Earlier this week, Roger Horowitz shared memories of his grandmother Bertie Schwartz, the first woman president of the Jewish Book Council. The author of Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food, Roger is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.
One of my favorite discoveries while writing Kosher USA was pulling away the shroud of silence about Abraham Goldstein, without doubt the founder of modern kosher certification in America. He started the kosher certification programs of both the Orthodox Union and OK Kosher Certification, the two largest agencies today; his legacy can be found in the kosher symbols that adorn approximately 40% of the item in a typical supermarket. But little is known about the historical role played by this lay Jew who laid such key foundations for kosher law.
A devout Orthodox Jew and a chemist by trade, Goldstein appreciated the complex challenges of certifying modern kosher food long before many rabbis whose knowledge of kosher law was rooted in non-industrial settings. Born in East Prussia, Goldstein received training as a chemist before moving to America in 1891 and settling in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood. In the 1920s he led the nascent certification program of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregation’s subsidiary, the Orthodox Union, and was certainly at the table when the OU created its distinctive symbol to place on Heinz’s vegetarian baked beans in 1923. Billed as the OU’s “chemical expert,” Goldstein wrote a monthly “Kashruth Column” in the small Orthodox Union magazine, where he answered queries from observant food shoppers.
His insistence on the relevance of science, however, increasingly placed Goldstein at odds with central leaders of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis, the Agudath Harabonim, who felt reliance on secular knowledge undermined rabbinic authority. Seeking his own platform, in 1935 Goldstein created the Organized Kashrus (OK) Laboratory to serve as a scientific research lab for rabbis seeking to better understand the chemical composition of food they had been asked to certify. Its quarterly journal, Kosher Food Guide, grew rapidly in circulation to well over 100,000 and became a magnet for observant shoppers, who sent letters to Goldstein asking his advice on foods commonly found on the shelves of new national food chains such as A&P. Answering dozens of queries in each issue, the dialogue between Goldstein and worried Jewish consumers opens a window on the challenges to kosher traditions posed by modern processed foods.
In his responses, and sharply worded articles, Goldstein presented views at odds with prominent Agudath Harabonim leaders. Relying on his authority as a scientist, he ridiculed their opinions, deeply offending the European-trained rabbis accustomed to deference from laymen. When the OU insisted that he submit issues of Kosher Food Guide for advance rabbinic approval, Goldstein refused. He ended all association with the OU and constituted OK Laboratory as its own certification agency. Just before World War II a rabbinic court sought to end Goldstein’s influence by directing Jews and businesses to ignore the Kosher Food Guide; while effectively banning him from official Orthodox circles, the edict had little discernable effect on the journal’s circulation and the placement of advertisements by food companies.
When Abraham Goldstein died late in 1944, his son George took over OK Laboratory; until the mid-1950s it certified more kosher products than the OU, which took decades to recover from Goldstein’s departure. By then his views were no longer considered controversial and both his positions on particular products and his insistence on the use of science in kosher certification were accepted. Yet, even as Orthodox Judaism moved to embrace Goldstein’s views, the silences surrounding his historical role remained. Even today, Abraham Goldstein remains “the invisible chemist.”
Roger Horowitz is a food historian and director of the Center for the History of Business, Technology, and Society at the Hagley Museum and Library. He is the author of Negro and White, Unite and Fight, Putting Meat on the American Table, and Kosher USA.
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