaseholders were also affected by the tsarist ukase of 1844, which limited the amount of vodka that could be produced. This was prompted by concern over the deleterious effect of alcohol on the physical and moral condition of the population. In 1844, all Jews involved in the production and sale of beer and vodka were removed from noble estates; they were only allowed to remain on state-owned ones. This was, however, met with criticism in the Polish press.

After 1844, the Council of State of the Kingdom of Poland allowed only a dozen or so Jewish families and their descendants to lease taverns and breweries. Many Jews who were not related to these families claimed that they were relatives of leaseholders who had been granted this permission, thus gaining for themselves the right to engage in these activities. In Lithuania, the number of Jewish leaseholders diminished as well. The dietine in Kovno in 1840 proclaimed that Jews should be removed from all village taverns, as did those that took place in Vilna in 1840 and 1843. In Ukraine, however, many Jews were still involved in the alcohol trade: in 1849, there were 1,805 in Berdichev alone.

After the nobles lost their monopoly on alcohol within their estates, the Jews’ production and sale of alcoholic beverages lost its special character. In Wielkopolska, which belonged to Prussia at that time, the noble monopoly was lifted in 1845; similar steps were taken in Galicia (1889) and the Russian partition (1898). In 1911, however, people involved in these activities were required to buy concessions, which were limited in number; as a result, another 8,000 Jewish families lost their source of income. Numerous temperance societies, mostly under the influence of the clergy, called for Jews to surrender their breweries and taverns. After World War I, a state monopoly on the production of vodka was introduced. Jews, as was true of other traders in this branch, had to apply for concessions to sell alcoholic beverages.

Suggested Reading

Bohdan Baranowski, Polska karczma, restauracja, kawiarnia (Wrocław, 1979); Józef Burszta, Wieś i karczma: Rola karczmy w życiu wsi pańszczyźnianej (Warsaw, 1950); Jacob Goldberg, “Żyd i karczma na Podlasiu w XVIII wieku,” Studia podlaskie 2 (1989): 27–38; Jacob Goldberg, “Żyd a karczma wiejska w XVIII wieku,” Wiek oświecenia 9 (1993): 205–213, appears also in Hebrew in his Ha-Ḥevrah ha-yehudit be-mamlekhet Polin-Lita (Jerusalem, 1999); Magdalena Opalski, The Jewish Tavern-Keeper and His Tavern in Nineteenth Century Polish Literature (Jerusalem, 1986); Halina Rożenowa, Produkcja wódki i sprawa pijaństwa w Królestwie Polskim, 1815–1863 (Warsaw, 1961); Ignacy Schiper, Dzieje handlu żydowskiego na ziemiach polskich (1937; rpt., Kraków, 1990); Adam Teller, Kesef, koaḥ ve-hashpa‘ah: Ha-Yehudim ba-aḥuzot Bet Radz´ivil be-Lita ba-me’ah ha-18 (Jerusalem, 2006), pp. 128–181.



Translated from Polish by Christina Manetti