The history behind “Sabbath Wine”

Rabbi with wine casks
Photo courtesy The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life

Note: This is story is posted on the Mythic Delirium website in a slightly different version, and can be read there for free. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

A radical must find a bottle of now-illegal wine during the first year of Prohibition when his young daughter asks for a Sabbath dinner.

“Sabbath Wine” is the second story in The History of Soul 2065, and the best known, since it was a finalist for the 2016 Nebula Award. Interestingly, my first drafts of “Sabbath Wine” were very different from the final result.

I had 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.” Apparently, during Prohibition there were exceptions made for religious use of alcoholic beverages, but Orthodox rabbis were complaining their applications for purchasing wine 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 Passover wine for his tiny congregation. I wanted some kind of fantasy element in there, and I gave it to the boy, giving him mystical powers. Eventually, over I don’t remember how many rewritings, the story changed and changed again, and finally turned into “Sabbath Wine.”

It appeared in the 2016 anthology Clockwork Phoenix 5 from Mythic Delirium Books.

“I don’t want to be dead,” said David. “I don’t even know if I really am. It’s just what Daddy told me.”

Sabbath Wine

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 WWI, 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.

This is supported by a family tale about the time my grandfather decided nobody had the right to tell him that he had to wear a hat in shul. My mother (who was a child at the time) and grandmother were climbing the steps to the women’s section when there was a roar from the men’s section. They watched as a group of congregants bodily threw my grandfather out of the building. 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.

The area where this story takes place is supposed to be somewhere in the East New York / Brownsville sections of Brooklyn, NY. A few streets from that area are mentioned.

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.

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