Wild in the Streets
I had a lot of fun talking with Scott Seligman about his new book, “The Great Kosher Meat War of 1902.” It’s about how poor Jewish women on the Lower East Side, outraged by rising beef prices, led a weeks-long boycott of kosher butchers marked by pretty shocking violence. It’s not a political book, but it’s a timely look at unregulated corporate greed (by the “Beef Trust,” in this case) and the exploitation of the working class.
One story we weren’t able to get into during what became a lengthy interview was the tragic tale of Rabbi Jacob Joseph, a Vilna rabbi brought to New York in the 1880s to serve as a sort of chief rabbi to the city’s growing and diverse Jewish community.
Jacob’s responsibilities included leading a beis din, or religious court, and overseeing Jewish education. But his principal task, writes Seligman, was to “bring order to the system of kashrus,” or kosher supervision. To that end, the downtown Orthodox synagogues “threw a ton of money” at him, setting him up rent-free in a comfortable, furnished Henry Street apartment and paying him an annual salary of about $60,000 in today’s currency.
At the time, the kosher slaughterers and supervisors, or mashgichim, were employed by the meat industry, which meant they were rife with corruption and tempted to cut corners and pass treyf meat as kosher. Rabbi Jacob wanted to bring in the Old Country model, in which the mashgichim were employed by the Jewish community. To make it work, he proposed essentially a user’s fee on each pound of chicken, which would be symbolized by a little lead tag, or plombe, and passed on to the consumer.
Although it was a perfectly reasonable proposal (and one that is essentially followed today), exactly no one was happy. The meat sellers resented his intrusion (and incorruptibility), other rabbis resented his authority, and the immigrants who bought meat compared the plombe to the punitive taxes on kosher meat imposed back in Russia.
“The huge community of the Lower East Side was balkanized, and they weren’t about to recognize the authority of some upstart Russian rabbi,” Seligman told me.
The whole plan fell apart in the early 1890s, when the Orthodox congregations that paid his salary negotiated a new arrangement: The butchers would pay a portion of his salary, which undermined his objectivity and authority. Eventually, two more “chief rabbis” emerged as rivals, offering cheaper supervision. Joseph was deposed and “left to fend for himself as a mashgiach.”
“He never learned English, he never figured out America. He was a small-town rabbi who was utterly defeated,” said Seligman.
And there is an astounding coda to Joseph’s sad tale: Joseph died on June 16, 1902, and his funeral two days later drew thousands of mourners – including more than a few who probably felt guilty over how shabbily he’d been treated. As the huge cortege passed a printing press factory on Grand Street, anti-Semitic employees began tossing water, bricks, metal and other junk onto the heads of the mourners. When the police showed up, the cops went after the Jews rather than their attackers, adding to what Seligman describes as “the worst outbreak of antisemitic violence the city has ever seen.” Eventually an investigation would exonerate the mourners and condemn the police brutality, but the officers involved escaped with a slap on the wrist.
You can visit Rabbi Joseph’s grave at Union Field Cemetery in Queens, and remember a long-lost time when the Jewish community was divided, anti-Semitism was rampant and police turned on peaceful protesters. Imagine.