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Strong American women Part I - Jewish women in NY meat riots

As Rachel Serkin showed, from 1881 until the USA changed its immigration laws, 2.5 million Jews em­igrated to the USA from Eastern Europe. Over a third of them set­tled in New York's Lower East Side, seeking religious freedom & econ­omic opportunity. Political activism was familiar. Garment workers were striking for better wages and safer working condit­ions. The neighbourhood's progressive socialist newspaper, the Jewish Daily Forward, was the nation’s leading foreign language newspaper.

In America, Jewish families wanted to purchase and consume kosher meat of course. And by 1900 the Lower East Side was home to 132 kosher butcher shops, their produce being delivered by rail from Chicago’s meat houses. In 1902, the three largest of these meat packing houses merged to form the National Beef Trust of America, securing control of packing houses in three cities and setting the prices (of kosher and non-kosher meat) at their own discretion.

The Beef Trust was just one of many Gilded Age monopolies operating without regulation. In early May 1902, the Beef Trust raised the price of kosher meat by 50%, from 12 to 18 cents a pound. Small meat shops tried to fight the Trust, but they were forced to pass the price hike on to customers.

Crowd at kosher butcher shop during the Kosher Meat Boycott, 
New York; 1902. 
Jewish Virtual Library 

Immigrant women were most affected by the increase because they had the home and family responsibilities, plus managing household expen­ses. In Eastern Europe, consumption of kosher meat on a weekly bas­is had been rare, whilst in the US women wanted to feed their child­­­ren a richer diet. But buying non-kosher meat was not an option.

Instead of turning to their rabbis, the women turned to politics. That is, they employed protest tactics borr­ow­ed from the radical pol­it­ical movements that had been used locally. In May 1902, the Lower East Side’s Jewish house wives took to the streets in a meat-hurling frenzy. The women launched a door-to-door campaign, urging their neighbours to not eat meat.

Two women called a mass meeting to plan a boy­cott. All over the Lower East Side, women began passing out Yid­dish flyers, urging other women to consider their children’s meat needs. Within days, thousands of East Side women participated in the boycott.

A noisy crowd [mostly women] patrolled the neighbourhood and on May 15th, thousands of them descended upon the neigh­bourhood butcher shops. Newspapers reported that women were smashing butcher shop windows with bricks and wasting meat by throwing it into the street, soak­ing it in kerosene and setting it alight. Anyone caught carrying meat was considered to be a picket-crossing scab! Amid the chaos, the police were called and 70+ women were arrested and gaoled for disorderly conduct. 

Newspaper coverage, 
17th May 1902

The riots contin­ued for days. Orthodox Jews and Socialist Jews, who disagreed on most things, fought side by side. The New York Times reported in horror that women, armed with sticks and sharpened nails attacked the police. “Old shoes, brushes, combs, brooms and every other imagin­able portable article of household use rained down upon the pave­ment. One police­man had an unpleasant, moist piece of liver slapped in his face.”

The protests dominated the streets, but the community would not have expected the women to make their mark on the synagogue. The synagogue was the sphere where men and women had to remain sep­arate. Two women entered the main sanctuary at Eldridge St Synag­og­ue and ascended the bimah, a holy place in a synagogue. One of the women gave a fiery speech about meat prices and asked the congreg­ation to join their cause. The congregation was instantly in uproar! And women streamed out of the balconies during the Torah reading, to bring attention to the cause.

Women in the community went door-to-door, raising bail money. Then male communal leaders decided to get involved, organising a meeting of their own and informing the women that they should now back off. They pub­lished a flyer saying “brave and honest men are now aiding women!!”

The Times called the 1902 strikers “a class of people… who are engaged in this matter have many elements of a dangerous class. They are very ignorant… They do not understand the duties of the rights of Americans. The rioters were animals with “no inbred or acquired respect for law and order as the basis of the life of the society into which they have come. … The instant they take the law into their own hands, the instant they begin the destruction of property and assail peaceable citizens and the police, they should be handled in a way that they can understand and cannot forget.” The police, on the other hand, were seen as “keeping their heads perfectly. They did all they could to prevent serious injuries to those they strove against, and used their sticks more to frighten than to chastise. The police were remarkable.”

Only local papers like Forverts declared “Bravo, Bravo, Bravo, Jewish women! These women had embraced modern tactics as a means of maintaining an Old World tradition”. To many, there was nothing more American than that.

In June, the Beef Trust lowered their prices! Then the butchers dropped theirs down to a more reasonable 14c a pound. The women had won! Later in the year, President Roosevelt enacted laws against the Beef Trust, leading to the eventual dissolution of monopolies and ushering in a new era of regulation.

women ascended the formal bimah, 
Eldridge St Synag­og­ue, Manhattan

The Kosher Meat Boycott of 1902 was not the last time Jewish women took to the streets in search of justice; there was the 1909 shirtwaist strike and a second meat boycott years later, in May 1935. But it was their political activism in 1902 had revealed the complex roles that immigrants & women played in social history. Parts II and III to follow.

You may like to read Paula Hyman’s work “Immigrant Women and Consumer Protest: The New York Kosher Meat Boycott of 1902” (in The American Jewish Experience, Jonathan Sarna ed. 1997)


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