Kosher Coca-Cola

As a symbol of American culture, Coca-Cola has penetrated every nation in the world and is served at the most strictly kosher events. While Coke has been on the market since 1886, only since 1935 has it been certified kosher, including kosher l'Pesach.

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Rabbi Tobias Geffen, an Orthodox rabbi who served Atlanta’s Congregation Shearith Israel from 1910 until his death in 1970 at the age of 99, is responsible for kashering Coke. Rabbi Geffen was an unlikely contributor to the worldwide success of the beverage. Born in Kovno, Lithuania, in 1870, he emigrated to Canton, Ohio, in 1903 and accepted his Atlanta pulpit seven years later. During his long tenure at Shearith Israel, Geffen became the dean of Southern Jewish Orthodoxy.

As the millions of Eastern European Jews who migrated to the United States from Poland, Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe before World War I became more Americanized, they wanted increasingly to partake of “real” American life, including consuming American foods and beverages. While seltzer water might have been the preference of many traditional Jewish immigrants, their rapidly assimilating children and grandchildren demonstrated their Americanization by drinking Coke.

Because he lived in Atlanta where the Coca-Cola Company was headquartered, Rabbi Geffen received letters from several Orthodox rabbinic colleagues around the nation asking whether it was halachicly permissible to consume Coca-Cola. Uncertain of the answer, Geffen contacted the company to ask for a list of Coke’s ingredients.

At the time, Rabbi Geffen did not know that the formula for Coca-Cola is a closely guarded trade secret–perhaps one of the best-kept trade secrets in American history. Only a handful of individuals know the formula. Once Rabbi Geffen inquired, the Coca-Cola Company made a corporate decision to allow him access to the list of ingredients in Coke’s secret formula provided he swore to keep them in utter secrecy. Geffen agreed to the terms. The company did not tell Geffen the exact proportions of each ingredient, but just gave him a list of contents by name.

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Michael Feldberg, Ph.D. is executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. From 1991 to 2004, he served as executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, the nation's oldest ethnic historical organization, and from 2004 to 2008 was its director of research.

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