A treasure trove of the Association of Jewish Butchers’ writings, recently obtained by the National Library of Israel, has revealed juicy details about the battles that took place over New York’s kosher meat market at the beginning of the 20th century.
Newspapers published by the association in the 1930s and 1940s are full of scandals that eventually led to a kosher meat strike that caused riots throughout New York and brought about the creation of the American kosher meat certification system based on “public trust.”
Judaica Curator at the National Library of Israel Dr. Yoel Finkelman, who was the one to come across the treasure trove, recounts that “instances of corruption and the involvement of organized crime were a daily part of life at that time in the United States, and the butcher shops were not spared.”
Finkelman said there was a Jewish criminal empire that ruled New York at the time, led by Meyer Lansky, Arnold Rothstein and Dutch Schultz.
Butchers cut corners, meat becomes treif
Trade papers may not have reported on any bodies hidden in kosher butcher shops, but butchers’ bloody involvement with the mafia did receive media attention. In 1911, Edward Bass, an activist fighting against corruption among butchers, was killed after testifying against extortionists.
The problems faced by the consumers, meanwhile, were of a different sort and were not at all trivial. Finkelman reveals that “the prevailing assumption is that in the 1920s, 40 percent of the meat sold in kosher butcher shops was not kosher at all. At that time it was hard to tell if the meat had in fact undergone kosher slaughter. A drumstick is a drumstick, and since the demand for kosher meat was high in the New York and New Jersey area, the meat was expensive and the supervision was lenient. These increased butchers’ motivation to cut corners.”
The papers from which Dr. Finkelman drew most of his information were published mostly by the professional association of kosher butchers, whose members were mostly Jewish (but not only), to which thousands of kosher butcher shops in New York and New Jersey were subscribed.
A browse of the papers reveals not only new laws and regulations that were enacted at the time, but also the ongoing documentation of shops caught selling treif (non-kosher) meat, or contravening regulations concerning hygiene and sanitation.
“They were everywhere: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, Long Island and New Jersey,” details Finkelman. “We’re talking about a real market. This region was home to 2.5 million Jews, most of them traditional who were only eating kosher meat.”
The great steak strike
In October 1937, a “butcher rebellion” was organized in the greater New York area in protest against the high cost of obtaining kosher certificates. “They claimed that kosher meat was getting more expensive because of the need to pay for the certificates; that the slaughterhouses were exploiting the fact that the Jewish population was a ‘captive audience,’ and so raised prices; and that the quality of the meat brought to kosher butcher shops was low, despite its high cost,” Finkelman recounts.
Kosher meat was not sold in the New York region for a whole week. A major New York radio station, WNYC, was obliged to broadcast vegetarian recipes in Yiddish for all New Yorkers, as there was no way to get kosher meat because of the strike.The Jewish population of New York was so big that the mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, was forced to intervene himself.”
But attempts to import kosher meat to New York were unsuccessful, and the strike led to riots throughout the city, in which dozens of people were injured.
In the end, the mayor’s decision to intervene to assure that the meat sold was in fact kosher, as well as consumers’ threats to buy non-kosher meat, led to the end of the strike.
“You can see in a lot of reports that what bothered people was not just the cost, but also the authenticity of the kosher label,” Finkelstein stated. “This whole issue raises questions that are still relevant today. Who can determine what is kosher meat? Can a non-Jewish judge rule on whether or not products are kosher?”
At the end of the 19th century, New York’s first and only rabbi, Jacob Joseph, tried to lead a sole kashrut organization, but his attempt failed. “It is a sad and painful story. The rabbi found out that the system was stronger than him. But in the end, the only advantage of government supervision is the question of trust, and it’s actually that upon which the American kosher system as we know it today is based.”
Instead of a government-controlled entity that exists in Israel, American Jews preferred the liberal alternative. “What saved the US kosher market was precisely the lack of regulation,” said Finkelman.
“This situation allowed for the growth of organizations on a volunteer basis such as OU (the Orthodox Union), who can apparently do whatever they want – but they succeeded because they won the public’s trust even without the external intervention and supervision of the state. The fact that the market was open to competition between different bodies caused these interests to be much stronger, and maintain the credibility of the brand in the eyes of the public. All this was done in a completely free manner.”
Finkelman believes that the Israeli public should learn from the American kosher meat market. “One has to remember that the New York kosher certification system developed around meat as fruits and vegetables do not need kosher certification, and milk, even milked by a non-Jew, was given the OK.
“I believe that it is worth looking at how the American kosher certification system developed – from corruption and serious problems to one of the world’s most reliabile systems – in light of attempts in Israel today to establish similar kosher certification bodies on a voluntary basis.”