Kosher Law’s Big-City Makeover

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Photograph by: Berenice Abbott, Museum of the City of New York
Photograph by: Berenice Abbott, Museum of the City of New York

In certain city social circles, hosts regale their dinner guests with stories not just about how their roast was cooked, but how it lived and died. While terms like “cage free” and “grassfed” became household phrases over the last decade, some eaters insist on a designation that’s been millennia in the making: meat that is certified kosher—Hebrew for “fit to eat”—and processed in accordance with kashuth or kashrut, Jewish dietary law written in stone 3,000 years ago.

Keeping kosher has long been complicated. Interpretation and observance, the subject of age-old debate, can vary between country and even congregation. For centuries, kosher standards were defined at the community level, with local congregations employing their own shohatim (slaughtermen), while their rabbi personally oversaw the process to ensure that kashrut laws were observed.

New York’s first Jewish settlers adhered to the ways of the Old World—in the early 18th century the city’s founding Jewish community, Congregation Shearith Isreal, had their own shohet—but age-old law proved ill-matched for a modern city. Between 1850 and 1920, one million European Jews settled in New York, and a radical new arrangement developed: shohatim who had no congregational affiliation. Employed by abattoirs and butchers—not by congregations—these shohatim slaughtered and certified kosher meats for all of New York’s orthodox citizens.  The departure from traditional transparency proved problematic.  In 1931 a coalition of rabbis accused kosher butchers of annually defrauding New Yorkers of millions of dollars by selling nonkosher meat at marked-up kosher prices. By some estimates, as much as 40 percent of the meat sold in New York City as kosher was improperly certified.

Scandals aside, the city’s enormous appetite for kosher meat created an unintended institution. Since only the forequarters of beef cattle are considered kosher, the hindquarters were unused by kosher butchers; these cuts formed the basis for New York’s famous beefsteak and prime rib restaurants.

Like so much of the American food system, kosher meat production became consolidated in the latter decades of the 20th century; today it is available in supermarkets, supplied by centralized processors who have managed to marry religious regulations and industrial process. Of the 8,000 kosher butchers who served New York in the 1930s, only about 150 remain.

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