Processions, Debates and Curbstone Encounters: The Struggle over Kosher Meat in Baltimore, 1897 – 1918 Pt. 3

Posted on March 13th, 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 III: The Butchers Go on Strike

Missed parts 1-2? Start here.

 Nathan London in the doorway of his kosher butcher shop on Lombard Street, early 20th century. JMM 2001.90.1

Nathan London in the doorway of his kosher butcher shop on Lombard Street, early 20th century. JMM 2001.90.1

For a decade, contestation over shechita appears to have abated in Baltimore. But in March 1907 the Baltimore Sun reported a conflict between the large meat wholesalers and the kosher meat retailers they supplied. The retailers claimed that the wholesalers were charging excessive prices for kosher meat and refused to purchase their locally slaughtered kosher beef. After a few days, the retail butchers went a step further, agreeing to buy all their kosher meat exclusively from two small slaughterers who offered more favorable prices. A week later, the Sun reported the dispute was still in progress.[1]

Among those affected, of course, were the consumers, who, the Sun reported, were “much wrought up over the situation.” In fact, the butchers’ strike bore most heavily on the poorer members of the community, who “are the most Orthodox [and who] have not been able to get their customary rations of this important article of food.” With Passover drawing near, the butchers relented, agreeing “to provide meat the old price until after the Passover. Then the strike will begin again.”[2]

Although the temporary cessation of the butchers’ strike was cited by the Sun as “an inspiring example of race co-operation,” the Orthodox congregations soon felt it necessary to again take decisive steps to regulate the making and sale of kosher meat in Baltimore. In July 1908, twenty-eight Orthodox congregations in East Baltimore organized the Federation of Orthodox Jewish Congregations to “advance every interest affecting Orthodox Jews.” One of the purposes cited was to protect consumers from unscrupulous dealers who falsified seals of kashrut, thus casting doubt on the ritual purity of all meat sold as kosher.[3]

The kosher butchers’ strike and its immediate aftermath point to a complex collision of interests. The wholesalers were trying to raise the price of kosher meat; shochets were seeking higher pay; consumers were balking at paying higher prices; the rabbinate was asserting its authority over shechita; and kosher butchers at the retail level were caught in the cross-currents.

Continue to Part IV: Another Controversy over Kosher Meat

Notes:

[1] “Kosher Butchers Accept,” Baltimore Sun, 23 March 1907, p. 11. “Ghetto Sees a Truce in Kosher Butcher’s Strike,” Baltimore Sun, 31 March 1907, p. 12.

[2] “Ghetto Sees a Truce in Kosher Butcher’s Strike.”

[3] “For Pure Kosher Meat,” Baltimore Sun, 25 July 1908, p.6.

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Processions, Debates and Curbstone Encounters: The Struggle over Kosher Meat in Baltimore, 1897 – 1918 Pt. 2

Posted on March 8th, 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 II: The Issue of Rabbinic Authority

Missed part 1? Start here.

In 1896, one Herman Schwartzberg drew up a contract between a kosher butcher in Baltimore, Levy Edlavitch, and a shochet, Isaac Salowitschick, for the latter to slaughter cattle for the former at a fixed price per animal. Edlavitch ended his agreement with Salowitschick after two local Orthodox rabbis claimed that the shochet was not competent to carry out his duties. Only if the shochet brought a certificate from the objecting rabbis would the butcher retain the shochet.[1]

The dismissed shochet promptly sued the butcher in local court for breach of contract, asserting that he was both competent and certified by a recognized rabbinic authority. The plaintiff claimed certification from a Russian rabbi and also from “Rabbi” Schwartzberg, who was himself a practicing ritual slaughterer – but only of chickens. Three expert shochets testified in court on the rules of schechita (ritual slaughter) and on the matter of rabbinic authority. In rebuttal, Salowitschick argued that “as there was no chief rabbi in Baltimore, any one of the rabbis was competent to pass upon the qualifications of the ‘schochet.’”[2]

Rabbi Dr. Schepsel Schaffer, from “The Jews of Baltimore.” JMM 1999.121.1

Rabbi Dr. Schepsel Schaffer, from “The Jews of Baltimore.” JMM 1999.121.1

The next day, however, Rabbi Schepsel Shaffer of the Greene Street Congregation expounded in court on the rules of shechita, declaring that a rabbi had the authority to forbid a shochet from practicing “for no other reason than his not having asked permission of a rabbi to practice his calling.” Moreover, Schaffer testified, written agreements between a shochet and a butcher were impermissible – the shochet must be “amenable only to the rabbi, who is his superior.”[3]

Rabbi Abraham Levinson, one of the two complaining rabbis, then testified. Rabbi Levinson stated that two written notices had been sent to the shochet demanding that he stop work. The rabbi also stated that two months before those notices sent a list of “recognized” shochets had been published in order to restrict entry into shechita, “as there was not enough work to support all who might wish to engage in it.” The plaintiff’s attorney countered that a “combine” of shochets controlled all the work of slaughtering for Orthodox congregations in East Baltimore and that the rabbis were paid to prohibit other shochets from practicing their trade. However, in his instructions to the jury, the judge indicated that the shochet must be subject to “the authority and official sanction” of the local rabbis and that any rabbi might prohibit a shochet from exercising his office.[4]

Testimony in the case – which received extensive, detailed coverage in the Baltimore Sun – revealed real gaps in the certification process and divergent interests among rabbis, shochets, butchers, and consumers of kosher meats. To remedy the situation, two years later in 1899 an association of Orthodox rabbis was formed to assume supervision over all kosher slaughter in Baltimore. Where previously shochets were retained by the wholesale butchers, the employment of all ritual slaughterers would now be supervised by the newly incorporated association, to which all the local Orthodox congregations were parties.[5]

Continue to Part III: The Butchers Go on Strike

Notes:

[1] “Scientific Slaughter,” Baltimore Sun, 3 April 1897, p. 10. “Mosaic Butchering,” Baltimore Sun, 6 April 1897, p. 10.

[2] “Mosaic Butchering”

[3] “Shulcan Orech Read,” Baltimore Sun, 7 April 1897, p. 10.

[4] “Shulcan Orech Read.”

[5] “To Supervise Slaughtering,” Baltimore Sun, 10 June 1899, 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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