The Great Kosher Meat War of 1902 is a startling account of a consumer revolt powered by working-class Jewish immigrant women. In May 1902, a group of Lower East Side housewives organized to protest that spring’s sudden rise in the price of kosher beef (from 12 cents per pound to as high as 25 cents). Astonishingly, they attracted thousands of supporters to their meetings and demonstrations.
After the women decided to launch a beef boycott on May 15, Lower East Side streets descended into bedlam. The movement that began with women picketing butcher shops soon escalated to more radical actions — confiscating meat from shoppers who ignored the boycott, dumping kerosene on the offending beef, and brawling with butchers. The windows of kosher butcher shops were smashed. Infuriated by continued high prices, some women went so far as to invade tenements and snatch beef off apartment tabletops. Hundreds of arrests were made and fines imposed. In the chaos, New York City police officers beat female demonstrators, shocking the community.
Author Scott Seligman has rescued this saga from obscurity. Inspired by a 1980s article by the late Jewish historian Paula Hyman, he fleshes out the story, utilizing contemporary accounts, mostly from the Yiddish press, and genealogical detective work. The result is a multidimensional exploration of what the Yiddish newspapers of the time called a “modern Jewish Boston Tea Party.”
These Lower East Side protests over the price of kosher meat soon spread to Jewish communities in Harlem, the Bronx, and Brooklyn; Newark, New Jersey; and Boston, Massachusetts. Eventually, the uproar worked. By mid-June, kosher meat prices dropped to 13 cents a pound, and the crisis subsided.
Seligman connects the dots far beyond the Lower East Side, explaining that kosher butchers were victims of larger forces: the cost of all beef at the time was being manipulated by a small band of wholesalers known as the Beef Trust (which included famed firms Armour and Swift).
The author — a freelance historian and genealogist — celebrates the unsung, obscure but remarkably effective Jewish women who pulled together the Ladies Anti-Beef Trust Association, a masterwork of community organizing. He also shows how the stirrings of Jewish immigrant women’s political consciousness triggered patriarchal responses: as the protests grew, male Jewish community machers and labor leaders grabbed control.
Seligman has crammed much more into his slim book — including an overview of the beef industry; the tale of Jacob Joseph, the first (and only) Chief Rabbi of New York and how his funeral was met with an antisemitic riot; and the Beef-Trust lawsuits pursued at the same time as the meat riots by President Theodore Roosevelt’s trust-busting federal government.
Drawing on all of this sensational material, Seligman tells a wide-ranging, thoughtful, and comprehensive story. He refuses to overdramatize the events, preferring to let the facts speak for themselves. He also provides tons of supplementary material — a timeline of key events, mini-biographies of twenty-one major players in the story, a preface and a prologue, and thirty-four pages of illustrations. Since most of that content comes before page one, it appears a bit much at first. But with such a busy, crowded canvas, the material ultimately helps the reader to sort things out.
And the effort is justified. In the end, the traumatic, significant events of The Great Kosher Meat War of 1902 form a tale well worth remembering.