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Meet the Meat Boycotters: The Ladies Anti-Beef Trust Association

During the past few weeks, the subject of meat has set tongues wagging and heads shaking as many of us wonder whether the recent outbreak in the United States of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, better known as mad cow disease, is cause for concern, consternation or abstinence. Perhaps the last time American meat, as such, made the headlines was during the early 1900s when the greed of the meat industry rather than the health of its cows occasioned widespread grumbling and, in some quarters, even fear.

I’m referring, of course, to the kosher meat boycott, or “meat riots,” as they were called in 1902 by an alarmed American press. Taking New York City by storm in May of that year, the boycott pitted Jewish housewives throughout the metropolitan area against their kosher butchers. Angered by a substantial hike in the retail price of kosher meat —up to anywhere from 12 cents to 18 cents a pound— they sought quietly to prevail on their butchers to reduce prices. When their efforts at gentle persuasion failed, “swarms of ignorant and infuriated women,” as The New York Times would have it, took to the Lower East Side in protest. The New York Daily Tribune, in turn, reported that “an excitable and aroused crowd [of women] roamed the streets… armed with sticks, vocabularies and well-sharpened nails.”

Constituting themselves as the Ladies Anti-Beef Trust Association, the members of this ad hoc organization urged housewives like themselves to steer clear of their kosher butchers. “Eat no meat while the [Beef] Trust is taking meat from the bones of your women and children,” they declared, blanketing the Lower East Side, Brownsville as well as parts of Harlem and the Bronx with leaflets that bore the ominous image of a skull and crossbones. They also kept a watchful eye on the comings and goings of their neighbors, making sure that no one surreptitiously snuck a brisket into their apartment. And woe betide the consumer who openly defied the boycott by patronizing her local butcher. No sooner would she emerge from the store, a tidy brown package wrapped under her arm, than the members of the Ladies Anti-Beef Trust would set upon her, flinging her purchase of meat to the ground. They tussled with the police, too, and were taken into custody on the grounds of disorderly conduct.

The boycott, which was spearheaded by Mamie Ghilman, Fannie Levy, Bessie Norkin, Annie Block and other Lower East Side housewives, soon moved from the street and the shop into the sanctuary. Drawing on the traditional Jewish practice of interrupting the Torah reading when a matter of grave injustice was at stake, the female boycotters breached the male confines of the synagogue to urge congregants as well as clergy to stand firm, to go without meat — even on the Sabbath — until the Meat Trust rolled back its prices.

The boycott enjoyed widespread support within the immigrant Jewish community, whose newspapers not only paid close attention to its ups and downs but appeared sympathetic, too, unlike the general metropolitan press, which shuddered at the thought of female protesters — of any sort. Though at least one rabbi on the Lower East Side refused to countenance the campaign, even going so far as to brand its women organizers as “beasts” (he was later forced to apologize for his intemperate remarks), most clergymen supported their efforts and hailed the campaign as a worthy one. So worthy, in fact, that men soon entered the fray. Led by Joseph Barondess and David Blaustein, they organized their own committee — the Allied Conference for Cheap Kosher Meat — to seek the support of local chevras, landsmanshaftn and labor unions.

The boycott lasted for nearly three weeks, during which hundreds of kosher butcher shops closed their doors and kosher restaurants stopped serving meat. Ultimately, it met with some degree of success. Kosher butchers agreed to set the retail price of kosher meat at 14 cents a pound, mollifying the protesters and bringing their campaign to a close.

Their objectives met, all of the boycott’s organizers then disappeared from the stage of history and resumed their domestic routines, but not before having anticipated many of the tactics later employed by the garment workers’ unions. In the long run, the boycott underscored the potential of grass-roots protest and the collective resources of the Saras, Mamies, Bessies and Fannies of the American Jewish community.

Let’s be sure to keep them in mind the next time we sit down to a steak dinner. As the Jewish Daily Forward put it in 1902, “Bravo, bravo, bravo, bravo, Jewish women.”

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