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Jews and Brews

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by Miriam Kingsberg, an assistant professor in the department of history at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She visited the Jewish Museum Munich in July 2016 and has provided this review of their recent show, “Beer is the Wine of This Land: Jewish Brewery Tales.” Enjoy!

Friends of ADHS may be interested to learn of a new bilingual (German and English) exhibit: “Beer is the Wine of this Land: Jewish Brewery Tales” at the Jewish Museum Munich (Jüdisches Museum München). This event is part of a city-wide celebration of the five hundredth anniversary of the “Purity Law” that restricted German beer ingredients to barley, hops, and water (yeast was added later). The exhibit was inaugurated in April 2016 and will run through August 1, 2017. Admission is included in the museum’s general ticket price (6 euros for adults, 3 euros for students and the elderly, free for children under age eighteen).

German Jewish Museum

Jewish Museum Munich exterior and beer garden, summer 2016 (author photo)

The Jewish Museum Munich opened in 2007 in the heart of the old city, next to a new synagogue completed a year earlier (the historic synagogue was destroyed by the Nazis on Kristallnacht). Observers may notice a (deliberate) contrast to the iconic Jewish Museum of Berlin, which was established in 2001 and is often regarded as a model for similar institutions around the country. Berlin traces the full sweep of Jewish history in Germany and northern Europe, with special attention to the Third Reich (1933-1945) and the Holocaust. The Munich museum, by contrast, does not find it possible to reconstruct Jewish life under the Nazis, citing the lack of surviving artifacts as the primary reason. Instead, the institution seeks to educate the local public and visitors about Jewish culture and experiences—an especially important mission given today’s relatively small local community. On the basement floor, ritual objects from the permanent collection highlight the observances, celebrations, and rhythms of Jewish life.

The exhibition occupies the ground floor and upper story of the museum. Curators begin with the question: given that the alcoholic beverage traditionally associated with Jewish life is wine, how did beer come to play a role? Following the discovery of beer more than five thousand years ago in ancient Egypt, the rabbinical authorities declared the alcohol kosher (except on Passover, and with the proviso that no non-kosher elements were introduced during the brewing process). Moreover, they ruled that any liquor might stand in for wine on ceremonial occasions if it was the customary beverage of the surrounding community. Whether beer ever acquired ritual status among German Jews, however, is a question that the exhibit never addresses. As the title indicates, its primary focus is not consumption but rather production.

Jewish beer stein

Beer stein with Zoigl, c. 1880

Beer production and Jews were symbolically entwined in southern Germany from the Middle Ages, when brewers chose the six-point star (Zoigl) to mark places where they sold the beverage. This same star was also used to denote Jewishness as early as the thirteenth century. The Zoigl remained in use until the Nazis came to power, and the museum displays a rich collection of beer steins (mugs) and other paraphernalia adorned with the emblem.

The expulsion of Jews from numerous German cities in the late Middle Ages led to the rise of new rural communities and large-scale involvement in hops growing and trading. By the nineteenth century, wealthy Jewish brewers had come to dominate beer production in Bavaria. Jakob von Hirsch (1765-1849), Germany’s first Jewish baron, overcame the opposition of competitors to establish Munich’s first modern brewery in 1836. Under his progeny, the operation thrived until the difficult years following World War I. A century after von Hirsch, Josef Schülein (1854-1938) amassed fabulous wealth through his own brewery, which became the city’s second-largest. In his old age he devoted himself to charity and delegated the task of running the business to his sons. The youngest, Fritz, wrote a dissertation on the legal contract system governing the distribution of beer.

Cases like von Hirsch and Schülein suggest the importance of beer as a vehicle of social mobility and assimilation for wealthy German Jews in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (I also found myself wondering about issues of anti-Semitism, which are referenced only obliquely.) However, the “tales” of the exhibition do not serve to advance an argument that genuinely situates either German Jewry or beer as agents in each other’s history. Nor do they touch upon the broader communities with which entrepreneurs certainly engaged. Farm and factory laborers, tavern-keepers, salespersons, and women remain outside the margins of this narrative despite their indispensability to the beer industry. This history of brewing remains a top-down enterprise, as it were.

Perhaps thanks in part to their elite status, most of the figures detailed here were able to emigrate in time to escape the Holocaust. Their dispersal under Hitler led to the spread of German brewing beyond Europe, particularly to the United States and Israel. The final installations of the exhibit detail the recent rise of craft beer production in these societies. The American microbrewery scene has exploded in the past quarter-century or so (particularly in my home state of Colorado). Success in the U.S. has in turn inspired a veritable “revolution” in Israel. Though the Israeli beer market was long dominated by two national brands and a handful of export labels, today the country boasts more than thirty small operations, including several in the Bavarian mode. To complement the exhibit, the museum’s beer garden was serving the results of the first collaboration between German and Israeli brewers. (I’ll admit that it was not to my taste, but the standard is high in Munich.)

cartoon vodka beer

Cartoon, Jordan B. Gorfinkel, commissioned by Jewish Museum Munich

Although many contemporary Jewish brewers thrive outside Germany, they, like German Jews as a whole, have largely disappeared from German public life. In 1950 Fritz Schülein returned to Munich; the family business was restituted to him, but he was unable to return it to profitability, and sold it. Today, the majority of Jews in Germany are of Russian extraction, and for them, vodka is the wine of this land.


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