Behind the Book with Scott D. Seligman

The following is from the University of Nebraska Press Fall 2020 Newsletter, i.e.

Scott D. Seligman is a writer and historian. He is the author of several books, including the award-winning The Third Degree: The Triple Murder That Shook Washington and Changed American Criminal Justice (Potomac Books, 2018) and the upcoming The Great Kosher Meat War of 1902: Immigrant Housewives and the Riots That Shook New York City (Potomac Books, 2020). His articles have appeared in the Washington Post and the Seattle Times, among other publications.

Scott D. Seligman:

Forty years ago, the late professor Paula Hyman of Yale recounted the uprising of thousands of immigrant Russian and Eastern European Jewish women on the Lower East Side of Manhattan at the turn of the twentieth century in what newspapers at the time called a modern Boston tea party. The women took to the streets when kosher meat—the only kind they were permitted to eat
under Jewish law—suddenly became unaffordable. Their trust in the butchers with whom they had done business for years had evaporated amid charges of price gouging, and now, rather than buy from these men, they were intent on shutting them down as a means of lowering prices.

It was supposed to be a nonviolent action, but it didn’t stay that way for long. Customers who insisted on patronizing the butchers were assaulted and their purchases thrown into the gutter. Sometimes meat was doused with kerosene so it could never be eaten. Butchers who refused to close were attacked, their windows smashed, their stock ruined, and, often, their fixtures destroyed. There were even reports of arson. A lot of women were injured and many were fined and jailed, but that didn’t stop them.

Dr. Hyman’s article about the action was praised for bringing the often-overlooked political activity of these immigrants into mainstream history. I happened upon it several years ago and decided to do a little digging of my own into the story. My maternal great-grandmother, an Austrian immigrant, was living with her family on Orchard Street at the time. I wondered whether she had joined the boycott and stopped buying kosher meat, as most Jewish women of the neighborhood did.

In the decades since Professor Hyman completed her research, many new tools have become available. I had at my disposal hundreds of historic newspapers and immigration, court, and census records, many of which were now accessible online. Through genealogical research, I was able to trace descendants of the boycott organizers and ask them for images and stories. And with help, I obtained access to a rich vein of sources in the contemporary Yiddish-language press. They provided more detail and nuance than the English papers, as well as a window into the personalities of Sarah Edelson, Carolyn Schatzberg, Paulina Finkel, Fanny Levy, and the other women who led the boycott.

My research led me to two very much related stories that also became part of the book. I determined that the real culprits in the drama were not the local butchers but rather greedy packers hundreds of miles away in Chicago who were colluding to raise meat prices nationwide. And just as the upstart women were laying waste to New York’s Lower East Side, “trust-buster” President Theodore Roosevelt set out to expose and break up these packers’ meat cartel. The book chronicles his government’s efforts to prosecute the meat barons and the nefarious ways they fought back to preserve their profitable franchise.

Butchers who refused to close were attacked, their windows smashed, their stock ruined, and, often, their fixtures destroyed.”

I also discovered that there was rampant corruption in the system that brought kosher meat to Jewish tables in turn-of-the-century New York. That led me to the story of Rabbi Jacob Joseph, a Talmudic scholar recruited from Europe at great cost to supervise the quality of kosher food in the United States. The long knives were out for him, however, and the changes he instituted were deeply unpopular and met fierce resistance. Rabbi Joseph died shortly after the boycott, and his funeral gave rise to the worst outbreak of anti-Semitic violence New York has ever seen.

I found the narrative of immigrant Jewish women discovering their collective power as consumers and finding their political voice in early twentieth-century America to be an inspiring story, all the more impressive because it involved mostly uneducated women, some barely conversant in English, with few resources at their disposal. That they managed to organize themselves overnight and successfully challenge powerful, vested corporate interests in their new homeland is nothing short of remarkable, and the lessons of their uprising could not be unlearned. The new spirit of activism they ushered in was later applied not only to community movements like food and rent strikes but also to labor actions and even the quest for women’s suffrage. That spirit lived on and was appropriated, as needed, by subsequent generations to address injustice wherever and whenever they experienced it.

UNP Acquisitions Editor Tom Swanson Responds:

When Scott D. Seligman approached us with this project, I knew nothing about a kosher meat war at the turn of the century, and until now, not many people did. But Scott has a talent for finding little-known stories that have a wider significance. When I acquired the book, I didn’t realize how relevant it would be today. These women pioneered a protest movement that became the blueprint for future mass actions on a wide range of issues.

What makes the book especially appealing to me is how Scott reveals the corruption at the meatpacking level—that while the women were angry at their local butchers, the real enemy was the Chicago beef cartel. He is able to masterfully weave into the narrative the federal government’s efforts to deal with these corrupt meat packers. A good history book intertwines the local story with the broader one and places it in context, and Scott does this seamlessly in The Great Kosher Meat War of 1902.

The book will, of course, appeal to people interested in American Jewish immigrant experiences. I think it will also reach a larger audience because it illuminates a previously unknown example of female empowerment that resonates loudly in the current moment.

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