The Fascinating History of Kosher Food in America

In post WWII America, Manischewitz wine was the leading kosher wine. Thus, it may seem strange that its producer, the Monarch Wine Company, was investing most of its advertising budget targeting black Americans, and that by 1973 about 85 percent of its magazine advertising budget was being spent on ads in Ebony magazine. But it actually made good business sense, considering that, according to Roger Horowitz in Kosher USA: How Coke became Kosher and other tales of Modern Food, Manischewitz was the first kosher product to cross the “kashrut divide” and gain both cultural visibility and widespread consumption among the non-Jewish public. Sales records of Manischewitz from 1954 show the expected upsurge at Passover, but surprisingly the sales at Christmas and Thanksgiving were several times higher than those at Passover. Today, it is accepted that acquiring kosher certification of products in the US is a business decision aimed not only at the Jewish kosher consumer but also at the general population. How that happened and what kosher production and certification looked like in the intervening years is the subject of this interesting new book.

The observance of the dietary laws of kashrut has been a backbone of the Jewish people since time immemorial. The regulations are multi-faceted and include avoiding all products from non-kosher species (such as pig and lobster), only eating animals that were killed according to the rules of shechita, not mixing meat and milk, and using only kosher cheese and wine. For most of history, food was produced in the home or in its vicinity, and thus observing kashrut was a very local issue. Urbanization, the industrial revolution, and commercialization resulted in mass produced foods sold out of large retail outlets, and this brought about new challenges facing Jews wishing to remain faithful to tradition.

In the early part of the 20th century, kashrut supervision was essentially limited to meat products, i.e., slaughter houses and butcher shops, and a few other specialty items, most notably commercial matzah production. With the introduction of modern food science involving complex production techniques and massive factories that shipped far and wide and used ingredients arriving from the four corners of the globe, kashrut certification would need to be carried out by national organizations instead of local rabbis, and the supervising rabbis would need to avail themselves of experts such as chemists and other scientists.

Roger Horowitz is a food historian by training who has previously written books about the US (non-kosher) meat industry. In this recent book, Horowitz describes how his grandparents observed kashrut, each side to a different degree, and how his parents abandoned kashrut observance. The book was thus dual-focused: It was both an objective investigation of the development of kosher food production and supervision in America and a subjective, personal quest to understand how his family’s own eating habits fit into that picture. The result is the product of countless hours of tracking down and analyzing all manner of archives and interviewing important players or their descendants. The results make for fascinating reading.

For example, Horowitz attempted to procure records on the Kosher Law Enforcement Division of NY State from the state archives and was told they had been destroyed. He persevered and eventually obtained the annual reports of the NY State Department of Agriculture from the NY State library. And they revealed interesting statistics and great stories. In 1949, NY State and City “kosher police” conducted over 30,000 unannounced inspections. These surprise visits at times uncovered cheating and in other instances found accidental errors, such as the inspector who found two strips of non-kosher meat in a restaurant’s freezer that had inadvertently been shipped by the meatpacking company. Overall, the raids, sometimes by armed agents, served as a remarkably powerful deterrent.

Some of the other diverse topics that Horowitz investigated in detail are the obvious subject of the production and distribution of kosher meat, as well as less intuitive but equally important products such as Coca Cola and Jell-O. He also traced the history of kosher wine as it evolved from mostly sweet Kiddush wine to award winning wines produced in some of the leading wine regions around the world. This includes the technical issue of how to optimize pasteurization so that those wines that desired to be “mevushal”, i.e. impervious to becoming non-kosher, could do so with minimal harm to quality.

Rabbinic literature has attributed special significance to the observance of kashrut. There is a concept that consuming non-kosher food “dulls the heart” [timtum ha’lev] and causes long term damage (see eg Chatam Sofer 1:OC:83). This is viewed as a direct consequence of eating non-kosher and thus even if one ate non-kosher food by accident or under duress (when it would be technically permitted to do so), that would affect him spiritually. As Esther Farbstein (Hidden in Thunder, p. 287-8) describes, the Polish Rabbi Yehoshua Moshe Aronson, who was later imprisoned in Auschwitz, was asked by fellow inmates in a Nazi labor camp in Czechoslovakia early in WWII whether they were permitted to eat non-kosher food as a preventive measure to preserve their strength even before they were at actual risk of starvation. He answered in the affirmative and led by example, eating non-kosher food in public. However after the war, he expressed that he felt that he had “dulled his heart” by eating prohibited food and resolved to not serve as a functioning rabbi. When he realized there were almost no surviving rabbis he agreed to serve, but only on the condition that when enough rabbis who had not “defiled their hearts” were found, he would resign immediately.

There are two, not insignificant, drawbacks with this important volume. First is that Horowitz’s training is in history not Judaism, and at times when he tries to delve into the Jewish sources and law (halacha) rather than presenting the social history there are inaccuracies, from minor to fundamental. Here are a few assorted examples. In his opening chapter he offers some history and states that the Talmud was written in Baghdad (p. 9), a city in fact not founded until two centuries after the completion of the Talmud. He says that the Talmud runs over five million words, when the Babylonian Talmud is closer to 1.8 million and the Palestinian half that. In discussing kashrut of fish he writes that “The Rambam’s restatement of Jewish law… that scales should be removable.” The Rambam (Ma’achalot Asurot 1:24) did not say that and the later commentaries (e.g. Maggid Mishna) point that out. On this topic he writes that Rabbi MD Tendler, who prohibited sturgeon in the mid-twentieth century, “… drew on his scientific training to argue that the sturgeon’s so-called scales were not in fact scales, as they were composed of animal fibers different from the scales on approved fish.” Rabbi Tendler may have made such a statement some place, as I suspect Horowitz did not fabricate it, but it is not in the cited references.

Horowitz later mentions that the prohibition of the gid hanasheh, sciatic nerve, traces back to “that Joseph injured in his struggle with God (Genesis 32:33)” (p. 169). It was, in fact, Jacob who was injured, as the very verse he cited states. When he explained why some Ashkenazim eat non-glatt meat he says (p. 193) that “following from the opinion of the Rama (Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel, c. 1250-1327)…”.  The correct source is indeed the Rema, an acronym for Rabbi Moses Isserles (1520 -1572), while Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel is known as the Rosh.

Furthermore, his explanation of glatt is wanting, beginning with his statement that non-glatt can be “traced to the Talmud, in Chulin 46b, which specified the procedure of immersing a lung with sirchas [adhesions] to see if it leaked air” (p. 193). That page in the Talmud does talk about submerging lungs in water and about sirchas but the two topics are unrelated in this Talmudic source.

The second drawback in the book is that Horowitz is relentless in including the position of the Conservative movement whenever he can. But why?  The Conservative position on these issues as articulated often by educated scholars is primarily an intellectual exercise. There are essentially no industrial Conservative kosher certifications, the majority of Conservative Jews unfortunately do not observe the laws of kashrut, and, as Daniel Gordis recently noted in Commentary magazine in his review of the Conservative Movement’s The Observant Life, “on what issues do Conservative laypeople actually behave in a certain way simply because their rabbinate says they should? ‘Few, if any,’ is the honest answer.” The Conservative position has played little role in the social history of kashrut in the US and almost none in the halachik developments as kashrut has successfully met the challenges of modern science. As such, it would seem that the Conservative position should objectively be featured less prominently.

One of the treasures that Horowitz mined to its fullest was the Kosher Food Guide of the OK Laboratories that he analyzed from its first year in 1935 until it ended in 1969. The material gleaned from these journals is truly fascinating and the creator and first editor of this journal was Abraham Goldstein, a religious Jew who was trained as a chemist and revolutionized kashrut certification and observance in the US in the 1930’s and 40’s. Horowitz gives Goldstein a great deal of attention (much deserved) for the large role he played in the earlier years of organized kashrut in the US.

But he fails to mention another Goldstein who also played an important role in the American kosher scene. According to the recently deceased Victor B. Geller (Orthodoxy Awakens, p. 134-5), in the mid 1920’s Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein, rabbi of the West Side Institutional Synagogue, was the voluntary mashgiach for Sunshine Biscuits, the only certified kosher cracker available at the time. When he was elected president of the OU, he put Sunshine Biscuits under the OU supervision, the well-known OU symbol was born, and, in Geller’s words, “kashrut supervision had made its first step from a private interest of one rabbi to the communal concern of a responsible public agency”. Horowitz seems to have an antipathy towards the OU which comes through in several sections, including his one-sided presentation of the complex Rubashkin-Agriprocessors episode.

Kosher observance has always been a central practice of Jewish living. Many of the biblical kosher laws are related to the concept of holiness, while many of the rabbinic kosher laws aim to prevent intermarriage by limiting informal social contact with non-Jews. How to oversee kosher standards is a contentious topic in contemporary Israeli society; Horowitz has ably traced how American Jewry went from a fractured, ineffectual system to the current impressive structure. It is a worthwhile and interesting read that may also help guide us here in Israel.



About the Author
Ari Zivotofsky is a professor of neuroscience at Bar Ilan University. Also trained as a rabbi and shochet, he has a masters degree in Jewish history. He has written extensively on topics of Jewish history, culture, and traditions, in particular in Mishpacha magazine and in his regular column (now running 20+ years) in the OU magazine Jewish Action.
Related Topics
Related Posts