2020-21 Reader Views Literary Awards Gold Medal Winner 2020 American Book Fest Best Book Awards Finalist in the U.S. History category 2020 National Jewish Book Award Finalist in American Jewish Studies
In the wee hours of May 15, 1902, three thousand Jewish women quietly took up positions on the streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Convinced by the latest jump in the price of kosher meat that they were being gouged, they assembled in squads of five, intent on shutting down every kosher butcher shop in New York’s Jewish quarter.
What was conceived as a nonviolent effort did not remain so for long. Customers who crossed the picket lines were heckled and assaulted, their parcels of meat hurled into the gutters. Butchers who remained open were attacked, their windows smashed, stocks ruined, equipment destroyed. Brutal blows from police nightsticks sent women to local hospitals and to court. But soon Jewish housewives throughout the area took to the streets in solidarity, while the butchers either shut their doors or had them shut for them. The newspapers called it a modern Jewish Boston Tea Party.
The Great Kosher Meat War of 1902 tells the twin stories of mostly uneducated female immigrants who discovered their collective consumer power and of the Beef Trust, the midwestern cartel that conspired to keep meat prices high despite efforts by the U.S. government to curtail its nefarious practices. With few resources and little experience but a great deal of steely determination, this group of women organized themselves into a potent fighting force and, in their first foray into the political arena in their adopted country, successfully challenged powerful vested corporate interests and set a pattern for future generations to follow.
About the Author
(MA, Harvard University, 1976) is a writer and historian. He is the author of several books, including the award-winning The Third Degree: The Triple Murder That Shook Washington and Changed American Criminal Justice (Potomac Books, 2018) and The First Chinese American: The Remarkable Life of Wong Chin Foo. His articles have appeared in the Washington Post and the Seattle Times, among other publications.
"Relying on primary source materials, Seligman has created a highly readable and enjoyable account of this little-known episode in American history. Highly recommended, especially for those interested in American history and Jewish history, as well as gender and labor studies."—Library Journal, starred review
"The traumatic, significant events of The Great Kosher Meat War of 1902 form a tale well worth remembering."—Ira Wolfman, Jewish Book Council
"Seligman draws a splendid picture of life in the New World for these emigres from Poland, Lithuania, and the Pale of Russia. They formed associations, elected leaders, and in response to the increase in prices, led what they called “strikes,” finding inspiration in the labor unions of the 19th century. Seligman uses as his primary resource the many Yiddish newspapers that were published daily. Each of those papers had their own take on the unrest that developed."—Roger I. Abrams, New York Journal of Books
"The story featured in The Great Kosher Meat War of 1902 resonates in contemporary times when women—and men—take to the streets to protest injustice, much as Rose Baskin did in 1902. Seligman writes easy-to-read prose, making this book perfect for scholars and non-scholars to appreciate his research. Its introductory timeline and its list of those connected to the strike made it easy to keep track of the events and the people involved. Anyone interested in life on the Lower East Side during the turn of the last century, Jewish women’s history or Jewish immigrant life will enjoy learning about this intriguing episode of Jewish American history."—Rabbi Rachel Esserman, Reporter
"Scott D. Seligman's new book The Great Kosher Meat War of 1902: Immigrant Housewives and the Riots That Shook New York City (Potomac Books, 2020) is a full account of the Great Kosher Meat War of 1902, a milestone in the history of Jewish-American women."—New York Almanack
"Seligman, whose writing has appeared in the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, has done a service in bringing this little-known part of American history to our attention, one which demonstrates that the convergence of activism, socialism, and unionization prevalent in the early 20th century remains a staple in protests to this day."—Mike Maggio, Washington Independent Review of Books
"This is a unique book certainly worth reading."—Burton Boxerman, St. Louis Jewish Light
“Master storyteller Scott D. Seligman weaves together the disparate narratives of New York’s 1902 kosher meat boycott, America’s first and only chief rabbi, and the notorious Meat Trust. Deeply researched and engagingly written, The Great Kosher Meat War of 1902 takes its delighted readers back in time to the teeming streets of the Lower East Side and the rough-and-tumble world of its immigrant Jews.”—Pamela S. Nadell, author of America’s Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today
“The first blow-by-blow account of the kosher meat boycott of 1902 and the Jewish immigrant women who devised and promoted it. Anticipating both the consumer movement and contemporary Jewish women’s activism, The Great Kosher Meat War of 1902 shows how commerce, labor, food, and gender explosively combined at a tempestuous moment in the history of New York City.”—Jonathan D. Sarna, University Professor and Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, and author of American Judaism: A History
“Why would a strike led by immigrant women in 1902 be important today? In this carefully crafted book, Scott D. Seligman draws from original zaftik (juicy) Yiddish news sources to bring to life the women brave enough to strike against their butchers. At the intersection of religion and politics, their cause gave rise to a mass movement not unlike those of today that pit human values against crass commercial interests.”—Miriam Isaacs, professor of Yiddish language and culture emerita, University of Maryland
“Scott D. Seligman has performed a bit of a miracle in letting the immigrant Jewish women who led the Great Meat Boycott of 1902 find their voice today. Seligman shows how and why women publicly organized America’s first consumer boycott. Launched from New York’s Lower East Side to fight precipitous Chicago Meat Trust price hikes, their action spread to other cities, providing a powerful model for future activism.”—Elissa Sampson, visiting scholar and lecturer at Cornell University