Prohibition reshaped the social ecology of New York, causing immigrants from different lands to make common cause in the interest of continuing to drink. Despite their reputation for sobriety, Jews often enjoyed special access to alcohol because of an exemption in the law for sacramental wine.
Now comes a new musical, “The Bootlegger and the Rabbi’s Daughter,” that pops the cork on a mostly hidden aspect of Jewish history — the connection between Jews and liquor. With book and lyrics by Tajlei Levis and music by John Mercurio, the free show will be performed three times next week in a staged reading at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF), which celebrates its 10th anniversary this summer.
In “The Bootlegger and the Rabbi’s Daughter,” set in 1920, an Italian immigrant named Marco (David Bonnano) is swept up in the general merriment after a Labor Day parade; he finds himself having dinner in a synagogue where wine is being stored. After consulting with a Tammany Hall fixer, Bill (Patrick Edgar), and coming up with a scheme, he enlists a yeshiva student as his partner and gets access to the hoard — at least until the rabbi’s fetching daughter, Jo (Russell Koplin), catches on and Marco and Bill pair have to sort out their relationship both to each other and to the law.
Levis, who grew up in Vermont, has written about culture for The Jewish Week, and is the niece of playwright Wendy Wasserstein. The show has evolved, according to Levis, from a goodwill-themed holiday entertainment into a more complex show about a “dutiful, hard-working daughter who meets someone who is a breath of fresh thinking, optimism and enthusiasm — a catalyst for everyone to evolve and modernize in their own way.”
For her research, Levis found especially helpful Daniel Okrent’s 2010 bestseller, “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition,” which was made into a film by Ken Burns. (Okrent also co-wrote the Off-Broadway revue “Old Jews Telling Jokes.”)
Marni Davis, who teaches at Georgia State, and is the author of “Jews and Booze,” published last year by NYU Press, told The Jewish Week that many non-Jews posed as converts and even as rabbis in order to get access to sacramental wine under Section 6 of the Volstead Act. The federal government, she said, “didn’t foresee just how easy and popular it would be to abuse this loophole.” Despite the popularity of “Boardwalk Empire” on HBO, set in Atlantic City in the 1920s, she noted that “the story of Jews and Prohibition is only beginning to be mined as fruitfully as it deserves to be.”
“The Bootlegger and the Rabbi’s Daughter” runs Monday, July 8 at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. and Saturday, July 13 at 1 p.m. at Theatre Row Studio Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St. Tickets are free; for reservations, call OvationTix at (212) 352-3101 or visit www.nymf.org.