The Great Kosher Meat War of 1902: Immigrant Housewives and the Riots that Shook New York City
Scott D. Seligman
Potomac Books (2020)
Reviewed by Megan Weiss for Reader Views (01/21)
Scott D. Seligman’s book, “The Great Kosher Meat War of 1902: Immigrant Housewives and the Riots that Shook New York City,” details a moment of American history that has largely been forgotten. In 1902, six big companies in the meat industry colluded together in order to raise prices and, therefore, profits. This resulted in a steep increase in the price of meat. This was felt most significantly by the Jewish population of the Lower East Side in New York City. Mostly Eastern European immigrants, kosher meat was not only an important supplement to their diets, but also to many Jewish rituals and holiday customs. The population of the Lower East Side, especially the Jews, were majorly poor in wealth. In response to the price hike for meat, thousands of Jewish women banded together in May 1902 to boycott butcher shops and commence a meat strike until prices were lowered again. What began as a peaceful protest, however, quickly escalated into weeks of clashing between protesters and the police during the ensuing riots.
“The Great Kosher Meat War of 1902” is a fantastic historical analysis. Half of my heritage is of Eastern European Jewish descent, and yet I had never even heard of the 1902 meat riots or of the havoc the “Big Six” wreaked across the country in the form of price-fixing and collusion. During a relatively quiet time of American history, it is surprising to me that more historians and educational curriculums have not thought to include the events of May 1902 in mainstream historical discourse.
“The Great Kosher Meat War of 1902” emphasizes the fact that you do not need years of formal schooling and education or business smarts to enact change. The women behind the butcher boycott in 1902 simply had one common worry: being able to afford to properly feed their families and also adhere to Jewish laws. When their ability to do this was threatened, they did not sit back and wait for their husbands to speak up. They took action themselves.
Seligman’s account of the meat riots casts striking parallels with what we are seeing in our present day, especially in the United States, with the Black Lives Matter protests and the calls to end police brutality. I especially liked how “The Great Kosher Meat War of 1902” noted that the event has been characterized as being similar in motive to The Boston Tea Party, and thus homing in on an important point: our country was largely founded through the act of protesting and speaking out against perceived injustice. This theme carried through the 19th century, to the 1902 meat riots in New York City, to the Civil Rights Movement, and still largely exists today. It is important that events such as the meat riots are recorded and retold so that the foundations of American culture are remembered appropriately.
There were some small portions toward the end where the narrative seemed to digress at points, such as the chapter largely devoted to the Rent Strike. While I could tell that its inspiration was linked back to the 1902 meat strike, it didn’t feel entirely relevant, and I felt like the book lost a little bit of steam. In general, however, I enjoyed reading “The Great Kosher Meat War of 1902.” History lovers and readers who enjoy cultural analysis and discourse would also find Seligman’s book to be highly insightful.