Processions, Debates and Curbstone Encounters: The Struggle over Kosher Meat in Baltimore, 1897 – 1918 Pt. 4

Posted on March 15th, 2017 by

Article by Avi Y. Decter. Originally published in Generations 2011 – 2012: Jewish Foodways

The boycott of 1910 was one dramatic episode in a twenty-year struggle over kosher meat that engaged meat wholesalers, retail butchers, shochets (ritual slaughterers), the Orthodox rabbinate, and thousands of ordinary Jews, especially in East Baltimore. In the first decades of the twentieth century, conflict over kosher meat was a familiar topic. Today, that contestation is little remembered and poorly documented. However, sufficient evidence survives to give us access to the trajectory and meaning of the protracted struggle over kosher meat. Here is that story.

Part IV: Another Controversy over Kosher Meat

Missed parts 1-3? Start here.

JMM 1990.159.23

JMM 1990.159.23

The multi-sided conflict over kosher meat in spring 1907 was followed by an even more serious struggle two years later. This time the retail kosher butchers were pitted against the Orthodox rabbinate. Members of the Hebrew Butchers Association, composed of retail butchers and storekeepers, had begun to sell kosher meat shipped from Chicago. The rabbis issued a circular advising Orthodox Jews not to buy this Western meat on the grounds that kosher meat from Chicago was more than three days old by the time it reached consumers in Baltimore, rendering the meat treyfe (unfit).[1]

The retail butchers protested that the local rabbis were “exerting their influence to aid the local wholesale sellers” and that “the local meat trust” had substantially raised prices over the past two years, causing suffering by both the butchers and their customers. As a remedy, the kosher butchers had purchased lower-priced dressed meat from Chicago – a measure that affected the income of local shochets (who, the butchers alleged, had complained to the rabbis.”)[2]

In June the conflict flared anew. The Hebrew Butchers Association again accused the Orthodox rabbis and the shochets of combining with the wholesalers, asserting that the “trust” would make the price of kosher meat “pretty hard for the consumers.” For their part, the rabbis contended that the butchers were objecting “as a lame excuse against the system of inspection” the rabbis intended to institute.[3] Moreover, the rabbis threatened, if the butchers did not submit to rabbinic inspection, the Orthodox congregations would open “independent butcher shops” under their supervision.[4]

In the event, the Federation of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations concluded an agreement with the wholesalers that kosher meat would be priced at no more than one cent a pound more than non-kosher meat and that a system of rabbinic inspection would be paid for directly by the retailers in proportion to their sales. The retailers’ group, the Hebrew Butchers Association, immediately rejected the Federation’s solution as an imposition, announcing that their members would purchase Western beef from Chicago and create a rival system of inspection. The conflict caused division among the butchers, with twenty butchers acceding immediately to the Federation and the majority following suit with a few months. By September 1909 only thirty-five out of more than 100 kosher butchers continued to resist the Federation’s authority.[5]

Continue to Part V: The Community Responds

Notes:

[1] “Fight Over Kosher Meat,” Baltimore Sun, 19 April 1909, p. 9.

[2] “Fight Over Kosher Meat.”

[3] “At Odds Over Kosher Meat,” Baltimore Sun, 14 June 1909, p. 9.

[4] “May Settle Kosher War,” Baltimore Sun, 16 June 1909, p. 7.

[5] “To Hear Kosher Butchers,” Baltimore Sun, 18 June 1909. “Rival Kosher System,” Baltimore Sun, 28 June 1909, p. 14. “Kosher Meat Causes Split,” Baltimore Sun, 6 September 1909, p. 12.

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Processions, Debates and Curbstone Encounters: The Struggle over Kosher Meat in Baltimore, 1897 – 1918 Pt. 1

Posted on March 6th, 2017 by

Article by Avi Y. Decter. Originally published in Generations 2011 – 2012: Jewish Foodways

On March 24, 1910, Rebecca Cohen of 221 South Eden Street in East Baltimore was arrested by a City patrolman. Her offense? Mrs. Cohen had seized a package of kosher meat from delivery boy Louis Miller and hurled it into the street. This was not an isolated incident, but part of an effort by Jewish housewives in East Baltimore to roll back a steep and sudden rise in the price of kosher meat. Within days, the Baltimore Sun and other newspapers were reporting that Jewish Baltimore, then a mostly immigrant community residing east of the Jones Falls, was engulfed in a “Kosher Meat War.”[1]

Public meetings, boycotts, confrontations, and arrests punctuated the housewives’ effort to force a reduction in price. As the Baltimore News reported: “Similar incidents are happening every minute or so in the anti-meat district with the result that it is not safe to carry a bundle of any kind unless there is sufficient of the contents showing to satisfy the boycotters that it is not meat.”[2]

The boycott of 1910 was one dramatic episode in a twenty-year struggle over kosher meat that engaged meat wholesalers, retail butchers, shochets (ritual slaughterers), the Orthodox rabbinate, and thousands of ordinary Jews, especially in East Baltimore. In the first decades of the twentieth century, conflict over kosher meat was a familiar topic. Today, that contestation is little remembered and poorly documented. However, sufficient evidence survives to give us access to the trajectory and meaning of the protracted struggle over kosher meat. Here is that story.

Part I: Making Kosher Meat

Shochet outside his Lombard Street shop. Courtesy of the Jacques Kelly Collection. JMM 1988.148.2

Shochet outside his Lombard Street shop. Courtesy of the Jacques Kelly Collection. JMM 1988.148.2

The rules of kashrut extend back into biblical times, though modified and elaborated over the centuries by both prescription and practice. Kashrut includes rules that govern which animals may be eaten, how they are to be slaughtered, how their meat is to be prepared, and under what circumstances the meat may be eaten.[3]

One rule in particular – that kosher meat must be eating within three days of slaughter – had a direct bearing on the marketing and politics of kosher meat in Baltimore. The rabbis, shochets, and butchers who were producing, certifying, and selling locally slaughtered meat were competing with butchers who were importing kosher meat shipped from Chicago and other centers of the meat packing industry. The former argued that imported meat took too long to travel to Baltimore, making the meat treyfe (unfit), while the latter insisted upon its fitness.

The practice of ritual slaughter (known as shechita) is highly technical. In addition to killing the animal in a precisely defined way, the shochet  is also responsible for examining an animal to determine if it is healthy and without proscribed blemish. To carry out his duties, the shochet must be rigorously trained and certified by an appropriate rabbinic authority. But who rabbinic authority is sometimes an open or contentious question.[4]

Continue to Part II: The Issue of Rabbinic Authority

Notes:

[1] “Boycott on Kosher Meat,” Baltimore Sun, 25 March 1910, p. 5.

[2] “Another Arrest in Kosher Meat War.” Baltimore News, 24 March 1910.

[3] David Kraemer, Jewish Eating and Identity Through the Ages (New York: Routledge, 2007).

[4] “’Kosher’ or ‘Trepha,’” Baltimore Sun, 2 April 1897, p. 10. “Scientific Slaughter,” Baltimore Sun, 3 April 1897, p. 10. “Mosaic Butchering,” Baltimore Sun, 6 April 1897, p. 10.

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Compared to What?

Posted on July 13th, 2016 by

It goes without saying that America has had more glorious “4th of July” weeks than in 2016.  Rather than fireworks, our eyes were riveted on gunfire – grisly videos of both citizens and police under attack.  In the midst of this cauldron of hatred and fear we lost two major voices that had railed against silence in the presence of inhumanity: Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel and Pulitzer Prize winning Journalist, Sydney Schanberg.  It only compounded our sense of loss.

I noticed that the events of the last ten days have also sent people scrambling for historic comparisons.  I have seen articles in several major media sites comparing current events to those of the late 60s.  For me this isn’t a historic era, but rather part of my lived experience.  I chose to escape the constant drumbeat of awful news for an hour going into the basement to sort through my memorabilia from college.  Among the posters for anti-war rallies and flyers for protests of every kind I ran across a school newspaper from my freshman year at GW.  It’s banner headline screamed of the violence that came to campus 45 years ago.  My recollection is that I locked myself in my room, covered my windows with masking tape, and still found myself coughing from tear gas after our dorm was subjected to gas canisters dropped from helicopters.

The Hatchet

The Hatchet

But in shuffling through the papers I also discovered another unexpected (and timely) perspective.

In all the chaos of the last week, the passing of Judge Abner Mikva on July 4 received modest coverage.  But for me it was a significant event.

Readers of my blog posts know that I grew up on the South Side of Chicago at a time when Mayor Daley (the first Mayor Daley) and the “machine” ran not only the city itself but all political representation of the city.  Chicago may be the “second city”, but it takes a backseat to no one in the category of political corruption.  In the 1960’s we were represented in Congress by Barratt O’Hara – a machine politician who was a Spanish-American War veteran and who had served as Lieutenant Governor of Illinois during WWI.  There is nothing like a first political infatuation and at age 14 I went door-to-door for Abner Mikva as he attempted to fight the machine.

Mikva lost.  But in a rising tide of anti-Vietnam War sentiment, he finally made it into office in 1968 and when I entered college at George Washington University I went to Capitol Hill to volunteer.  They assigned me to the addressograph machine – an essential tool in the era before mail merge software.   The job itself was not that exciting but I spent a fair amount of my free time pursuing my interests as a political junkie – running from office to office collecting signatures of the famous legislators of my youth.

As I grew older, I lost much of my ardor for political activism but I continued to admire Congressman and then Judge Mikva from a distance.  Mikva eventually became Chief Judge of DC Court of Appeals in the 1990s (the position now held by my classmate Merrick Garland).  He would encourage a young man named Barack Obama to enter politics and eventually receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his lifetime of achievements.

A newsletter specifically for high school students.

A newsletter specifically for high school students.

So there in the box with my political autograph collection (including Eugene McCarthy’s on the back of a hastily grabbed West Point application) – I found this newsletter from Abner Mikva directed at high school students.  I may have saved this from my days working the addressograph machine.

The newsletter's final paragraph.

The newsletter’s final paragraph.

I turned to the back page and my jaw dropped.  It reminded me that 45 years ago when many of thought our nation was doomed and the future had never been darker – we were wrong and Abner Mikva was right: “compared to what?”

MarvinBlog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.

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