When the Jewish women of South Providence went on strike against kosher meat markets in 1910, there was precedence in the well-publicized 1902 Lower East Side housewives’ boycott of Jewish butchers.
In 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 response to escalating wholesale prices charged by America’s cattle barons. Jewish butchers boycotted, and for a week the small retail kosher butchers of New York refused to sell meat. Their boycott failed to bring the wholesale prices down.
So the homemakers took charge. Fanny Levy and Sarah Edelson began a door-to-door campaign to persuade their neighbors not to buy kosher beef. The May 15 newspapers reported that 20,000 women on the Lower East Side broke into kosher butcher shops, carried meat into the streets, soaked it in gasoline and set it on fire. The protesters also confiscated and burned the meat packages of women coming out of butcher shops. One of these women complained that her husband was sick and needed to eat beef to recover. A protester wearing a traditional sheitel shouted, “a sick man can eat tref meat.” By the end of the day, 70 women had been arrested. The Herald reported that the women “were pushed and hustled about (by the police), thrown to the pavement…and trampled upon.” One of the victims slapped a police officer in the face with a moist piece of liver.
The Yiddish press supported the protest. “Bravo, Bravo, Bravo, Jewish Women!” read the headline in the Forward. But the New York Times called for the repression of this “dangerous class…especially the women (who) are very ignorant (and) …mostly speak a foreign language.” A few mainstream “muckraking” journalists were more sympathetic, cheering the boycott for exposing the excesses of industrial monopolies.
The boycott spread from the Lower East Side to Brooklyn, Harlem, Newark, Boston and Philadelphia and from the streets to the synagogues. One protester ascended a bima while men were praying and urged, “For once, let the men use the power of ‘And he shall rule over her’ to the good by seeing to it that their wives refrain from purchasing meat.”
A week after the arrests, the Retail Butchers’ Association aligned itself with the boycotting women. By June 9, the retail price of kosher beef had dropped back to 14 cents a pound, and the boycott began to lose steam.
The example set by the kosher meat boycott was emulated a few years later in rent strikes and in food boycotts. Many of the daughters of the kosher meat boycotters would become the backbone of New York’s labor and suffragette movements.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Source used is Paula Hyman, “Bravo, Bravo, Bravo, Jewish Women! The Kosher Meat Boycott of 1902,” American Jewish Historical Society, Chapters in American Jewish History.
TOBY ROSSNER (firstname.lastname@example.org) was the director of media services at the Bureau of Jewish Education from 1978 to 2002.