Dress British Drink Yiddish: Introduction to the Jewish Bar

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned that I tend to cross the wires of my biological Irish identity and my adoptive Jewish identity. I don't think there is any greater example of this than my obsession with the idea of a Jewish bar.

It is very likely that my biological father owned an Irish pub, and it is certain that I was conceived there, and I have been a patron of Irish pubs for my entire adult life. A lot of my identity as an Irish-American was developed in places like this, listening to Irish bands while drinking Irish whiskey. The Irish pub is one of the three great Irish-American institutions for preserving and continuing Irish culture, along with the family and the Catholic church, and arguably more important that the latter. A majority of Irish-American are not Catholic, and, for those that are, there aren't that many Catholic churches that cater to a specifically Irish-American patronage anymore.

Irish-Americans aren't alone in their relationship with bars. I have been to any number of German bars, Czech bars, Mexican bars, Russian vodka bars, and even a Canadian bar in Minneapolis named for Sergeant Preston of the Yukon. But I have never been to a Jewish bar, and searching for one online produced a series of dead ends, even after I filtered out stories about Bar Mitzvahs. I find a lot of stories about Jewish bar associations, followed by stories about the Bar Kochba revolt. The first story I found about a legitimately Jewish-themed bar is a troubling one, telling of Ukraine's Under the Golden Rose bar and restaurant, which is not owned by Jews. Instead, in the shadow of Lviv's destroyed Golden Rose Synagogue, patrons wear Jewish costumes, drink cocktails with names like "The Funny Jew," and haggle over the price of their meal. This is not a Jewish bar, it's an antisemetic bar where patrons participate in a grotesque satire of Jewishness.

I understand why Jews are a bit skittish about the idea of a Jewish bar. For one thing, we do not like to be associated with drunkenness, and there are ample number of Yiddish phrases that demonstrate our distaste for binge drinking, including the song "Shikker is a Goy," that literally insists that drunks are non-Jews.

This is, of course, a bit of playacting on our part, as Jews like to drink as much as anybody. I was briefly in a Jewish fraternity, and can testify that the membership was anything but a gang of  teetotalers. My favorite joke about alcohol comes courtesy of Jewish comic Joe E. Lewis, whose gentle inebriation was the basis for Dean Martin's post-Jerry Lewis persona -- one must wonder how many Jewish Lewises Martin based his career on. Here is Joe E. Lewis's quote: "I always wake up at the crack of ice."

Beyond that, Jews have a long history of owning vineyards, breweriess, and saloons, once dominating the business in parts of Eastern Europe, including northwest Russia, where Jews owned a reported 80 percent of the saloons. They brought this trade to America, including active participation in bootlegging during Prohibition, and all this is documented in the book "Jews and Booze" by Marni Davis. Additionally, there were bars that were largely patronized by Jews, such as the delightfully named Pink Elephant Lounge at Grossinger's Catskill's Resort, which was actually pink, and was patronized by Jews enjoying a Borscht Belt getaway. But none of these places fulfilled the function of a contemporary ethnic bar, where the the music, the bar food, the drinks, the events, and even the decoration fuse nostalgia with innovation, preserving (and often mythologizing) the past while allowing patrons to indulge and investigate their ethnic identity.

I suppose there are a few institutions that already do this for Jews. The synagogue, certainly, although that is a largely useless institution for the majority of American Jews whose identity is mostly secular. Delicatessens do a lot of the work, and, as much as I might say my Irish-American identity was created in Irish pubs, a lot of my Jewish identity came from delicatessens. For years I was a regular at Nate 'n Al's in Beverly Hills and, less frequently, Canter's Delicatessen on Fairfax, and sill go to both when I am in Los Angeles. I would say I got most of my ideas about what it means to be an old Jewish man from my fellow patrons there, and, as I work my way toward becoming an old Jewish man, they are still my model.

Delis are on the decline, but they did a lot for Jews that pubs do for the Irish, including nostalgie. There was an entire room dedicated to Yiddish stage actress Molly Picon at the Second Avenue Deli, which has now been integrated into the rest of the restaurant -- next time I am in New York, I shall make a pilgrimage here. And what Irish whiskey is to the Irish, a good rye bread is to Jews, so it makes sense that we would converge around the deli.

But it's not the same. You don't go to a deli to hear a band, you don't take a date dancing at a deli, you don't play trivia games at a deli, and you certainly don't go to a deli for a drink. I may be the only one who feels this gap in the American Jewish experience, but I feel it keenly, and so I spend a lot of time fantasizing about what a Jewish pub would be like. And so we'll come back to this subject in future posts, in which I will discuss what I would serve as cocktails there, what music I would program, what bar food I would offer, and whatever else occurs to me. Because if I am going to sit down and speak Yiddish anywhere, it's probably going to be in a bar.