Just about 110 years ago, the price of kosher meat pretty much doubled overnight. If you were a Jewish homemaker who had to make every penny count in order to keep your family fed, this wasn’t just an inconvenience: it was a serious threat to your economic stability. What’s more, it smacked of racketeering by wholesalers who had a captive market of consumers for kosher foods, and recalled anti-Jewish oppression levied through taxes on Kosher foods in other countries.
Jewish women fought back. They organized a massive boycott of butchers and meat wholesalers that not only succeeded in bringing the prices back down, but became a seminal act of defiance in community organizing and paved the way for major rent and labor strikes to come (including the 1907 Rent Strike and the Uprising of the 20,000).
The Great Struggle for Cheap Meat is actually a slogan taken from the protests of the time, and captures both the epic nature of the battle as well as its very earthy reality. To tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants meat wasn’t just a commodity, it was the trade they made in relocating from their country of origin to the crowded, dirty, noisy tenements of New York City. These people left their homeland to escape persecution and poverty, to land in America where they were handed almost immediately into grueling, dangerous labor conditions and de facto ghettoes.
But these were hardy folks, used to hard toil and willing to sacrifice in order to achieve something better for themselves and their families. The one thing that was immediately available, plentiful and affordable in ways that would never have been possible in their homeland was meat. Pure and simple. The overnight cost hike wasn’t just a blow to their pocketbooks, it threatened to remove perhaps the single greatest benefit to their health and well-being.
They were also a deeply connected community, however, and the care of the home was the province of the woman. At first, the women organized and asked men – the retail butchers who sold to them through storefronts all over the Low East Side – to boycott the wholesalers. The butchers did, but their boycott lasted only two days and proved completely ineffective. Rather than giving up, the women organized themselves and began picketing the butchers and boycotting them.
And it became a massive movement. Thousands of women boycotted in NYC, and the boycott spread throughout the region to New Jersey, Philadelphia and Boston. During this time, scabs who crossed boycott lines had their chickens tossed into the gutter, and butcher’s who insisted on trying to stay open got smacked in the face with raw liver. And fish.
Yes, it’s funny. But it’s also very earnest and powerful. Such are the struggles that shape the world we live in.
And it’s an irresistible tale. For those of you who’ve read my blog post on Coming Out As An Artist, I’m pleased to invite you to come and see our newest work. The Great Struggle for Cheap Meat is almost entirely set to music which draws inspiration from Jewish folk music, 70’s rock, and 1920’s jazz, and is performed by a company of teen girls – most of them daughters of immigrants, many of them living in the neighborhood today.
What’s more, we present this work in a format we’ve pioneered over the past few years: the show takes place entirely on the streets of the Lower East Side, with the audience and cast following the entire score on personal MP3 players with individual headsets. It’s an amazing way to experience both the story and the community of the Lower East Side.
Plus it includes my first every guitar solo in the middle of a fully scored rock opera.
Here’s what you need to know: