The ProsenPeople

Harry Kassel: The Kosher Meat Man

Wednesday, October 05, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Roger Horowitz uncovered the “invisible chemist” of the Orthodox Union and 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.


I came across an amazing man while looking for information on kosher meat. Harry Kassel came up in a New York Times search, appearing in a 1973 article about meat shortages and described as the largest wholesaler of kosher meat in the New York area. Other searches turned up nothing more; so I turned to one of the historian’s great resources, the telephone book, and found him living on Long Island just past the end of the Belt Parkway. Spry and sharp at 89, he told me about his remarkable life, and in so doing gave me the backbone of chapter seven in Kosher USA, which I called “Harry Kassel’s Meat.”

Harry was born in Racine, Wisconsin to a Jewish family that tried to keep kosher. He joined the military during World War II—rather than trying to build up his military service, he joked with me in his self-deprecating manner that since the United States wanted to win the war, they kept him in the country. Recently demobilized in 1946, he agreed to a blind date with Zeena Levine, who was then a freshman at the University of Wisconsin. The two hit if off (even though she called him a “cheapskate” in our interview—he took her to a bar instead of a restaurant) and were soon married. Harry joked that since she wouldn’t go to work, he had to, and took the easy way out by joining his new father-in-law’s business.

Zeena’s father was a butcher—on a big scale. With his partner Sam Cohen, Joe Levine owned several large kosher butcher shops in Brooklyn and a small chain of non-kosher shops. Kosher meat was a thriving business after World War II, and Levine took in his son-in-law and taught him how to evaluate recently slaughtered meat and decide which carcasses to buy for his butcher shops.

After a few years Kassel went into business for himself and established a meat wholesale company in the Brooklyn plant once operated by Swift & Co. His training made him acutely aware of the peculiar nature of kosher beef, and that the same animal yielded kosher and non-kosher cuts. The Ashkenazi tradition was to only consume the forequarters, so even though these cattle yielded kosher briskets and rib roasts, the desirable loin cuts could not enter the kosher trade. Kassel made a name for himself by buying the hindquarters of prime, kosher-killed cattle and distributing the tenderloins and porterhouse steaks so prized in New York’s white tablecloth restaurants.

He quickly realized the benefits of buying the entire carcass, and sending the forequarters into kosher distribution channels while the hindquarters went to the high-end restaurant market. By the mid-1960s Kassel’s company was selling all over the United States as the nation’s largest kosher beef wholesaler. He was one of the first to work with the new Cryovac technology that allowed plastic packaging to be shrink-wrapped over meat before shipment, vastly extending the time it could spend in transit. Able to send cuts from the non-kosher hindquarters to institutional buyers throughout the United States, Kassel was well-positioned to manage distribution of meat from the forequarters to kosher outlets.

A Reform Jew and an active benefactor of Jewish causes, Kassel was able to manage the tricky shifts in kosher meat supply and demand in the 1960s and 1970s. The large slaughterhouses in the New York area that had supplied kosher meat to the region for decades had largely closed by the 1950s, pushing kosher meat production to the Midwest and into small regional plants. It took a wholesaler with feet in both the kosher and non-kosher meat trades to sustain a steady supply to both markets. He was especially adept at provisioning Hasidic and Orthodox customers who wanted glatt beef, a demanding standard that gentile slaughterhouse owners had a hard time understanding. Committed to respecting the preferences of his co-religionists, even if their notion of Judaism was different than his, Kassel worked diligently to make sure that the meat he supplied fully met the requirements of the supervising rabbis.

Harry Kassel left the meat business in 1980, convinced that meat consumption was going to fall (it did) and worried about the pressures of the new large meat concerns on his operation. His concerns were well-placed. Turmoil swept through the meat industry in the 1980s, with old firms going bankrupt and new dominant companies forming out of this chaos. He put his skills to use for Israel, helping to create Yarden, an export-oriented cooperative that brought Israeli food products to an international market, and served for many years as vice-president of his synagogue. And every fall, Harry and Zeena travel to France to see the places they love to visit. It was a great mitzvah to have the chance to get to know this remarkable man.

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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Abraham Goldstein: The Invisible Chemist

Wednesday, September 28, 2016 | Permalink

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.

Abraham Goldstein and his daughters Clare, Sarah, and Rebecca. Image provided courtesy of Roger Horowitz

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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My Grandmother, Bertie Grad Schwartz

Monday, September 26, 2016 | Permalink

Roger Horowitz is the author of Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food. Following up Elissa Altman’s writing about Treyf last week, Roger is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Bertie and Charles Schwartz, Lake Placid, New York. Image provided courtesy of Roger Horowitz

When I spoke to the Jewish Book Council in May to promote Kosher USA, I had to preface my pitch by explaining my family connection to the organization. My grandmother Bertie Schwartz was Jewish Book Council’s first women president. She comes into my book mostly through my mother’s stories, told to me over visits to her Upper West Side apartment after spending time in New York City archives, usually while we were eating sandwiches sent in from Fine & Schapiro Deli on 72nd street.

I relate one of those stories in detail in my book: how Bertie obtained kosher meat for the family’s summer residence in Lake Placid, New York in the 1950s. This entailed ordering a kosher beef forequarters (weighing perhaps 200 pounds) from an Albany slaughterhouse, cutting them into pieces small enough to prepare for a dinner, kashering them with salt as required under kosher law, and then freezing the cuts for use during the summer.

Elsewhere, though, Bertie enters in to my book as co-author (with her husband Charles) of Faith Through Reason, a widely distributed primer on Judaism and Jewish law, first published in 1946 and reprinted several times. I return several times to this text to help explain the nature of Judaism to readers, and also to the particular way in which I learned about my religion. What I didn’t go into further is what writing the book reflected, more deeply, about Bertie’s remarkable intellectual and personal commitment to Jewish literacy.

College-educated and with a law degree from New York University, Bertie believed deeply that education and lifelong learning was the key to Jewish advancement in America. During World War II she travelled frequently to a reading center for Jews in the Bronx, an exhausting journey she eventually had to give up—she used that time instead instead to write Faith Through Reason with Charles. Following the war she became involved in many Jewish organizations, most with an emphasis on books and education. She lead courses for synagogue librarians and even created a basic Jewish home library distributed through Jewish organizations. She was a member of the Task Force on Art and Literature in Jewish Life of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies and an editorial consultant to Judaica Book News. She created the Charles and Bertie G. Schwartz Reading Room and Library at the Steinberg Center of the American Jewish Congress, once located just off 5th Avenue on 85th street. All this while also working as one of the only Jews in the American Mother’s Committee, where she met, among other luminaries, Eleanor Roosevelt. And, of course, she became deeply involved in the Jewish Book Council in the 1960s and 1970s.

I remember her as a veritable force of nature, always with books piled on every surface in her home, and asking her teenage grandson (me) to help with new devices that she hoped would make her more efficient, such as an early home copy machine that we could never get to work properly. She died suddenly, a young 75, of a heart attack, while running to catch a taxi as she was late for a meeting. While saddened, my mother always reflected how the way Bertie died said so much about her determination and energy. My grandmother would be so proud of the Jewish Book Council, not only for what her old organization now does, but for the continuing commitment of it and its many members to books and Jewish education. It was one of my greatest pleasures writing my book that I was able to share with others some of what she sought to give to Judaism.

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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