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.

Relat­ed Content:

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: A Social His­to­ry of Indus­tri­al Union­ism in Meat­pack­ing, 1930 �“ 1990 and Putting Meat on the Amer­i­can Table: Taste, Tech­nol­o­gy, Transformation.

Roger Horowitz is avail­able to be booked for speak­ing engage­ments through Read On. Click here for more information.