The Great Kosher Meat War of 1902: Immi­grant House­wives and the Riots that Shook New York City

By – March 26, 2021

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.

Ira Wolf­man is a writer and edi­tor with a deep inter­est in Jew­ish his­to­ry. He is the author of Jew­ish New York: Notable Neigh­bor­hoods, Mem­o­rable Moments (Uni­verse Books) and the own­er of POE Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, a con­sult­ing firm that spe­cial­izes in edu­ca­tion­al publishing.

Discussion Questions

Scott Seligman’s com­pelling nar­ra­tive in The Great Kosher Meat War of 1902 returns our gaze to an over­looked but sig­nif­i­cant his­tor­i­cal event. the. Beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten, this book tells the inspir­ing sto­ry of immi­grant Jew­ish women in ear­ly twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry New York who, cer­tain of the right­eous­ness of their cause, dis­cov­ered their col­lec­tive pow­er and found their polit­i­cal voice.” Mar­shalling the rich archives of the Yid­dish press, Selig­man brings women such as Sarah Edel­son and Car­o­line Schatzberg into a larg­er con­text, deft­ly inter­twin­ing their sto­ry with that of the pow­er­ful Beef Trust, the dom­i­nant Kosher slaugh­ter­hous­es of New York, and many of the city’s kosher butch­ers. With­in this mix, Selig­man explores the demands of Jew­ish law and the needs of New York’s Ortho­dox Jews, reflect­ed in part through Rab­bi Jacob Joseph, New York’s ill-fat­ed Chief Rabbi.