The Great Kosher Meat War of 1902

 

 IMMIGRANT HOUSEWIVES AND THE RIOTS THAT SHOOK NEW YORK CITY 

 
IN THE WEE HOURS of May 15, 1902, some 3,000 immigrant Jewish women quietly took up positions on the streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. They had assembled in the pitch black in squads of five, determined to shut down every kosher butcher shop in New York’s heavily Jewish quarter.

For years the women had patronized these butchers, who, like them, were observant Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe who had recently arrived in America. But the latest jump in the price of kosher meat had made it unaffordable, and their religious beliefs allowed them no other variety. Convinced that their butchers were gouging them, they saw no choice but to take to the streets.

Customers who crossed their picket lines were heckled and assaulted, their parcels of meat hurled into the gutter. Butchers who refused to close were attacked, their windows smashed, stocks ruined, fixtures destroyed. Brutal blows from police nightsticks sent many women to local hospitals and others to court. But the strikers persevered, and soon Jewish housewives in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Harlem, Newark and even Boston joined them in solidarity, and all the kosher butchers in the metropolitan area either shut their doors or had them shut for them.

Contemporary newspapers described it as a modern Jewish Boston Tea Party.

The true villains in the drama, however, were not the local butchers, but rather a cabal of Chicago-based meat packers who had formed a “Beef Trust” and were colluding to corner the national market for meat. Behind the scenes, they cooperated to manipulate the supply of beef sent to the cities and gouge consumers. Just as the upstart women were laying waste to New York's Lower East Side, “trust-buster” President Theodore Roosevelt launched an effort to break up the meat cartel that would take its members it all the way to the Supreme Court.

The book also tells the story of Jacob Joseph, the first and only Chief Rabbi of New York, a Talmudic scholar brought to America at great expense to oversee the sanctity of the kosher meat supply in the city, among other tasks. The long knives were out for him, however, and the changes he instituted met with fierce resistance among corrupt players in the meat industry and Jewish consumers.

This first book-length account of the protest tells the inspiring story of immigrant women who, certain of the righteousness of their cause, discover their collective power as consumers and find their political voice. With few resources and little experience, but steely determination and a clear understanding of the threat their families faced, these mostly uneducated wives and mothers, some barely conversant in English, organized themselves overnight into a potent fighting force, challenged powerful, vested corporate interests and emerged victorious.

Their first foray into the political and economic arena marked the dawn of Jewish female political activism in America, and it would set a pattern future generations would employ to address injustice whenever and wherever they experienced it.  
 
   
Copyright 2020 by Scott D. Seligman. All Rights Reserved.