Off the Shelf: Women and the war over kosher meat prices

 by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

“We’re not making riots... But if we cry at home, nobody sees us. We have to help ourselves.” Those were the words Rose Baskin spoke to City Magistrate Robert C. Cornell during her trial at the Essex Market Police Court on May 16, 1902. Although she received a $3 fine for her conduct, that didn’t stop her and other immigrant women from taking to the streets again to protest the high cost of kosher meat. In “The Great Kosher Meat War of 1902: Immigrant Housewives and the Riots That Shook New York City” (Potomac Books/University of Nebraska Press), Scott D. Seligman looks at how uneducated, Jewish, immigrant women fought to shut down every kosher butcher shop in New York City until they lowered the price of meat. 

Determining why the price of meat was increasing was far more complex than these women knew, and Seligman discusses the Beef Trust formed by large meat packing businesses. Their combined power allowed them to control the price of everything from butchered meat to the cost of refrigerated train cars used to transport the beef across the country. Seligman also notes the government’s role in finally breaking this trust’s monopoly. However, for this reader, what’s of greatest interest is how these immigrant women – women who had never before played a role in public life – turned a simple protest into something greater. 

The women who led the strike (as the war was called) against the butchers lived on the Lower East Side and had recently moved to this country. Most of them still spoke Yiddish and followed traditional Jewish practices. As Seligman notes, “Many [of them] sought to lead lives similar to those they had in Europe, and to make as few compromises as possible with the customs of their adopted land. They had left Russia to escape poverty and persecution, not to change their culture.” That meant they kept kosher homes and bought only kosher meat and poultry. They also didn’t appreciate the lifestyle of the uptown German Jews who had been in this country longer and had already assimilated into American life. The split between the two groups was partly based on their religious practice since the German Jews attended Reform synagogues and did not always follow traditional law.

The Orthodox women of the Lower East Side saw the increasing price of meat as a threat to their way of life. A few women gathered for a meeting and began spreading the word through the community – calling for additional meetings, and using newspapers and word of mouth to organize the strike. Although the strike was supposed to be non-violent, violence often did occur. Protesters attacked butcher shops that refused to close – smashing windows, pelting the butchers with produce or bricks, and destroying the interiors of the shops. People who bought meat were also attacked. The meat taken from butcher shops was not divided among the protesters, but rendered uneatable. The police were called to stop the protests and attacked the women, some of whom were arrested or injured. This led to Jewish men taking part in the strike – whether because they didn’t want to see the women hurt or because they felt they would be better able to use their connections to reduce the cost of the meat. This process occurred not just in the 1902 strike, but during several other strikes that took place over the next 20 years.

The meat strikes spread from New York City to other cities and states. Unfortunately, it also pitted Jew against Jew. Most of the Jewish butchers were barely making a living and, after being forced to close during the strike, several were unable to reopen. Seligman discusses their dilemma and explores how the kosher butcher system was organized in New York City. He also writes about the failure of Rabbi Jacob Joseph, who was brought to the U.S. to serve as chief rabbi of New York City, to control that system. Unfortunately for Joseph, life in America did not lend itself to the same communal structure that worked in Europe. It was also interesting to read about the antisemitic attack that occurred during Joseph’s funeral and how the Jews attending were blamed for the actions of those who attacked them.

The story featured in “The Great Kosher Meat War of 1902” resonates in contemporary times when women – and men – take to the streets to protest injustice, much as Rose Baskin did in 1902. Seligman writes easy-to-read prose, making this book perfect for scholars and non-scholars to appreciate his research. Its introductory timeline and its list of those connected to the strike made it easy to keep track of the events and the people involved. Anyone interested in life on the Lower East Side during the turn of the last century, Jewish women’s history or Jewish immigrant life will enjoy learning about this intriguing episode of Jewish American history.

Editor’s note: “The Great Kosher Meat War of 1902” was a finalist for the 2020 National Jewish Book Award’s American Jewish Studies Award.