Kosher Meat Boycott of 1902

Jewish homemakers mobilized the women of the Lower East Side to protest the increasing meat prices.

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AJHS-logo1In mid-May, 1902, the retail price of kosher meat on the Lower East Side of New York jumped from 12 to 18 cents per pound. In the Gilded Age, such dramatic price fluctuations were common as great “Trusts,” oligopolies controlled by industrial barons, cornered the market on commodities such as beef, steel and oil. In response to the rise in beef prices, for a week the small retail kosher butchers of New York refused to sell meat. It was their way of protesting the beef monopoly’s actions. The butchers boycott failed, however, to bring wholesale prices down. So Jewish homemakers on the Lower East Side, influenced by the emerging labor and women’s suffrage movements, began to agitate for a strike. Fanny Levy, whose husband was a unionized cloak maker, and Sarah Edelson, who owned a small restaurant, mobilized the neighborhood women by going door-to-door to persuade them not to buy kosher beef.

On May 15, the press reported that 20,000 women on the Lower East Side broke into kosher butcher shops and rendered meat inedible by taking it into the street, soaking it in gasoline and setting it on fire. Crowds also confiscated meat from women who had purchased it from kosher butchers and destroyed that meat as well.

According to historian Paula Hyman, the Herald reported that “an excitable and aroused crowd [of mostly women] roamed the streets . . . armed with sticks, vocabularies and well-sharpened nails” in an effort to keep other women from purchasing kosher meat. One woman complained that her husband was sick and needed to eat beef to recover. A woman in a traditional sheitel told her that “a sick man can eat tref meat,” so she must abide by the boycott.

By the end of the day, the police had arrested 85 persons, 70 of them Jewish women, for disorderly conduct. The Herald reported that the women “were pushed and hustled about [by the police], thrown to the pavement . . . and trampled upon.” One of the women responded by slapping a police officer in the face with a moist piece of liver.

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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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