Wednesday, December 21, 2005

A History Of Kashrus Scandal In America

By Joseph Adler

When the great Jewish migration from Eastern Europe to the United States began in the late 1880s there were about two hundred major congregations in the country, of which only about a dozen were Orthodox. Indeed, for most of the nineteenth century no Orthodox rabbi of repute had established himself in the United States. Organized Judaism remained foremost a virtual monopoly of the Reform movement, which the German-Jewish immigrants of earlier decades had brought with them to America.

Orthodox congregational life in the two decades preceding the advent of the twentieth century was at best chaotic, and lacked real leadership. Congregations created by the Orthodox immigrants were constantly springing up, only in many instances to be torn apart by factionalism within a short time. In most cases the services at these little synagogues established by the first groups of Eastern European Jewish immigrants were conducted by the most learned members of each congregation; often their learning was quite minimal. Plagued by a lack of qualified rabbis, ignorant of the problems poised by life in a secularized environment, Orthodox leadership was slow to grasp the fact that Old-World religious authoritarianism could not easily be transferred wholesale to the New-World. In the new environment with its congregational polity and voluntaristic character, the automatic leadership of the rabbinate was not accepted without question.

This situation was a far cry from Eastern Europe where the rabbi had served as a communal rather than a congregational official. With State approbation, legal matters among Jews had been left to Jewish law, and the rabbis adjudicated that law. In short, a rabbi had been envisaged not as a pastor but as a jurisconsult. In America, however, the State pre-empted virtually all matters of law. Thus, for example, a rabbi could not grant divorces, could not decide matters of inheritance and adoption, could not so much as perform marriage ceremonies without State approval.

Adding to the Orthodox rabbi's diminished power and prestige in America during this period of mass immigration, was the competition he encountered from non-ordained self-styled "reverends." Indifferent to Jewish, or even American law, many of these charlatans presided over dubious practices. They conducted questionable marriage ceremonies, and granted illicit divorces, and most profitably of all, competed in the single area of Jewish life that offered authentic rabbis a certain economic security — namely, the supervision of "kashrut" (the Jewish dietary code), especially those laws relating to ritual meat slaughter.

Scandals relating to "kashrut" were already an old story in Eastern European Jewish life, but nowhere did they flourish as extensively as in the United States, a nation lacking an officially recognized Jewish communal authority. Agonizing over this state of affairs an attempt had been made as early as 1879 to organize the Orthodox congregations of New York. The effort, however, proved abortive. Some years later, in 1886, a group of eighteen Orthodox congregations managed to successfully band together under the name Association of American Orthodox Rabbis. They agreed to import a rabbi from Europe who would be given the title "chief rabbi," and be responsible for rulings on matters of ritual and belief; raising the spiritual level of the faithful; and bringing order to the preparation and sale of kosher products.

Accordingly, the Association of American Orthodox Rabbis corresponded with the leading rabbis in Europe, and eventually settled on the choice of Jacob Joseph, a highly respected rabbinic scholar of unimpeachable piety. Rabbi Joseph had been born in Kovno (Lithuania) in 1848, and as a youth studied at the famous "yeshivah" (talmudic academy) at Volozhin under Hirsch Leib Berlin and Israel Salanter. His aptness as a student had won him the title "harif" (sharp-witted), and after ordination he served as a rabbi in various Jewish communities of the Russian Empire. Joseph's piety and scholarship was soon recognized and he was rewarded with the prominent post of "maggid" (preacher) of the great Jewish community of Vilna (Lithuania).

The Association committed itself to pay Rabbi Joseph the munificent salary of $2,500 per year, and bestowed upon him the title "chief rabbi." In July of 1888 stevedores at the port of Hoboken (New Jersey) were treated to the spectacle of some ten thousand bearded Orthodox Jews awaiting Joseph's arrival. The Lithuanian rabbi was greeted appropriately with cheers, pious chanting, and prayers of welcome.

However, from the outset the appointment of Rabbi Joseph by the Association created a furor among certain Jewish circles. Many Orthodox congregations who did not partake in the selection refused to recognize Rabbi Joseph's leadership. Reform Jewry, on the other hand, remained indifferent or hostile to the entire idea of a "chief rabbi." Jacob Joseph's appointment was particularly resented by the Anglo-Jewish press, then dominated by German Jews. Thus, the New York correspondent of Isaac Mayor Wise's American Israelite, even before Rabbi Joseph's arrival in America, expressed bemusement that a man who spoke neither German nor English, and whose vernacular was an unintelligible jargon (Yiddish) had been chosen as a fitting representative of Orthodox Judaism to the world at large. The Jewish Messenger in its editorials cautioned Rabbi Joseph to appreciate that in marriages and divorces the courts of the State must be sought for redress, and not a rabbinical court that the "chief rabbi" was known to favor.

From the start Rabbi Joseph realized that his major mandate was less to cope with marriages and divorces than to bring order to the system of "kashrut," notably the kosher meat business. It was a lucrative business and notorious for its strong-arm methods, chicanery, and squabbles. The butchers and "shochatim" (ritual slaughterers), as well as some rabbis had repeatedly been locked in disputes over the income from "kashrut": fist fights were not uncommon and disregard for Jewish law and Board of Health ordinances were rampant. Exploiting the vacuum of both secular and rabbinical authority, Jewish abattoir owners and retail butchers alike resolved the matter by engaging their own rabbis, or pseudo-rabbis to validate the ritual purity of their products. With this seal of "kashrut" the entrepreneur kept his foothold in the Jewish market and justified the higher prices derived from its religious value. The system lent itself to corruption, and it has been estimated that during this period possibly half the kosher meat sold to the Jewish public was non-kosher. Until the arrival of Rabbi Jacob Joseph in New York no one had dared tamper with the highly lucrative arrangement of the abattoirs and butchers.

To facilitate Joseph's task the Association of American Orthodox Rabbis proposed a penny tax upon poultry. Every bird slaughtered in the abattoirs would be under the strict rabbinical control and supervision of Rabbi Joseph's staff, and stamped accordingly with a lead seal. It was anticipated that the penny tax and the congregational dues paid to the Association would be sufficient to cover the salaries of Rabbi Joseph and his inspectors. Instead of easing Joseph's job the lead seal became a weight which dragged the "chief rabbi" to depths of indignity and eventually led to his downfall.

To many housewives the tax smacked of price gouging. For Jewish radicals, and for most of the Yiddish press, the tax was reminiscent of the infamous "karobka," the hated levy imposed by the czarist Russian government on kosher meat. An equally bitter protest came from the ranks of the butchers and slaughterers who were convinced that inspection best which inspected least. They expressed their discontent by forming their own association with the aim of resisting outsiders from gaining control over their industry. In addition, some rabbis threatened with the loss of their income from the abattoirs and butchers, and resentful of the exalted state and salary conferred on the "chief rabbi" joined in the agitation against Joseph and the penny tax.

Opposition to the Association and to Rabbi Jacob Joseph also came from a number of Galician and Hungarian congregations who were unwilling to submit to an authority dominated by "Litwaks" (Lithuanian Jews). Instead, they decided to look for a "chief rabbi" of their own, and in 1892 settled on Rabbi Joshua Segal as their choice. What followed was a squalid competition between the two "chief rabbis", and their partisans over the supervision of "kashrut." In 1893 still another rabbi entered the fray. His name was Hayim Vidrowitz of Moscow. He managed to gather to his side a few followers from a number of Hassidic "shtiblakh" (prayer rooms), and hung out a sign reading "Chief Rabbi in America." Asked who had given him this title, Rabbi Vidrowitz replied, "the sign painter."

Rabbi Joseph, despite a small and appreciative following could not overcome the centrifugal forces in the New York Jewish community. Reduced to shame and parody his influence gradually declined. The Association of American Orthodox Rabbis soon began to renege on payments of Joseph's salary, and for all practical purposes became a mere paper organization. Eventually, the Association dissolved in an atmosphere replete with acrimony.

Rabbi Joseph left without a source of income was forced to move his family to a squalid Lower East Side tenement flat. There disillusioned and ill he suffered a series of paralyzing strokes and in 1902 at the age of fifty-four he passed away. The Yiddish newspaper Forward in an editorial on his death stressed that Rabbi Joseph had been a sacrificial offering to business-Judaism.

Even in death Jacob Joseph was not to be spared further indignities. Perhaps guilt ridden at their treatment of this gentle scholar, a crowd estimated at between fifty and one hundred thousand lined the route of Joseph's funeral cortege (July 30, 1902). As the funeral procession coiled its way through the Lower East Side enroute to the Grand Street ferry it stopped at synagogue after synagogue. Finally, turning into Grand Street the procession reached the factory of R. Hoe & Company, makers of printing presses. The Hoe establishment was a massive building occupying a solid city block. Some one thousand employees worked there, nearly all of them Irish. Animosity of the Irish toward the Jews at this time was a fact of life in New York City. Much of this hostility had its origins in Catholic religious attitudes; distrust of Jewish political radicalism; and Jewish economic competition in the marketplace. In an earlier period of American history this hostility of the Irish immigrants toward other groups whom they feared or saw as competitors had resulted in the infamous Civil War draft riots directed against the blacks of New York City.

During Rabbi Joseph's funeral as the hearse passed directly in front of the R. Hoe plant the employees on the second floor of the building began emptying buckets of water on the tightly packed mourners, then hurling bottles, screws, and blocks of wood. Enraged, a number of Jews ran into the building entrance, shouting in Yiddish, and attempting to get at the missile throwers. At that point the factory superintendent blasted the Jewish interlopers with a powerful stream of water from a fire hose, and then turned the water on the mourners in the street.

After some forty minutes the violence ebbed, and the funeral procession began to move again. Belatedly then, some two hundred policemen arrived on the scene. Led by an inspector named Kevin Cross, who allegedly ordered his men to club their brains out, the police ignoring the Irish factory workers suddenly waded into the crowd of Jewish mourners. Shouting anti-Jewish epithets, swinging their clubs vigorously the police drove the Jews back from the R. Hoe building. Heads and arms were broken, and bodies relentlessly beaten as the police joined by R. Hoe employees continued to pursue the fleeing Jews. By the time the assault had ended a half hour later over three hundred Jews required medical attention. Adding insult to injury scores of Jews were arrested and fined whereas only one R. Hoe emoloyee was detained.

This disgraceful episode which in many ways reminds one of the recent Crown Heights riots shocked the Jews of the Lower East Side. At no previous point in the life of the community had there been so free a display of Jewish anger. The Forward observed that nobody ever talked about inequality in America. Indeed, everyone tried to hide it, not only the Gentiles, but the elite of American Jewry. Continuing on, the newspaper noted that the behavior of the police, and still more the attitude of the American press, clearly proved that there was little sympathy for Jews. At this moment of shame the Forward editors bitterly commented not one English newspaper, not one Christian voice, was raised in protest.

Protest meetings followed, resolutions were passed, and Jewish delegations besieged City Hall demanding justice. Mayor Seth Low, who not long before had been elected on a reform ticket appointed an investigative commission. The ensuing hearings and commission report confirmed a widespread pattern of police anti-Semitism. Mayor Low then launched an extensive house cleaning of the police force. However within three years the reformist program abruptly ended. Unseating the mayor in the next election Tammany Hall would control City Hall for the next thirty years, and police reform was low on its list of priorities. However, not all Irish Tammany municipal sachems sanctioned the attack on the Jews during Rabbi Joseph's funeral. John Ahearn the Tammany chief eager to win Jewish support for his organization ordered his followers to break every window in the R. Hoe factory as a sign of his displeasure.

In retrospect Rabbi Jacob Joseph was a victim of changing times and a New-World setting. An Old-World rabbi, his outlook could no longer evoke credence among a rising generation of immigrant children, and an older generation eager to escape through congregational independence the bonds that had formerly tied them to a European style hierarchy.


Anonymous Boog said...

So what else is new?

The world loves us.

B'Chol Dor V'Dor, Omdim Oleinu...

Top O' the morning to you, too!

Thursday, December 22, 2005 7:45:00 AM  
Blogger Un-Orthodox Jew said...

Kashrus has always been a dirty business, but when run by people whose God is green paper, you have to know most of us are eating treif.

Thursday, December 22, 2005 11:06:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

uoj's blog is toilet paper.

there. be happy. a comment. don't be pissed off.

Thursday, December 22, 2005 10:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Boog said...

anon 10:51

I'm happy with this blog and that's why I don't squeeze the 'Charmin.

Get lost, pal.

Thursday, December 22, 2005 11:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

wonderful historical perspective....

Friday, December 23, 2005 7:27:00 PM  

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