Wednesday, June 14, 2017

My Review of Kosher USA by Roger Horowitz. Please Share and Comment.

Kosher USA by Roger Horowitz is an engaging and often fascinating read about the development of the Kosher food industry in the United States and indeed how Kosher became a staple of Americana.
Did you know that in circa 1920, about 25% percent of steers that were slaughtered in the United States were done so in a Kosher manner? Did you further know that Jews, in the US at that time, constituted the largest consumer of beef per capita (Horowitz: “In 1909 a national study showed that Jews, regardless of income, ate close to one hundred pounds of beef and veal annually”) ? Did you know that currently the biggest consumers of Kosher food in the US happen to be gentiles. In fact according to Horowitz, by the late 1980s “there were at least three non-Jewish kosher food consumers for every observant Jew”. These consumers range from those who apparently feel that kosher equals healthier and more sanitary; to Muslims who want to be assured that they are not imbibing any products containing pork; others are lactose-intolerant who rely on a given product’s certification that it contains only non-dairy ingredients; still others are vegetarians who rely on the ‘parve’ label to insure that no animal products are included.

Additionally there is a large market for Kosher sweet wine in the African-American community. In fact by 1950, 80 (!) percent of the consumers of Manischewitz Concord Wine were gentiles, the vast majority of them African Americans!

These and other factoids (elaborated upon generously by Horowitz) provide a fascinating read for scholar and laymen alike.

The author describes in in interesting detail the trajectory of the Kosher meat industry in America from its heyday in the early decades of the 20th century, to its slump in the last decades of that century, only to be resurrected in the 21st century.

The higher standards of Kosher that became mandatory-and the resultant spike in price, did indeed cause many Jews who kept kosher, but were otherwise non-observant, to quit buying Kosher meat. I found it interesting that the consternation over kosher meat prices was already a concern in Jewish America of 1902. This blurb from the JTA demonstrates quite clearly that the last thing you want to do is mess with a Jewish housewife’s briket:

“1902: Jewish housewives on the Lower East Side poured into the streets, breaking windows and throwing meat. The women were protesting a jump in the price of kosher meat from 12 to 18 cents a pound.” see here…/…/15/1902/kosher-beef-boycott-of-1902

The author is obviously quite familiar with halakhic (Jewish Religious Law) methodology and cites formulations thereof liberally throughout the book. As a former Rabbinic student, this is of course not a problem for me, but for the average reader this may pose a bit of a challenge. (considering that gentiles make up the largest consumers of kosher products, this is something to keep in mind).

In a future edition, I hope the author would also consider writing more in detail about the “kosher meat wars” that took place in the first several decades of the last century. While only briefly mentioning involvement of organized crime in the booming kosher meat industry, it but scratched the surface of a good if often uncomfortable story.

Equally discomfiting are the instances of fraud wherein cheaper non-Kosher meat was packaged and sold as Kosher. The author cites cases from the 20 and 30s. There were even raids on such illicit operations that I couldn’t help but find tragicomical; in one instance, a team composed of Rabbis, Board of Health Inspectors as well as Dept. of Agriculture operatives stake out an establishment, lie in wait and eventually swoop down to catch the culprits red-handed.

One does not have to look that far back to find instances such as these. As recently as 2006, the New York Times described “Shevach Meats” a large distributor of Kosher meat for the Ultra-Orthodox communities of Rockland County, NY as “passing off [non-Kosher] chicken as kosher”
See here:

Other light-hearted moments are had when reading how a Rabbi in California was awakened by State Troopers in the wee hours of the morning, and then rushed at breakneck speed amid flashing lights and sirens in order to “begiss” (a kosher process that is aptly described in the book) a truck of kosher meat that got stuck in a snow storm en route to east coast.

A sub industry of Kosher that was only briefly touched upon is the involvement of the most conservative (lower case c) elements of Orthodoxy in Kashrut. I am referring specifically to the explosion of the Hasidic populations primarily in the NY Metro areas and the food industries that they have fashioned to suit their most stringent kashrut requirements. Halav Yisrael for instance (literally “Israelite Milk”) is not mentioned. Halav Yisrael requires that a reliable Jew be present during the extraction of the milk and that unsupervised milk may not be used. Primarily Hasidic Jews are very stringent in this requirement (the exact background behind this “requirement” and the vehement disagreement it engendered from Ultra-Orthodox non-Hasidic Rabbis is beyond the scope of this review) and will not consume any dairy products that are not marked with the Halav Yisrael tag. Dairy companies like Golden Flow Dairy for instance were founded by-and are under the proprietorship- of Hasidic owners and their products are to be found in most Haredi areas of Metro NY.

While most contemporary Hasidic Jews take these product for granted, they were almost non-existent in pre-WWII America (except for apparently one small farm see here It can be traced to the emigration to the United States of a large group of religiously pious Rabbis (mostly Hasidic and Hungarian Ultra-Orthodox) and their followers from Eastern Europe. While the author does discuss the phenomenon of “glatt” meat (whose origins are the same), it does not devote any space to its dairy counterpart.

One thing I found odd was the passage describing Horowitz’s meeting with the head of the Orthodox Union. I suspect there must have been some kind of misunderstanding as the passage “he radiated disapproval for my evidently non-Orthodox mode of dress and behavior” seems so incongruent with a man who is often described as “Bill Clinton’s Rabbi”. Furthermore, Horowitz informs us in his epilogue that he made sure to show the utmost respect to his interlocutors and interviewees. For instance, in his epilogue he writes “I wore a kippa when entering an Orthodox Person’s home out of respect for their beliefs”.

Milk Store, Toronto, 1903. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Probably NOT Halav Yisrael...


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