Overturn the World
On July 2, 1965 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) began its work for women's equality, enforcing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which among other things prohibited employment discrimination within labor unions. This week, we take a glimpse even farther back, to the turn of the century, to the roots of women organizing for fair prices. The Kosher Meat Strike of 1902, sparked in the tenements of the Lower East Side and energized by thousands of Jewish women, were the seeds for future protests and larger scale strikes. Susan Reimer-Torn, guest blogger for Jewesses, shares her response to the women's boycott and their living conditions when she attended a Tenement Talk, presented by Judith Rosenbaum, JWA Director of Public HIstory, at the Tenement Museum in NYC.
On May 16th, 1902 a brick came flying through the window of Lustgarten's kosher butcher shop on the Lower East Side. An irate Jewish housewife who lived down the teeming street sent the sharp shards flying. She was one of thousands of women protesting the soaring cost of kosher meat. The goal was to persuade the retailers to boycott the suppliers until the purveyors rolled back the rising price.
I learn all this at a Tenement Talk offered by the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in co-sponsorship with JWA. JWA historian Judith Rosenbaum and the museum’s Annie Pollard fill us in on all the details.
Before the talk, I took one of the museum’s guided tours of the tenement itself. Together with other visitors, I squeeze into the narrow hallways, inhale the musty corridors, warily eye the peeling paint. I find myself inhaling unappetizing cooking smells and feeling faint from the suffocating summer heat even though the weather is still cool.
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum’s mission is to ensure that the stories of past immigrants “endure as an inspiration to the future.” It has taken me a while to get myself down here, afraid of overwhelm by too many familial tales. I confess to sometimes feeling wary of too much collective memory, fearful of an over-dose from a prescriptive Jewish past.
Where Are We Now?
Not long ago, my younger son who spent a few years working in Bangladesh, was very impressed by his visit to this museum. He was struck by how much the overcrowding and lack of hygiene endured by my father, his grandfather, as a young child resembled Dakkha of today. He wondered if 100 years hence the Bangladeshis who he’s come to care about will follow a similar trajectory of economic progress. He urged me to visit the Tenement Museum. Somehow I never did.
I often heard my own father, my older uncles and aunt recall their early years as Eastern European immigrants in the 1920’s and 30’s when they shared dank, overcrowded quarters and lived their circumscribed lives in these once inhumanly clogged streets. The ten-to-a-room, twenty-to-a-bathroom legendary Lower East Side ratios were too often invoked to over-ride any sense of entitlement their own kids might have. Growing up in the fifties and sixties, I looked around and saw that other families had more living space than we did. The Lower East Side was a reference, like so much from my Depression-era parents’ past, to convince me that we had enough. It was a reference that I preferred to shut out.
However, the invitation to attend a Tenement Talk about a 1902 kosher meat strike organized by the neighborhood’s housewives is compelling. I take three different trains from the Upper West Side, emerge on Delancey Street and observe the greatly transformed scene.
It turns out that the 1902 strikers not only shut down over 100 kosher butcher shops on the Lower East Side, their boycott spread to neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Harlem, Newark and even Boston and Philadelphia. They got support from local papers both on the secular left and the religious right and they made it into the mainstream press. The Forward ran the headline "Bravo, Bravo, Bravo, Jewish Women" (in Yiddish) while the New York Times called for the repression of “the women (who) are very ignorant (and) mostly speak a foreign language." Best of all, the strikers were effective: The price of kosher meat dropped from 18 to 14 cents a pound. Moreover, they left a prototype for the waves of rent-strikers and activist garment workers whose massive protests would follow in years to come.
Ours are not easy times. We are all facing mounting social injustice, economic oppression and threats against our basic human rights. The current war against women’s reproductive rights is especially alarming. Several of my friends have lost their jobs or face business failures. We wonder what we can do about affording adequate health care. Even though simply by living on the Upper West Side we are fulfilling many an immigrant’s impossible dream, the future is far from secure. It is not unusual to have to talk myself or a good friend out of looming despair.
The meat-strikers of 1902 offer me an empowering perspective. The evening’s presenters explain that even though hardly any Jewish women were officially employed, the majority always found a way to put bread on the table. More than half took in paying boarders whom they both housed and fed in their unimaginably cramped quarters. Others became in-house seamstresses or child-minders and housekeepers for more prosperous neighbors. Earlier, the tour guide told stories of men who abandoned their families or sadly committed suicide when times got too tough. But the Jewish women leave me a legacy of never losing hope and I am grateful to this evening for helping me to reclaim it.
Here’s how one of the meat strike leaders articulated what the prototypical struggle was about: “We must help our husbands who work so hard,” she explained like a compliant Jewish wife. And she added in the next breath, “We will overturn the world.”
For more information about the Kosher Meat Boycott and to preview teaching materials about Jewish women and the Labor Movement, visit the outline of JWA's forthcoming labor module of Living the Legacy: A Jewish Social Justice Education Project.